Why is it that when given a choice between two men, a woman will very often choose to be with the one who treats her worst? Why does a woman choose to live with a man who is thoroughly and obviously inappropriate for the life that the woman aspires to?
Not one of my female friends has ever alluded to a repressed desire to participate in a relationship with a man who would be rude, neglectful, unfaithful, dishonest, idle and destructive yet, on one occasion that I counted, fully nine of them were giving no small amount of their time and energy to the devoted care of males who offered so little prospect of ever being a dream come true that some of these women could have had more fun dating a child's plastic doll. Never once has any one of these nine intelligent, attractive, articulate and educated women confided that she feels her calling in life is to serve the unworthy and to dispense care and respect to those incapable of earning either. Perhaps I exaggerate a little – some of the men held well paid jobs, or had good dress sense, or were muscular, and some of them had that quality so favoured in the relationship wanted adverts, the “great sense of humour”; even if the burden of the joke often fell upon their loyal and attentive female partner. Nonetheless the discrepancy between what the women aspired to and what they settled for was sometimes of such a magnitude that even a card-carrying atheist might reasonably have demanded a miracle in order to have it resolved.
These were not, at least officially, stupid or ignorant women: all nine of them had been well educated and had the certificates to prove it. Nor were they hideously unattractive in their anatomical construction; it is true that not all of them would have popularly been described as stunning, pretty or cute, but they were all attractive in the popular meaning of the word and none of them would have been described as ugly or even as plain. So, there they were, nine fit, sexy, stylish, educated, intelligent and ambitious women all lending their loving energy to males who were their inferior in almost every way except physical size and strength.
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Some people have attempted to explain such conundrums by arguing that some women choose a male inferior to themselves because they have some notion of improving him. Others have argued that the women are persuaded by the male's big talk and dominant physique to believe that he is a better person than he actually is. Others might argue that despite all of their positive attributes some women are simply insecure and choose to be with an inferior man because they do not believe themselves good enough for a better male and wish to reduce their perceived risk of rejection. True? False? I don't know and I readily concede that these are all valid possibilities or contributory factors. However here is another explanation that I personally find useful:
There is a popular form of community “wisdom” that is applied particularly to romantic or sexual relationships but also to other areas of life, and which encourages people to treat their emotions as their guide, or as signposts, and to believe that any action is validated by the emotions that gave rise to it. The eloquent maxims of this “wisdom” include such literary gems as “go with the flow”, “just do it”, “be true to yourself”, “let your heart be your guide” and a raft of similarly acoustically pretty but intellectually vacuous expressions. Underlying these expressions or attitudes seems to be the notion that emotional feelings are undeniable, uncontrollable, unaccountable and that not to take action in accordance with such emotions or to resist those emotions is somehow dishonest. This in turn seems to imply an assumption that the emotions come first and that actions ought then to follow, rather like a railway locomotive pulls the carriages: “wherever my heart leads, there I shall go”. Now whilst there may be some truth that certain emotions (infatuation perhaps, or parent-child affection?) do indeed burst out of nowhere I am inclined to wonder if these are the exception rather than the rule. To me the evidence seems to indicate that it is more usual for our emotions to follow our actions. If we continue with the railway train example then the popular wisdom would put the emotions as the locomotive and the carriages would represent the actions but I, by contrast, would like to argue that in life in general the actions represent the locomotive and the carriages represent the emotions. So what does this imply:
If, as I am proposing, a person's emotions will follow their actions then the feelings that P has for Q will depend principally on how P behaves towards Q. Consequently if P treats Q with loving respect and acts towards Q as if Q were a treasured companion then, in time, P will come to want Q to be a treasured companion and will feel real love for Q. Conversely if P neglects Q, or is consistently rude to Q then, in time, P will feel disdain or contempt for Q and will not want to be with Q. The important thing to note about this is that P's emotions regarding Q depend principally on what P does for Q, and not on what Q does for P.
If this model is applied to the relationships of the nine women mentioned at the beginning of the article then it is possible to propose an explanation of why they behaved the way they did.
For the sake of discussion let us take our hypothetical observation into a nightclub or party where woman W has just met male person M. At this moment their relationship is totally superficial, M smiles at W and W sizes-up M, she knows nothing about him but decides for whatever reason that he is worthy of a little attention. They chat and mingle, dance a little and exchange a few smiles and pheromones. Some sexual biology kicks-in and, at what is still a very superficial level, the attraction grows. Assuming that nothing too unpleasant happens to spoil the illusion of closeness they continue seeing one another and, throughout the process, they are both investing time and effort into the relationship. According to our hypothesis their emotional attraction towards one another must grow because they are treating one another as important. At some point or another they start a sexual relationship which in most communities (including sexually “liberated” ones) represents a bigger investment of risk on the part of the woman than it does of the man since she is more likely to receive disapprobation from her society for sexual activity than he is but also, and more significantly, the opportunity for pregnancy presents much greater social, health and economic risks to the woman than it does to the man. At this point therefore, even if the relationship continues to be equal in terms of time and effort applied, the woman, because of her much higher risk exposure, has in one sense given more to the relationship. To put it another way, her high-risk behaviour is consistent with a much more high value relationship than the one she actually has while his relatively low risk behaviour remains consistent with a lower value relationship.
There is now an imbalance between W and M in terms of the risk that they have exposed themselves to and therefore in terms of the value they hope to get from the relationship to justify the risk. However, the hypothesis is that emotions follow actions and since W has now performed a high value action with M it follows that her feelings for M must increase to match it. M on the other hand has incurred a lower risk (essentially he has made less effort) and so his feelings for W can, and will, remain at a level appropriate for a casual, even platonic, relationship.
If at this point M and W continue to share one another's lives constructively, then there is no real problem because as M continues to treat W as if she is important to him then his emotional attraction to her will continue to increase. However what happens if, for whatever reason, M reduces his effort towards W? Now W will be the one to be chasing, so to speak, because she has the higher risk exposure and therefore the greater need to maintain the relationship. But, remember the hypothesis, the more she tries to bring the relationship back together, the more effort she makes and as she makes more effort to draw M back towards her the hypothesis suggests that her emotional attraction for M will increase. Thus his indifference towards her causes her to want him more and to increase her reluctance to let go. If we now take this a stage further and have M become abusive (in whatever sense, possibly nothing more than consistent neglect and bad manners) then W has to invest even greater skill and effort in her attempts to diffuse the problems or correct them and since her emotions are still following her actions they too will continue to increase. The more talented W is, the more effort she can apply and the stronger the emotional bond will become.
I don't claim that this hypothesis, that emotions follow actions, is a total explanation nor that it is fully valid for all apparently similar situations but I do think that it offers one possible means of explaining why attractive and intelligent women should remain in relationships with males who fall far short of the women's aspirations.
Although the preceding example has concentrated on a good woman and an inadequate male, the hypothesis works the other way around as well. Men who invest a lot of energy in trying to woo a woman, or who treat a woman as if she is special and important to them, will have emotions that far exceed what might be appropriate for the reality of their association. Such men generally go on to make complete fools of themselves and the more foolish (and hence more risky) their activities, the greater the emotional pull that they feel. It is a sad and destructive cycle for either gender.
However if the hypothesis is accepted as valid then it also offers good news!
First any love struck man who is wondering how he will ever live without the idol of his spurned affections and any woman crying at home wondering what she did to deserve such cruel neglect and wanting to start afresh with a real man, can now start formulating a solution. Likewise anybody who is in a committed relationship that is going badly and wants to improve it can also have a fresh hope.
If emotions follow actions then W can reduce her attraction to M by simply no longer treating him as if he were special. She can even increase the speed of the process by treating him as if he were contemptible. This works because those emotions go wherever the actions lead them, just as the carriages always follow the locomotive. If W stops telephoning M, doesn't make any effort to be available for him, doesn't wait in for him, doesn't do his shopping or wash his clothes and if, furthermore W actually takes definite steps to treat M as if he were something nasty to be avoided, then pretty quickly her emotional attraction for him will subside. The process proposed by the hypothesis is entirely reversible.
The same is true for the man whose flowers, artful poems and cuddly teddy bears are spurned by the object of his forlorn desire: If he ceases to perform the actions involved in making such a fool of himself, his attraction for the woman will also diminish.
Perhaps even better still, the principle should also work just as well for those who are in committed relationships that they want to recharge, maintain and improve. If your marriage has gone stale then the first step towards an improvement would be to start treating your spouse as if he (or she) is the most attractive and desirable person in the world. You might not, at this moment, think they are attractive or desirable, you might find the idea ridiculous or even be totally weary with their presence, but your emotional railway carriages will follow the track that your locomotive actions lead them along. Treat your husband or wife as if they are special and in due course your emotional attraction for them will also deepen and broaden. Within a failing or unsatisfying relationship it would also therefore be valid to ask whether either partner had been acting carelessly towards the other – if P has, for example, been very preoccupied with work and as a result has been taking Q's contribution for granted, been failing to give attention to Q, or has been careless in speech or behaviour towards Q then, according to the hypothesis, P's feelings for Q will become less and less feelings of loving tenderness and increasingly feelings of contempt and irritation. Knowing the process allows effective corrective action to be initiated and the warmth of the relationship to be restored.
Applying the hypothesis might also help those who wish to remain faithful to their partners to minimise their risks of being tempted into infidelity. For example, if two colleagues are labouring together on a project and supporting and encouraging one another in their shared work then an emotional attraction will also grow because their actions towards one another are very positive and supportive and they are treating one another as if they had a high value relationship. This will be true even if their original motivation for co-operating was entirely for the benefits of their careers or finances. As the emotional bonds strengthen, as they will, then the temptation to step beyond a merely vocational association and into something more erotic also increase. With this in mind, any person who wants to remain faithful to their partners could consider whether their activities with other people, including those they are not presently attracted to, might cause an unhelpful attraction to develop and how it might be avoided.
Ultimately we are all responsible for our own choices but in all cases the hypothesis suggests that nobody needs to be helplessly at the whim of their emotions and that everybody can do something to tame and control emotions that are unhelpful and that encourage them to make bad choices, and to strengthen emotions that are helpful and encourage good choices.
So, to conclude, the proposed hypothesis can be stated in the following ways: A person's feelings will follow their actions. P's attraction towards Q depends on what P does for Q, not on what Q does for P. Treat somebody as if you love them and you will come to feel love for them; treat somebody as if you dislike them, and you will come to dislike them.
I am not suggesting that this hypothesis should be applied simplistically or that other factors should be overlooked, but, nonetheless, this hypothesis does allow a coherent and rational explanation to be provided for why competent, attractive, ambitious women should so often be found devoting themselves to men who are unworthy of the love they receive and incapable of fulfilling the woman's dreams and why men should foolishly continue to pursue women who have already thoroughly spurned them. It also suggests that each of us can actively seek to generate the emotions that will help us to make the choices that, rationally, we want to make.