I’ve been thinking a great deal about the notion of power in love. Not power as in control, but how it is that the person in a relationship who cares the least has so much of the power—at least in the early stages. A piece in Psychology Today this week features the work of three social scientists studying uncertainty in romantic attraction. Their study counters the “reciprocity principle” of attraction, which states, in effect, that if someone is attracted to you, you’ll be more attracted to him—and vice versa.
If only. More often, uncertainty is key. Wanting is an unruly thing, and reciprocity—being wanted back—doesn’t always satisfy. Follow me on this for a couple of blogs—I think you’ll find it all as fascinating as I do.
I call it “The Power of the Least Interested” (although my book title, were it ever to be a book, would be Wanting). I noticed years ago when I was a staff writer and an editor at a popular magazine. I was doing well and was soon offered another position elsewhere that would pay me more for working three days a week instead of five—giving me the support I needed for my own writing, plus more time for it. I approached my editor-in-chief, whom I knew to value me highly, to tell him of the offer. “I expected this to happen one day,” he said, “just not so soon.” He didn’t want to lose me, but he couldn’t raise me above the other articles editors. So he proposed the following: “Go. Call me in six months. I’ll hire you back, at which point I’ll be able to offer you a higher position and a better salary.”
I became the editor-in-chief of my own magazine (it was Health Magazine, then called Family Health) and never did go back, but I kept my close relationship with my mentor and friend, who had taught me a vital lesson about work:
When you can quit, you can advance.
Cut to a school setting.
Seven-year-old Timothy got in trouble at his private school in Seattle for hitting one of the three boys who used to mock him about the red birthmark on his forehead. In an attempt to learn to control his outbursts against these kids, he was getting counseling; but despite his best efforts, one Friday afternoon he hit another of the boys who taunted him. Timothy’s parents were beside themselves, but felt that the private school should be able to control the boys who teased their son and should speak both to them and to their parents. The school maintained that they need not speak to the little provocateurs; that the outbursts were solely Timothy’s problem; and that he should be able control his impulses no matter what. When neither the boy nor the school cooperated, and Timothy once again punched the aggressors, he was suspended for a week. No mention was made of speaking to the offending children or their parents: the school’s headmistress said only, “This break will help Timothy think harder about impulse control.”
Timothy’s parents, outraged at the school’s refusal to deal with the bullying, furious that their son would have to face the embarrassment of an awkward re-entrance and to face the same children who would now feel triumphant and perhaps even freer to continue teasing Timothy, decided to withdraw their son from the school. They enrolled him in public school for the rest of the school year.
Stunned, the private school’s headmistress told the couple that the school was deeply upset; that they “adored” Timothy and never meant for him to leave. They wanted him back. They would speak to the offending students and their parents. Would they please reconsider and let Timothy return?
What precisely prompted the school’s sudden interest in Timothy and his emotional wellbeing, or their turnaround ardent desire that he return, we’ll never know. But Timothy’s parents, in making their radical decision to walk away from an institution that ignored the needs of their son, learned a lesson.
When you can walk, you can win.
The power of the least interested is a way of understanding how how wanting something actually gets played out when two or more people are involved. The theory runs counter to one of our most deeply held and beloved national ideals: not only that interest is generally mutual (as in the reciprocity-of –sexual- interest idea above), but also that the most interested in winning will always win. This Go For It thesis, the “Just Do It” slogan of success appropriated by Nike, holds fast to the American fantasy that anyone can be a success if she just openly declares her goals and sets out to pursue them.