WE ALL WANT LOVE—BUT DON’T ALWAYS WANT TO GET IT
Yesterday I spoke about the “Rocky” notion that if you just fight hard enough for something, by God you’ll get it. True in a boxing match or in a bike race, but in the match of love, the power of sheer grit comes up against another person’s desires. And oddly, the “winner” in that love match is often the one who cares the least, not the most.
Think of bargaining for a rug, or bidding for a home. The home buyer who tries not to seem too excited—too interested—is hoping to get the seller to sell low. The job applicant who seems careful, unlike the one who is too eager and seems desperate, becomes more attractive (and less alarming) to interviewers. The parent who says she has no time to read to her child at bedtime guarantees that the child will beg for a story. The baby who cries if you move in to cuddle him too quickly perks up if you’re too busy, and suddenly then he wants to be on your lap. People want to want. They want their wanting to be on their on timetable. They don’t want to get before they have expressed their wanting.
Andrea was, at 29, eager to marry her boyfriend of two years, Jonathan. Each time she mentioned anything about the future, he’d back off and become sullen. After a recent month-long vacation in Italy with her family, Andrea changed her mind about marrying as soon as possible, and began to understand Jonathan’s reluctance to commit. She’d come to understand, even share, his desire for freedom—and genuinely saw how much fun it already was to be deeply connected but unmarried. She apologized for pressuring him so; said she realized that she’d been programmed to want marriage above all else; and had let her parents’ fantasies and the culture’s urgings dictate her desires.
“Let’s just stay the way we are for now,” she said. And she meant it. “What we’ve got is perfect; we don’t have to move it forward. We’re both happy.”
Jonathan was pleased at her change of heart. Andrea, too: She’d got to the bottom of some interior battle she’d been fighting, and had come out feeling stronger—as if her true self were finally emerging.
Two months later, Jonathan proposed. “I’ve been thinking,” he told her. “I think my resistance was silly. Let’s just do it.”
Andrea hadn’t been playing hard to get. She’d meant what she told Jonathan. But by bringing her own natural ambivalence about marriage into the equation, she allowed him to express something other than ambivalence. She conveyed a confidence and self-sufficiency that was read by Jonathon as a merciful absence of pressure, dependency and (that old bugaboo for women) neediness. She learned something.
When you can wait, you can win.
Andrea was not playing hard-to-get; she genuinely felt good about waiting to marry. But those who do play this old game are, alas, on to something: the power held by the person who cares, or pretends to care, the least about the outcome.
Many studies have illustrated couples in a counseling setting–the brilliant John Gottman’s studies come to mind–showing a woman leaning in to her mate to speak to him and urge him to do the same. In Gottman’s videotaped studies, the man–in this case the least interested in communicating–leans back with his hands folded over his chest. The woman, ever leaning in, tries and tries, session after session, until she gives up. And then something fascinating happens. She rolls her eyes, as a way of communicating “This ain’t happening, and I’m out. No can do anymore.” At which point, the Least Interested has lost his lover by being so….disinterested. The game’s over. A divorce is imminent.
In other words, we’re talking here about the extraordinary and complicated power of the least interested as it plays out in a romantic chase; in a courtship. But not in a longterm relationship. At least not for very long in a longterm relationship.
Next time: More on The Power of the Least Interested