Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mother Knows Best

It could have been a story about another one-night stand. It could have read like another sad tale of a woman trying to get in touch with her inner slut. It could have been yet another piece of bad advice from the Jaclyn Friedman school of proud sluthood.

It isn’t, but that is not all that makes this one-night stand interesting.

First, the author of the Jezebel article retains her modesty. She does not give her name. She writes as Anonymous.

She knows that she made a mistake when she had sex with a man she had known for four hours, and she does not want to be publicly identified by a mistake.

Refreshingly, she is practicing the virtues of modesty and discretion.

Anonymous met the man online; she went out for drinks with him; she told herself that since she was interested in developing a relationship with him, she should not go home with him that evening.

She knew all of the arguments against hooking up, yet, in the heat of the moment, she yielded. She was powerfully drawn to him; he was lusting after her. What could be wrong with following your bliss? Aren’t strong feelings a sign that it is right?

I suspect that someone once told her that if it feels good you should do it.

Anonymous had had a few drinks, but she knew what she was doing. She makes no effort to pawn her decision off on alcohol.

Thus, she demonstrated the virtue of responsibility.

Still, she was crushed to discover that for the man in question… alternately called a “boy” and “them”… she was nothing more than a one-night stand.

Her pride was bruised, she says, not by her immorality, but by her foolishness and lack of judgment.

Once she grasps what happens, she confided in her girlfriends. But she does not—or does not say that—she consulted a therapist. Happily, she seeks advice from her mother.

For everyone’s edification, here’s her account of her mother’s analysis:

“When you first meet someone, she [her mother] said, you don't actually see them. You see a flimsy construction of their personality, created by your interpretation of the signals available. The way they make eye contact. How they interact with the bartender/waiter/homeless man asking you for change. The facts they choose to divulge about themselves. Because you have no other point of reference, every little detail resonates with added significance. Your mind, faced with a scarcity of information, is forced to create a projection of them.

“It is fiction.

“The fiction fades over time, as you get to know someone, she said. You witness them in different moods, interacting in multiple environments. Your construction of their personality deepens, nudges closer to reality. But on that first meeting, while you may get a peek, or even a full throttled gaze at their character, it is impossible to see the real person in front of you. It is a grand mirage.

“The mirage is sexy. But herein lies the danger. The potential for a schism to exist between the mirage and reality is huge. The probability of being disappointed is gigantic. That disappointment is compounded when intimacy is involved. You sleep with a stranger. You feel like you know them. But you likely don't at all.”

For Anonymous, this was an epiphany. She already knew that hooking up with a stranger was a bad idea. This was the first time that she understood why it was bad for her.

She no longer had to take it on faith.

Her mother’s argument was clear, cogent, and persuasive on its own terms.

But, it was also persuasive because it wasn’t coming from just anyone. Surely, her mother cares about her more than does a man with whom she shared a few hours of intimacy.

Unfortunately, the culture has portrayed parents as singularly unqualified and inept at giving advice to their children. It has led people to rely on the opinion of so-called experts and even of activists like Jaclyn Friedman.

Anonymous knew that hooking up was a bad idea. And yet, she could not act on what she knew because she felt confident in her intuition about the man.

Who, in this day and age, trusts a rule over a feeling?
I find her mother’s advice especially pertinent because it uses a distinction that I wrote about yesterday in my post about Daniel Kahneman. The post is entitled: The Confidence Game.

In part this story raises the issue of confidence. But it also addresses the relationship between inexperience and fiction or stories

The less experience you have the more you are going to rely on fictions to fill in the blanks.

Anonymous felt confident in her decision to have a one-night stand with the boy she had met online. She felt confident that the two of them were embarking on a relationship.

To which her mother explained that her confidence had so little basis in experience that she had really been making love with a mirage, an image, a fictional being.

She was not just concerned about her reputation, but she was questioning her confidence in her own judgment. She had discovered, as her mother explained to her, that she was basing her judgment on insufficient data.

Some people have been lured into believing in love-at-first-sight. They have been told that they can know from a single glimpse of someone’s eyes that he is, as the quaint expression goes, the One.

Yet, your first glimpse provides so little real information that your rapture will have more to do with the mirage you have made up to fill in the gaps in your experience than with the real person.

As a relationship develops facts garnered from experience replace and refine your sense of the other person. The more you know the person, the more he comes into focus.

Your tendency to fictionalize people derives from inexperience. Kahneman notwithstanding, experience is a great teacher. How you deal with inexperience does not mean that you will always love fictional beings.

As a relationship develops, you learn more about the other person, not just about his quirks and foibles, but about his character. Can you trust him? Is he reliable? Is he responsible?

You will also learn who his friends are, how he functions in different social situations, and how he gets along with his family.

All of these, and many more questions, need to be answered before anyone should consider commitment.

Unless you want to commit to a mirage….


Dennis said...

It is interesting that we all possess what I call the "Theater of the mind." It is a very valuable tool when we are dealing with reading books, solving problems , facing challenges, et al. It become less so when we deal with real people.
One has to remember that we tend to create the scenery, the conditions and the attributes of this person who is now still a fiction. We tend to give those feelings and desires we most want to exist in that reality. It is our stylized version of life as we see it.
The "Theater of the mind" is a great tool that grows more accurate as we grow and develop and gain experience. The sad part is that in order to use it effectively we have to listen and take into consideration the advice of those who have lived more life than we. To close that door is to ignore the wisdom of the aged.
There is a reason why the young are pushed by zealots to ignore the advice of those more senior. lack of experience almost always lead the young to making mistakes they would not have made otherwise. Interestingly those who push the young to ignore the advice of senior individuals are the ones who have made the very same mistakes and need the young to justify their mistakes. Misery loves company.

Retriever said...

Good post, Stuart. Anonymous is fortunate to have a close and loving relationship with a responsible mother.

In defense of therapy: Not everyone has a great mother, alas. Think of all those kids having illegitimate kids...Many kids consult therapists because their mothers are drunks, narcissists, sluts themselves, or just stupid about relationships. If a mother is an abusive relationship herself or multiply divorced would a kid go to them? Or if the kid doesn't wan to admit to religious parents they love that they are having sex outside of marriage (not wanting to upset them)?

My own kids confide in me but don't always like my conservative advice. Still they keep coming back, and know I love them, and they don't booze, drug, steal or hookup so something must get thru...

But parents are so close to kids that their advice can't always be free of parental wish fulfillment and envy and reactivity to their own frustrations. And sometimes a kid is genuinely ill or in acute rebellion. At such times, better a wise therapist counseling a troubled kid than a wacko or hostile or uncaring or just absent and immature parent. Extended family and ministers and friends are valuable, but not all kids have those or feel able confide in them.

David Foster said...

This is closely related to "confirmation bias"...the tendency to selectively gather data supporting the belief that one already has. It is a phenomenon well-known to accident investigators.

In this case, the belief was "this is the right guy for me," and she clearly focused on his attributes that supported that hypothesis rather than those that would have conflicted with it.

I think there's a lot of confirmation bias in the early stages of relationships, though not usually so rapid.

A certain amount of confirmation bias is probably necessary in order to make decisions and avoid endless in-betweenness, but too much of it can be very dangerous.

JP said...

Advice like this works unless you experience limerence. Good luck overriding limerence with rationality.

From wikipedia:

"Limerence is considered as a cognitive and emotional state of being emotionally attached or even obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one's feelings - a near-obsessive form of romantic love.[5]"