Monday, May 7, 2012

Rings, Signals, Sex, and Babies

[There is an updated version of this post at my Psychology Today blog, here.]

Plain gold ring on his finger he wore
It was where everyone could see
He belonged to someone, but not me
On his hand was a plain gold ring
            Lyrics to “Plain Gold Ring”
by George Stone (performed by Nina Simone, recently, by Kimbra)

I’ll come back to these lyrics by the end of this post. 

Last time, I left you with a question:  Should Tyra keep the engagement ring she got from Sam?

My answer is, “yes.”  Tyra clearly feels like she lost something of value to her with Sam breaking off the long engagement—time wasted on her biological clock. In this particular case, the value of the engagement ring is in line with how they came to be commonly used in the US over the past decades:  A promise by a male to a female of following through on the intention to marry. The reason that I feel like the economics writer I noted last time (O’Brian) was wrong about it no longer makes much sense for a female to keep a ring if an engagement ends is that there is one thing that has not changed—biology. Women are the ones who get pregnant.  Yes, there was that one exception and maybe a few others, but . . . ..  Women are also the ones who bear children (goes with the whole pregnant thing).  Lastly, with a growing number of exceptions, women are still far more likely to be the ones who spend the most time on child care. 

Biology affects societal and cultural trends and customs.  This aspect of biology makes women, on average, more vulnerable than men to things going wrong in dating, mating, marriage, and family development. This is why it has been widely recognized that, ON AVERAGE (meaning, there are many exceptions), it’s more critical for females to properly decode the commitment levels of men, early on, than vice versa.  Some aspects of advances for women in careers and earnings counter this, but there is still not way to wipe out the fundamental differences that begin with who can and who cannot have a baby.

While the use of customs to clarify commitment seems to me to be waning, there is a perfectly good rationale for the existence of societal customs that require romantic partners, male or female, to produce clear signals of commitment as a relationship progresses. Further, it’s most crucial that those who stand to lose more if things go South protect themselves by getting the clearest evidence of commitment that’s possible and appropriate for a relationship stage from their partners. Sacrifices made by one for another are one of the clearer kinds of signals one can get about commitment. However, these run more risk of being misinterpreted. Another would be societally sanctioned emblems of public commitment: for example, the engagement ring, Facebook status designations and so forth.

Back to the sexism of biology for a moment: I think there could be a further biological bias in the mix here that makes it harder for the one who is most committed to see accurately how committed a partner is.  Women (and, no doubt some men) have more active oxytocin systems than their partners, and this propels sacrificing behaviors that may be, unfortunately, not shared.  To make a good thing worse, oxytocin can boost trust, but that does not mean it’s boosting trust according to facts.

Looking for lasting love? Here is some advice related to these themes. 

1.  If you can become pregnant, it’s especially important for you to look for, and wait for, clear evidence of a mutual commitment to the future before allowing yourself to get too deeply drawn in.  That’s why there has, historically, been some protection in marriage compared to things like cohabiting (especially without engagement); there is no doubt about what is meant to be signaled with public declarations such as engagement and marriage.  To be the most protective, that evidence of your partner’s commitment should be seen clearly by you and others. (Which also means that a person might have to be more careful when public signals are hard to come by.)

Some of you may be thinking, “hey Scott, what do you mean by ‘if you can become pregnant?’” 

Simply this: Is it biologically possible for you to become pregnant?  You may or not be intending to have sex and/or you may be using birth control.  Birth control methods have failure rates.  So do intentions not to have sex.   

2.  Whether or not you can become pregnant, do you attach strongly to people, quickly? If that’s you, you also are at greater risk from not looking for cues about commitment. Your own desire for connection, along with the power of oxytocin, can make you misread the signals about how committed a partner is to you.  Lots of people find out, painfully, that they were “over-giving” to a partner who was never going to become more seriously committed.  Kinda of gives “over-share” a whole new definition.

3.  Think about the markers that you think should give you valid evidence about the commitment level of a partner in a relationship that is progressing. What do you think you need to see? Give some serious weight to what you might look for that is public.  Public displays of commitment beat the snot out of private, ambiguous messages and hints about commitment.  DTRs are nice, but it takes a lot of skill and guts to do them right.  So, it’s good to have clear ideas about what else to look at to decode commitment. 

The haunting lyrics from Plain Gold Ring, posted at the outset here, get what I’m going after as the most protective.  It is an example of an emblem of commitment that is so unambiguous that partners and outsiders know exactly where things stand.   

4.  If you have a friend or two that seems really wise and knows you well, share what you are thinking and see if they can knock some holes in your ideas about correctly decoding commitment.  Love is blind but does not have to be. 

Here are some links to older posts of mine that are directly related to these themes: 

Decoding commitment

Is Roulette what You are Playing?

Having the Talk:  DTR I

Having the Talk:  DTR II

Oxytocin and Commitment

Kimbra (amazing new singer coming out of New Zealand) has a wonderful YouTube of Plain Gold Ring, if you are interested.  Here