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Shifty-Fifty & On Cloudy Nine

Shifty-FiftyOn Cloudy Nine

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Shifty-Fifty

A close friend and I spend a lot of time discussing her issues with her boyfriend. I'm always there for her, even late at night when she's upset about something. However, when I bring up someone I'm interested in, she'll cut me off or say she just can't listen to me talk about the guy. Is it petty to feel hurt and to expect more from her?

MAX PIXEL
  • Max Pixel

—Disturbed

There are friends you can count on — and friends you can count on to fake their own kidnapping the moment you are the slightest bit in need.

This sort of "friend" can be hard to identify because we want to believe their friendship is based on more than seeing us as an easy mark. This isn't to say we lack the psychological tools to identify and deal appropriately with users posing as friends. As humans began living in groups, we evolved to have a social "loss prevention team" — the psychological version of the squad department stores have to catch crafty shoppers who get nine months pregnant in a matter of minutes, uh, with 26 designer dresses.

Our minds are tuned for "cheater detection," to notice sneaky nonreciprocators — people who intentionally take more than they give — explain evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. The police force of our cheater detection system is our emotions: anger and resentment and other gloom-eristic feelings that rise up when we're giving and giving and being shafted by somebody who's all take.

That said, friendship isn't always 50/50, and it's important to identify when a good friend is temporarily unable to act like one because they're going through a rough patch. Unless that's the case here, your emotions are telling you the balance of give and take between you is just not right.

Now, maybe she's just a selfish taker and things will never be right. Then again, you could explain that you feel shorted and give her a chance to right the balance. Even good people sometimes act like crap people. As I see it, one job of a real friend is to put us on notice when we're falling short. This gives us the chance to make the requisite sacrifices to be a good friend to them — like by dragging our emotional immaturity out back and slaughtering it like a goat on a stone altar (uh, the condo patio).

On Cloudy Nine

I'm having this undefined thing with this great woman I see just about nightly. She ended a toxic relationship seven months ago, and I'm still recovering from a terrible breakup. We're great friends, crack each other up, are extremely honest with each other, and have great sex. Should we try to label this? I worry this free love/no-strings-attached approach can't last.

—Troubled

Zoos have cages so the lions don't wander through suburbia, snacking on children and labradoodles.

Commitment serves a similar boundary-establishing function, though out of the worry that one's partner will sneak over to the hot neighbor's for a nooner, not lunch on them with a side of purse dog. Also, once two people spell out that they're a "we," the parameters of decision-making expand accordingly: "What works for us?" instead of "What's best for me?"

But sometimes, people still licking their wounds from their last relationship have the close-to-perfect next partner show up inopportunely early. They could push that person away with "I'm not ready now," which could turn out to be "goodbye forever." Or...maybe they could have a "not-quite-sure-what-this-is" thing until they feel ready for a relationship again.

There's a challenge to this loosey-goosey approach, and it's how disturbed we humans are by uncertainty: a lack of information about what might happen. The murky unknown revs up feelbad emotions like anxiety and dread over our inability to narrow down the various ways things could go toiletward.

Different people have varying levels of what psychologist Mark H. Freeston and his colleagues describe as "intolerance of uncertainty." To decrease yours (and the angsty feelings that come with), spell out what you can — a likely worst-case scenario: for example, a woman you've grown attached to tires of you and takes to Tinder like a duck to those little goldfish crackers. Painful, yes. But, as you've shown, survivable — if temporarily deadly to the ego.

Understanding this should help you avoid any temptation to rush things — possibly blowing up the relationship in an attempt to relieve the tension of uncertainty. To help yourself stay on the straight and ambiguous, keep in mind that this uncertainty-alleviating impulse is the business model for horror movies. Without it, they'd be horrifying bores that fizzle out at the three-minute mark — when the teens hear unearthly growls coming from the basement of the abandoned house and one says to the rest: "Yeah, whatevs. Let's just stay here upstairs playing strip chess."

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