By Erika Ettin
Tribune News Service
The story is always the same. You like someone. He or she likes you … maybe. You continue liking this person. This person stops liking you (or never did) and pulls back. You like this person more. This person, feeling smothered, continues to pull back. You continue to obsess more.
Why is this, though? Why should a person’s feelings actually grow the less and less someone is reciprocating those loving feeling? There are a few theories on this:
Elite Daily describes this theory in detail. It says that a principle on which our minds work is reciprocity. If we do something for someone, even if we haven’t asked for something in return, we subconsciously expect the person to do something in return of about equal value. (Conversely, if someone does something nice for us, many of us will simply want to reciprocate.)
These things could range from dinner to a massage to something as simple as a text message response. When the person of interest does not reciprocate, however, rather than retreating, we instead tend to invest more in the hopes of the other person responding. And then once we’ve invested more, the amount of reciprocation required in our minds increases.
The more we invest, the more we want back. As Elite says, “Annoyingly, investing too much time and energy in someone without the person wanting it will usually push the person away. So, when you want someone whom you simply cannot have, the best thing is to relax, step back and not invest so much into that someone (no matter how difficult that may be).” I agree.
2. Perceived value and scarcity
This is my theory. The less someone responds or reciprocates to one’s advances, the more perceived value the pursuer thinks this person has (“She must be so busy!” “He must be so overcome with suitors!” “She must have such a high-profile job that she doesn’t have time to reply to my text from six days ago… but who’s counting?”), so we try harder since this person must really be “worth it” if he or she is in such high demand (in other words, this person is a scarce resource).
And often, the higher we perceive this other person’s value, the lower we perceive our own. This person’s lack of response, though, should not imply a higher value. Rather, at its simplest, it should imply a lack of proper communication (“I’m simply not interested”) or just rudeness.
In a non-dating context, a client recently sent me an email asking a question that I thought deserved a timely response, so I replied within the hour. Rather than thanking me for the quick response and drawing the conclusion that exemplary customer service is important to me as a business owner, he instead said, “Don’t you have anything better to do than to answer my emails so quickly?” Lesson learned. People think you’re better/smarter/more successful when you treat them worse. Let’s turn this concept on its head and instead recognize the people who reply, are kind, and actually, want to date (or work with) you.
3. Defense Mechanisms
If there are 20 people you can “get” or “date” or whatever you want to call it, and there’s one person you can’t, some people will go for the unattainable because there will then be no accountability for a relationship not working. Let’s say you date someone who actually likes you, and after a number of months, the relationship fizzles. It’s no one’s fault, but you took an active role. If you chase the unattainable, though, you can never say that you took that active role. Rather, you never made it to the point of the relationship, and thereby never allowed yourself to succeed or fail.
The brain’s “happy drug” is dopamine. For me, if someone scanned my brain, you’d likely find high levels of dopamine when 1) I walk into an H&M store (not ashamed), 2) someone surprises me with a piece of dark chocolate with sea salt, or 3) I get a kiss from someone I really like.
Our brain craves this feeling. So, by going for someone we know we can’t have, or we can only have sometimes, our brains love the unpredictability because the highs are higher than if we got the desired reward all the time.
This is why breadcrumbing has sadly entered our lexicon recently. Why would a breadcrumber, if you will allow someone who he or she can’t really attain to keep coming back for more, only on a periodic, unpredictable basis? It’s because our brain says, “Yes! We want this!” With the extra dopamine, though, comes added anxiety. “When is he going to text?” “I haven’t heard from her in three days, and I know she’s back from her weekend trip by now.” “If he wants to go out this weekend, he needs to ask since it’s already Friday afternoon.” Is that a worthwhile tradeoff? I say no.
In all, it’s best to devote time and energy to what you do have and not what you don’t … or can’t. It’ll save time, energy, and heartache in the end.
Which theory do you think reigns supreme?
(Erika Ettin is the founder of A Little Nudge, where she helps others navigate the often intimidating world of online dating. Want to connect with Erika?)