Attraction and the Neanderthal Brain
A funny thing happened to me recently when the world of internet dating collided with real life. I initiated an online conversation with a man I considered out of my league. I’m more brainy than beautiful, so I usually engage with men on dating sites who are quirky rather than conventionally good-looking. I like an interesting man, and as long as he has something captivating to say, and doesn’t still live with his mother, or a house full of marginally employed mates, I’m happy to spend a few hours getting to know if he’s worth date number two.
But this new guy was a looker. Not only that, I recognized him as a local celebrity who had hosted a TV program. I decided, what the hell, and sent him a brief message commenting on the putative happiness of the Danes and how he reminded me of one. He wrote back within the hour and our correspondence began. A few days later we started texting and the day after that he called. It’s not often I find a man who is as handsome as he is smart, funny, and excited to tell me about the great book he read recently. He was coming to my town for work and we made a date for coffee. In the interim, we continued to text and he called me every day, sometimes twice.
I tried not to make too much of his enthusiasm. After all, he was a hot celebrity who was interested in me. But he was new to the internet dating scene and I had to believe he was deluged with attention. I’d been at this for so long I understood well that pre-IRL (in real life) excitement wasn’t a great predictor of compatibility. Nonetheless, he told me a few of my photos made his head spin (I guess that was a compliment), and I was the weirdest woman he’d ever know (which he qualified as having brains and interests aligned with his own. I think he must have had a hard time believing I didn’t have a penis).
To me, a person who most definitely has a vagina (and a brain bathed in estrogen), being interested in a man’s mind and jazzed about talking with him about the things we both find fascinating was all I needed to decide I wouldn’t mind getting closer to this guy. He still had a good job, he made me laugh, and he was a celebrity. So when he showed up, I didn’t care that he was a bit shorter than I’d expected. (I did rather care that he didn’t weigh much more than me.) We talked with animation, we opened up easily to each other, and extended the date into the evening. But, quite suddenly, I noticed I was the only one leaning in. His body language shut down and he gave me a goodbye peck on the lips so perfunctory I felt as though I was his great aunt Ada.
There were a few more calls after that, during which he told me about the woman he’d gone out with for a fourth time (yes, men do open up to me in ways they shouldn’t), but eventually he faded away and I was left shrugging my shoulders and thinking, yet again, that some people just don’t know how to temper their gusto before they’ve been able to fully evaluate a potential romantic partner. What I wasn’t yet ready to concede was that all of us, men especially, are driven primarily by physical attraction, even if we’ve already decided they’re the most weirdly enjoyable person we’ve ever encountered.
A few days later, an article in the Washington Post confirmed my suspicions. It didn’t matter how well I stimulated his synapses, the bottom line was I didn’t meet his physical ideal, despite what he saw in my photos. What was more disheartening to me, according to the article, was that men like smart women only to a point; the point at which a man stops being smart. If they sniff out the possibility that you not only understand quantum mechanics, but you ski better than he does and you can find the butter in the refrigerator, it’s likely he will slink away in search of someone less accomplished.
I call this the Neanderthal Brain Rules of Attraction. It’s why speed dating is so popular, why split second swiping is now the norm for evaluating someone online, and why men say over and over they are turned off by intelligent women (And why is that? Are brainiacs worse mothers?) We are still dealing with primal impulses when it comes to sizing up mates. But hold on. This was ok when we were driven to reproduce with the absolute best genetic material we were qualified to land and we only lived to be 46. Now, unless you’re looking for someone to have babies with, why does physical attraction, and material wealth, matter that much? Should we try instead to date based on things like temperament and sense of humor?
I don’t expect you to date someone you couldn’t bring yourself to make out with because of the angle of their nose. But I’m suggesting we deliberately try to assess the things that will, in the long run, be much more important to us than looks and wealth. I know myself well enough now to know that I want to be with a man who is upbeat, complementary and laughs at all my jokes. And likes sex. We all know sex is important. Now, I’m trying to figure out how far from the ‘bad boy’ look – the one I’ve always loved but have been less impressed by when it comes to being a good mate – I’m able to go. Not because my standards are slipping, but because these non-visual things will be more important to me by the time both our asses become saggy. I don’t want to end up with someone beautiful to look at and completely bereft of emotional intelligence.
I have a girlfriend in England who met a man that turned out to be ‘short and fat’. All through dinner she was dubious that she would ever warm up to him. But he made her laugh (Again, take note: laughter makes so much shit just disappear. Don’t marry without it!) and when he kissed her, fireworks went off in her pants. It’s been over a year now and they’re still going strong.
Our culture is living fast and furious. We swipe, set up several dates a day, (my record is three), get a ‘chemistry read’ and move on if we aren’t immediately smitten. If all you want is to have some casual fun, then you’re golden. But if you want to get deep, vulnerable, and love wide open with a person who is going to support you all the way, you might want to choose someone who doesn’t make your pupils dilate immediately. You might want to listen closely to what they’re saying rather than swoon over the movement of their lips. Take your time to assess not the size of their bank account but the size of their heart; not the depth of their pockets, but the depth of their character. Because, honey, you’ve got a few more decades to go, and you wanna be with someone who sees your laugh lines, not your wrinkles.
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