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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #88, 5/12/2007

The Politics of Pair Bonding

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

[Subject to active editing for the next day or two.]

In the fantasy of human mating, handsome Prince Charming comes along and rescues the pretty princess from the Black Wizard's tower; they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. The End.

Real life is a wee bit more complicated. Mating can be an extraordinarily complicated process that involves a whole lot of treacherous politics, much of it invisible even to the people involved.

If a princess really is beautiful, in the cultural norm sort of way, then she has plenty of Prince Charmings to choose from. They're knocking on her door. Does she choose the handsomest prince, or the most adventurous one, or the most stable and reliable one? The answer is, she chooses the one who least threatens her own ego.

Beneath the surface of every princess, not matter how pretty, is a host of insecurities. Sure, she wants the "best" prince, but at the same time she is afraid of both rejection and losing control. Rejection happens when someone you are attracted to isn't attracted to you or chooses someone else instead. Losing control is when someone becomes too attracted to you, and you need to push them away.

Every prince, on his side, is playing a similar game. He wants the prettiest princess, or even, if he is a bit enlightened, the most intelligent, but he doesn't want to be rejected either. If a beautiful, super-intelligent princess walks in the front door, he might just slink out the back, knowing deep down that she is way too good for him and that he can't compete with other presumed suitors.

Neither prince nor princess wants to get involved in a situation where they let someone in the door but then can't get them to leave. This happens when the other person is too needy and vulnerable. You know that if you said the word, they'd be on you in a minute, smothering you, which is almost as distressing as being rejected.

So everybody plays it cool—usually too cool. Instead of just jumping to, "I love you, The End," there's this dance that has to take place. A poker game. You want to make yourself available, but not too available, so you have an escape route if things don't go as planned. You want to approach the person you are attracted to, but you also want to make them think it's totally casual, not desperate like you know it is. You don't want to be seen as a fool if you let your true feelings out and the other person laughs in your face.

To avoid being hurt, you are forced to hold your cards close to your chest. The trouble is, the cards themselves are constantly changing. What if you express a little interest in someone and they turn around and express a LOT of interest in you, way too much. Then your position might shift from attraction to fleeing. "Get me out of here!" The person you were initially attracted to can quickly become unattractive, and vice-versa, depending on how they respond to you and how you are programmed to interpret it.

So here you are playing a poker game with changing cards. You are looking for love but aren't quite sure what love is or who the perfect mate should be. You've been burned in the past, so maybe you're a little paranoid. Maybe a lot paranoid. The princes are all scoundrels and the princesses are bitches, because they've abused you before. The good ones are all taken, you may assume, and the bad ones are all that's left.

So how do people overcome all these internal barriers and actually get together?

Alcohol, lots of it. Alcohol shuts down some of the inhibitions and lets the animal instincts take over. It may not be the ideal matchmaker, but it is probably the most common.

If left to their own logical processes, people are likely to be confounded and paralysed, because the issues are so huge. How do you make a logical decision about who you are going to spend the rest of your life with? Who has that kind of crystal ball? You want the "best" mate, but you don't want to be rejected, and you don't want to be stuck with a turkey either. Whatever information you have about a person right now, it is never enough for a rational decision. You could burn out all your brain circuits just thinking about it.

In the end, the decision is usually made by happenstance. You happen to be thrown together with a person who is "good enough" and there happens to be alcohol available. He may not be the perfect prince, but he's there, in front of you, right now. It's a proximity thing and a throw of the dice thing. Love is never really a choice as much as you think it is.

Once the connection has been made—with or without alcohol—then the whole wonderful delusional system starts kicking in. You "fall in love." You start finding all these amazing things you have in common while conveniently overlooking your differences. You were "made for each other," you both say, and you both believe it.

Unbeknownst to you, your brain is changing. The neurons are rearranging themselves to absorb this other person into your emotional system. Humans are deeply programmed to be pair bonded, so once a potential mate of adequate credentials gets close enough, it is sure to happen.

They are absorbed into your nervous system regardless of whether the relationship works on any practical level. This is an unspoken and unjustified bonding similar to that between a mother and child shortly after birth. There is no surface "reason" for this neurological change, even though you may fabricate reasons for it later. It is just that when you hold two sexually compatible people together on desert island, they are going to start bonding, and the bond is likely to last even after they leave the island.

It isn't just sex that brings them together but a genuine joy in the presence of the other and a loneliness when the other is away. At this point, all the other Prince Charmings in the world aren't relevant anymore. You simply stop perceiving them. The other princes aren't an issue because you become so involved with yours that no other has an opportunity to approach.

This phase can go on for, oh, several months at least. For people who are reasonably compatible and emotionally secure in themselves, the delusion can persist for years, if not for life. For a relatively stable and emotionally healthy pair, a bonded relationship usually lasts by default, unless some major crisis forces them apart.

There are worse delusions. Maybe you didn't get the best Prince Charming, but if you're lucky, he's good enough. Just don't let your intellect get too soft and mushy about it. It's not like this relationship was written in the stars or gifted by God. It was just one of those practical arrangements thrown together by you and your matchmaker.

Alcohol.

—G.C.




Reader Comments

“This cracked me up.” —Joe in NY 5/13/07 (rating=3)

“I once heard from a jaded man giving advice to a newly-betrothed young man, "Save your time. Go out and find a woman you absolutely can't stand and just give her your house, cause that's how it's gonna end up anyway."” — 5/15/07 (rating=4)

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