Right now, as I very slowly type, I know several men who are looking for the women of their dreams. These are smart men. Men of kindness and character. Men who frequently leave me envious of their checking accounts, their intellect, their ability to dress well.
Maybe it’s because I’m a shrink, but I almost always know several great guys who are looking for great women.
Salon writer Erin Coulehan expressed a less optimistic point of view in a piece titled This Is Why I’m Still Single? Men Think Smart Women Are Sexy—But Only From a Distance.
Coulehan reported that she and her friends are involuntarily single, and she has found an explanation for her predicament in a recent study suggesting men reject intelligent women.
In the study, men were attracted to “hypothetical” women who were more intelligent than themselves, but they were less attracted to real women who outperformed them on an intelligence test. (That’s the oversimplified version. The abstract is here.)
The study sounds sensational but it isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s well established that people tend to choose mates who are physically and mentally similar to themselves. We might think the supermodel-neurosurgeon we met at the gym is attractive, but we probably won’t pursue them unless we too are supermodel-neurosurgeons. It’s called assortative mating. Men and women do it slightly differently, but we both do it.
I suspect Ms. Coulehan knows this. She seems thoughtful and informed, but that doesn’t mean she is immune to a mental glitch that plagues each of us at some point: blaming others for the predicaments we create for ourselves.
Coulehan seems to blame men in general for her unwanted single status. Her essay builds to this thesis:
“The researchers who led this study believe “feelings of diminished masculinity accounted for men’s decreased attraction toward women [who] outperformed them.” ￼￼So basically women have to worry about stepping on shards of shattered masculinity when breaking glass ceilings.”
She seems to be saying men are too fragile to navigate relationships with intelligent women. In other words: there are no good men for her. I hear some version of this with great regularity from women who find themselves repeatedly dating the wrong guys. I wonder if she really believes men are at fault?
Coulehan devoted 948 words to the shortcomings of men. But buried within is an important little passage describing her friends’ thoughts on why she is single.
“The romantic ones of the bunch attribute it to not yet finding a perfect match, while the more cynical ones say it’s the guys we’re choosing, like we have bad taste in men. I’m more inclined to think it’s not so much bad taste in men, but a taste for the bad boys.”
Let’s read that last sentence again.
“I’m more inclined to think it’s not so much bad taste in men, but a taste for the bad boys.”
“…a taste for the bad boys.”
The possibility that her choices influence her experience seems a mighty salient point, but she dismissed it as cynical. She then quoted her father, who advised her to stop questioning her own decisions.
“When I talk to my dad about it, he rolls his eyes and says to stop over-analyzing and that we’re too smart for our own good.”
There’s the mental glitch. In that brief passage she has eliminated her own responsibility and returned to the safety of an external explanation: she’s too smart, and men can’t handle it. There are no good men.
If we’re counting words, she devoted roughly 2% of her essay to the possibility that she may possess influence over the men she brings into her life. May I be graphic for a moment? 2% looks like this.
I’m not beating up on Ms. Coulehan. Truly. I’m in no position to be holier-than-her because my own mind likes to externalize responsibility too, if I let it. Here is a small sampling of my many struggles.
Externalizing responsibility for a problem relinquishes the hope of solving it. The moment I externalize, I’m simply relying on luck. And luck is a terrible strategy. That’s why I try to keep my mind on a leash regarding responsibility for road rage, communication problems, and pretzel habits. Left to its own devices, my mind will leave me fat and angry.
I think most people operate similarly, but less so when it comes to love because it’s fun to romanticize luck in the search for a mate. We even give luck a nice re-branding: we call it “fate.”
Fate is romantic. Fate is fun. Fate is the premise of your average Hugh Grant movie—and who doesn’t love a little Bridget Jones? But fate is really just another word for luck, and luck can go south very quickly.
The “fate” strategy compels a person to size up prospects in a spectacularly ass-backward fashion, hooking up with attractive people who might be soulmates rather than searching for soulmates who might be attractive. (Soulmates become dead sexy when you give them half a chance.)
Unfortunately, ass-backward appears to be the default setting in human courtship. As I discussed in some length in my recent book, there’s plenty of research suggesting that our first instincts shouldn’t necessarily be trusted in the search for love. Our horny little reptilian brains are more interested in surface features than soulmate potential.
So what can you trust when you can’t trust your mind? Well, values rarely disappoint.
Values are the intangibles that matter most to each of us, be they parenting, education, or any other pursuit that makes life worth living. Some measure of shared values is absolutely critical to long-term romantic success. Coulehan gave us a glimpse of her values when she described her most important friendships.
“Dinner and text conversations range from recent features in the New Yorker, to the political landscape to the etymology of favorite words like the Portuguese ‘saudade.’”
Whatever stripe of bad boy she prefers, I reckon he is not enthralled by droll socialite periodicals or spirited rounds of Portuguese declension.
If I may pose a hypothesis, it appears she pursues men who initially excite her but ultimately bore her. If so, does that make her a hypocrite? Absolutely not. It’s normal human behavior. Our species is known throughout the animal kingdom for making counterproductive choices and then blaming the world for the outcome. What did you think all those hyenas were laughing at?
This is why our minds need supervision. They insists we pursue the shiny object even when shiny objects consistently fail us. Society reinforces the impulse by telling us to follow our hearts. That was the advice of Coulehan’s father: “stop over-analyzing.” His advice was clearly well-intentioned, but it was tripe.
(I read in the New Yorker that tripe is a main ingredient in Portuguese tripe stew. The word derives from a Middle English verb referring to the act of enthusiastically regurgitating a ruminant animal’s viscera after inexplicably ingesting it.)
I suspect Coulehan is right when she blames her mind for working against her, but not for the reasons she suggests. There are plenty of intelligent guys looking for someone just like her to complete their world.
Instead, her problem may be that her mind is steering her toward men who cannot truly connect with her because their values don’t align with hers. Once the infatuation wears off, they won’t want her any more than she wants them. It’s not the most glamorous explanation, but it is the most human—and the most fixable.
Park, L.E., A.F. Young, and P.W. Eastwick. 2015. “(Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41:145—1473.