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Finding new love and domestic stand-offs

Neurological-based advice

Dear Dr Ash
I was with a man for almost a decade and believed it was true love, but then he left me for another woman. I was so hurt that I couldn’t think of dating or seeing anyone else for some years. But as my 50th birthday approaches I know I must address the fact I don’t much like living or sleeping on my own, or endlessly setting out for gatherings and events solo, without someone to discuss them with afterwards. However, it’s also true that I’m feeling very wary about the prospect of trying to trust a partner again. Especially as everyone tells me that my best chance of finding a single bloke is via dating apps. All you hear are horror stories about women being duped or ghosted. Doing nothing is defeatist, but how on earth can I put myself through the hell of Tinder and Bumble?

Faint Heart of Trowbridge

Trust is less important than acceptance in a relationship

Dear Faint Heart,

Most of us would more easily endure starvation and penury than social isolation, and I am deeply sympathetic to your desire to find companionship. The need to love and be loved is right at the centre of what it means to be human. But the details of that love, in particular our expectations of our romantic partners: these are learned. You write about the feeling of betrayal, and it may be worth taking a moment to consider what that feeling is about.

One of the most profound truths about the human brain is that it is a prediction engine. Even with our most basic senses, such as vision and hearing, the brain largely predicts what the external world is like and then tries to gather evidence to support or reject its predictions. In a very real biological sense, we don’t see what’s there, we see what we think is there. This is why a magician can make a coin vanish with simple misdirection – we are so sure that the coin should be where we expect it to be that we don’t notice the obvious drop.

Seen in this light, betrayal is just the other side of the coin of expectation. We feel betrayed when someone behaves in a way we didn’t think they would. But just as expectations make us blind to a magician’s sleight-of-hand, they can prevent us from seeing our romantic partners for who they are. You describe a relationship that lasted nearly ten years – this sounds very happy indeed and is certainly no illusion. But it is likely that the reason your partner left had as much to do with his own life story as it did with you or your mutual relationship. Thinking of this as a betrayal rather than as your expectations being unmet has left you feeling hurt and vulnerable. So how do you regain trust?

Quite simply, my advice is that you don’t. Shift your focus instead into accepting those things you know to be true about any potential partners, and try to let go of expectations. People are complicated, and motivated to act for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with you. Over the course of any relationship both partners will grow and change and the relationship will change too, in ways that can be difficult to understand at the time. In the long run, I believe trust is less important than acceptance. We should try to an accept our lovers as people, rather than believe in the magic trick of promises – accepting flaws is more important that finding perfection.

I suggest that you jump back into the dating world with both feet, accepting that we are all complicated, fickle and in need of love. These days, I’m afraid that probably does mean using dating apps, in addition to more traditional ways of encountering unexpected romance at dinner parties, weddings or even gyms. By all means keep your expectations high, but be open to adventure, and to the fact that too many expectations lead to illusions and disappointments. If a man pulls a rabbit out of his hat I hope you will be surprised and delighted – you can enjoy the show without needing to believe rabbits actually live in hats.

Best wishes
Dr Ash

Dear Dr Ash,

I have a serious complaint about my wife, which may seem trivial to others, but it’s driving me round the bend on a daily basis. She cannot reverse-park our car properly and always leaves the front or back poking out. It’s not even a big vehicle, just a Honda Civic. Since we live in a town this means it’s vulnerable to passing traffic and last year the wing mirror was knocked off twice. I know I shouldn’t be petty about it, but it makes me want to call divorce lawyers. As does her completely random way of stacking the dishwasher. I always have to do it again after she’s filled it. I know you’re not supposed to change your partner, but surely you can train them to be better at simple tasks like these?

Demented of Fife

Parking involves spatial reasoning, a cognitive ability that varies highly between individuals

Dear Demented,

I am reading your letter on a blowy, overcast day by the sea. There is a constant wind in these places and while that can be invigorating, today it is scattering my papers and blowing bits of grit into my coffee. The sun is low and white and I’m squinting far too much; I worry it makes me look angry when in fact I am merely vexed. All of which is to say that I am sympathetic to your feeling that trivial irritations, even in the context of an apparently idyllic situation, can nevertheless feel annoying.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider what we mean when we say something is “annoying”. Perhaps it is when something arrests our attention and intrudes into an otherwise peaceful reverie like a jagged thing, poking us until we can think of nothing else. Normally our brain filters out these irrelevant stimuli – for example, I don’t feel my own shirt brushing against my skin although I would immediately notice a fly landing on my arm. Neuroscientists call this “sensory gating,” evoking the idea of a gate that the brain uses to let certain stimuli in and keep others out.
At birth these gates are wide open, so babies are overwhelmed with touch, taste, smell and sight. Their world comes flooding in undiminished and undifferentiated. As we grow, we build sensory gates to help us make sense of our experiences. We learn which stimuli are threatening and which are comforting. We selectively shut out the world so as not to drown in it. We go on adjusting these sensory gates throughout life, incorporating the evidence of our experiences together with predictions and biases about future experiences.

You have learned, for better or worse, to notice the way the car is parked and the dishwasher is loaded. Both of these tasks involve spatial reasoning, a cognitive ability that varies highly between individuals. You may be able to simply drive the car into its parking space while your wife may need to park, get out to check whether the car is in the space, repark, recheck, and so on. What is easy for you in this respect may be difficult and time-consuming for her.

If you want to feel less aggrieved by these differences, the first and best solution is to re-adjust your gates. When something your wife does raises irritates you, don’t allow yourself to dwell on it. Stewing about these things is effectively training your brain to notice them even more, and this is making you unhappy. Instead of grumbling, take action. Attach some parking flags to the car to make it more visible to passing drivers, or simply budget for a few replacement wing mirrors as part of the cost of car ownership. Compromise on the dishwasher: perhaps you always load it and she always unloads it. Discussing compromises like these shifts the focus away from blame and towards real solutions. And whatever solutions you come to, remember that for every thing you find annoying about your wife, she likely has a list of things she finds annoying about you. When you are feeling particularly aggrieved it may be worth reminding yourself that she has simply had the grace not to tell you.

Best wishes
Dr Ash

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July 2023, Life, Mind Over Matter

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