For three months, things were going really well with this man I was dating. He’d introduced me to his daughter. We’d even planned a trip together. And then he just disappeared. I eventually texted him to find out what happened, but he simply texted back: “Really busy, all good.” This isn’t the first time this has happened to me or one of my girlfriends. Why do men do this? Why don’t they tell you what’s really going on?
When a guy just cuts you off like a bad tree limb, it’s tempting to come up with ego-cushioning explanations: He’s in a coma! He’s trapped in a wooded gully in his crashed car! He’s being interrogated at a CIA black site! (“Sorry … Mr. Jones is getting a series of painful electric shocks to his nipples right now and cannot come to the phone.”)
However, the best explanation for this man’s disappearance is probably textbook stuff — psych textbook, that is, and specifically a couple of personality traits.
One of these is “conscientiousness.” And the bad side of the spectrum is being “low in conscientiousness” — psychologists’ term for a person who is careless, irresponsible, impulsive and lacking in self-control, and who habitually ducks his obligations (as if they were flaming arrows).
The other trait is the unfortunately named “psychopathy.” Though it calls to mind shower-stabbing hobbyists, it doesn’t necessarily lead to murderous rampages. Still, it isn’t exactly the personality trait of angelic hospice nurses, as it’s marked by exploitiveness, aggression, poor impulse control, self-centeredness and a lack of empathy.
Low conscientiousness and psychopathy partner up into an inability or unwillingness to admit to being wrong. Apologizing takes emotional strength and character strength — the conscientiousness and empathy that leave the wrongdoer feeling borderline queasy until they come clean and express remorse to the person they hurt.
It isn’t just men who do the disappearo thing; it’s anyone low on conscientiousness. The problem is when love appears to be on the horizon, we want to believe more than we want to see. It’s helpful to take an almost pessimistic approach to any new relationship: Assume a man has flaws, figure out what they are, and decide whether any are deal breakers. This takes observing his behavior over time (at least a year) in a variety of situations, especially crisis situations. You want to know that when the chips are down, a man’ll have your back — and not just to use you as a human shield so the SWAT team snipers won’t pick him off.
Every photo my boyfriend takes of me is horrific (one eye kind of shut, bad angle of my face, etc.). My female friends take decent pictures of me, so it’s not like it’s impossible. I know my boyfriend loves me and thinks I’m beautiful. Could he be trying to keep other men from being attracted to me?
— Occasional Bride of Frankenstein
You’d think you wouldn’t have to give a man who loves you a detailed list of instructions for photographing you: “immediately erase any shots in which I look like I’m having a seizure or bear a strong resemblance to a surprised goat.”
In fact, you are far from alone in complaining that the man you love takes terrible pictures of you — or in worrying that it means something. However, this worry of yours probably comes out of what I call our mind’s neatfreakitude.
Research by cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests we get so itchy over mental chaos — being in a state of uncertainty about someone or something — that we’re quick to sweep aside inconsistencies and ignore missing information in service of creating a coherent narrative. And then (conveniently!) we turn right around and go with the story we’ve created — in this case, the suspicion that your boyfriend is plotting to make you look uggo in photographs.
The reality is if you aren’t a professional model being shot by a professional photographer, it sometimes takes dozens of shots to have even one you don’t want to delete in horror. (Shoot my long face from above, as my boyfriend sometimes forgets and does, and I look like a movie star — the horse that played Seabiscuit.)
Because men evolved to prioritize physical attractiveness in women and women coevolved to expect this, women are extremely sensitive to being photographed in ways that don’t show them off at their sparkliest. That’s probably why, if you glance at various 20-something women’s Instagram pages, you’ll see that many strike the very same pose in photo after photo (having figured out their exact best angle, to the micrometer). Sure, some men are as acutely sensitive about engineering their perfect pose — but mostly those whose work attire is a sequined evening dress, a ginormous feather boa and chandelier earrings the size of New Jersey.