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​Calculated Love

Love and Marriage | December 17th, 2014

I read a fascinating article in The New York Times called “Rethinking Eating” by news analyst Kate Murphy. It equated cooking to sex. What Ms. Murphy wrote was that “like cooking, sex is messy and a lot of trouble … food, like sex, (being) fraught with emotional, psychological, social, cultural, gender and religious associations …(and) sharing a meal (also being) how we establish and maintain relationships.” How true this is.

What’s also true is that I can adore food. When well-crafted from fine ingredients and full of taste and flavor, food is right up there. I also know that my passionate feelings about food can be dangerous in the absence of intention. Why? It’s because, given my metabolism, all I have to do to gain weight is look at food – eating isn’t required.

Food is often used as a tool to aid understanding. Some people, for example, say that you are what you eat. Though perhaps not as interesting as equating food and sex, this idea also provokes thought since, if true, you’d probably be pretty selective about your eating choices.

For some, selecting from among many menu choices is relatively easy. But for those who think of food as more than just fuel, these decisions become more complicated. This is because, when you order, getting fed isn’t the only variable you consider. You also want to be happy with your meal when it’s over. And it’s this – trying to pick among many items to find a single, happy choice – that can make ordering decisions tough.

You, of course, make many decisions in “the menu of life,” most being far more important than what to eat at any given meal. And while food may or may not define you, your other decisions do. Psychologists know this and typically assume that different kinds of people make different kinds of decisions – your decisions reflecting your needs, values, desires and preferences.

Even as food is like sex, choosing from a dining menu is actually a lot like love and marriage: both ask you to pick that one, happy choice. If you’ve ever searched the Internet for your “soul mate,” you know this. Enroll in eHarmony or Match and your “menu options” are presented directly to you. And as with food, you’ll have preferences that guide you as you scrutinize those in the personal menu alternatives offered. But unlike a page-limited food menu, the love and marriage menu you scan is not finite. You can always click further. You can always look for yet another among those listed, never knowing if the one before you is “the best.”

In “The Paradox of Choice” psychologist Barry Schwartz notes that having more possibilities makes things worse, not better -- so many possibilities often making it almost impossible to choose. And while this is true for most who Internet date, it’s not true for all. For those who are “food is fuel” kind of lovers, choosing is actually easy. Just sign up for Tinder, type your 500 characters and voila! Your lover appears. I’m talking fast food here!

As a psychologist, I’m often asked to help with decisions. Should I change jobs, get married, divorced, have children or find new love are often questions I find before me. And though it may surprise you, I don’t typically answer these questions for anyone – they are questions that only you can answer.

Absent my specific answers, what I do provide is an intelligent approach that can define the best answer for you. And while this approach is often useful in all life choices, it can be particularly useful when it comes to making good decisions about love and marriage. The approach I advocate is to “calculate love.”

Unfortunately the idea of calculating love is typically maligned -- it evokes a picture of manipulation and deceit. And while I’d never refute the idea that this kind of predatory calculated love exists, this isn’t at all what I’m advocating. What I’m recommending is that you approach your relationship choices a lot more like how you might scan a food menu. Why? It’s because down the road you want to be satisfied with whom you picked for your “relationship meal.” Here’s what I mean.

Picking a satisfying entrée is a multifaceted decision involving many variables. Scanning a menu, you have to ask yourself many questions as you try to predict your satisfaction at meal’s end. Will I like this preparation? Am I a fan of the ingredients? What does it cost? Is it vegan or gluten-free?

But as you consider these variables, trying to predict your future happiness, they’re not all the same. Some will be more important to you than others. So what happens is that you, without knowing it, end up developing a mental “prediction equation” that weighs the options as you decide. And, though sounding strange, this is exactly the same thing that you do in your relationship choices.

Getting relationship-specific and asking you not to freak, here’s a snapshot of what your personal relationship prediction equation looks like:

Ix1 + Ix2 + Ix3 + Ixn = y where “x” is a lover characteristic you want, “I” is the importance of each of these characteristics to you and “y” is the relationship happiness you’re trying to predict.

So again using food as an example, if gluten is important to you then your “I” value for it may be 95 out of 100. If price is important, but gluten isn’t, then gluten gets an “I” of 5 while price gets an “I” of 90.

And this has relationship importance how? It’s because figuring out all of the x’s and I’s in your personal equations will allow you to predict anything – whether happiness with a meal or with a lover – with high accuracy. This is what I mean by calculating love. You sit down and figure out what’s important and how important it’s going to be to you so that down the road you’re still happy with the relationship choice you made.

Today’s tip: Be calculating about love and determine your personal relationship prediction equation. Use relationship satisfaction as the “y” you want to predict. Then think about the x’s you’re looking for in a lover that will sustain your love and happiness. Brains? Beauty? Brawn? Wealth? Emotional intelligence? Communication skill? Religious similarity? Develop your own list of x’s or brainstorm possibilities with friends.

Next complete your personal relationship happiness equation by defining the importance of each of your x’s from 1 – 100. And if this all sounds too unfeeling make sure that you add love or passion as an “x” and give it high importance value.

In doing this, be honest with yourself and project yourself into the future -- though you might really want a party animal now, maybe not so much later in life. Work carefully since unlike a meal that can be easily eliminated -- another only hours away -- partnered love cannot. With calculations complete you’re now ready to look at those “menu options” and search for someone whom you’re truly hungry for.

[Editor's note: Richard A. Kolotkin, Ph.D., is a professor in psychology at MSUM, licensed psychologist with a practice in Moorhead, and author of "The Insightful Marriage: What You Really Need to Know and Do to be Happily Married" which is available for Kindle and Nook.]

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