We are a youth-centric society. According to the research, there is a tendency for us to prefer and protect younger looking and more intelligent and mentally flexible people. We often prefer the robust protector types for men, although they may acquire their “muscle” via status symbols with age as opposed to being big and burly.
Research also argues that there is something somewhat protective about “letting ourselves go” a bit when we couple up, because it reduces outside competition. Historically, this tended not to happen before marriage because until then anything could happen. In more recent decades, it has been happening more even before marriage, attributed to fewer people getting married and increased in common-law relationships.
Sometimes people stay really fit and healthy because they don’t actually feel fully emotionally and physically safe in a relationship. This means we would need to stay competitive in case we need to find an alternative mate at some point.
There is of course no single answer though, because it has also been found that people will remain fit and especially healthy to impress their mate’s peers in hopes that this will make their partner value them more. This does actually happen when the partner is not threatened by their mate’s success, but completely backfires if they are.
Neither letting ourselves go, nor staying ever-ready to switch mates seem like viable long term solutions. As we age, competition will necessarily get tougher, no matter how many status symbols men have or beauty creams, spanx and plastic surgeries women may have. From this lens, any intimate union, whether marriage or common-law, will inevitably become a loosing enterprise. Each partner will constantly feel they are on the verge of loosing the other.
The biggest problem with this is that we know operating out of fear activates the fight/ flight system, which has physical health implications (none good) and this is also when we tend to devalue what we think we may loose (ie. if you have ever been dating someone and as you felt them pulling away you started thinking “they aren’t so great!”). When our decisions are guided by fear, we become less flexible in our thinking, prone to more misunderstandings or misinterpretations and show less empathy for others. All because we are getting triggered into this state of self-preservation. The worst part is that from this state, we are more likely to have relationship difficulties, which really does put the relationship at risk and opens it up to “competitors”.
So it seems that as we age we are pooched…UNLESS there is a built in mechanism where when we INVEST in something or someone we value it more. Thankfully there is. Studies have consistently and repeatedly demonstrated that when we need to earn, work or invest in membership of a group we value it more. The CATCH is that we won’t invest unless we feel emotionally and physically safe.
- Emotionally safe means that we feel comfortable sharing our opinions, feelings, asking to have our needs met, having disagreements and agreeing to disagree. It also means that we can tolerate when other people close to us (those who are in our tribe) are upset. Tolerating this means that we don’t need to fix things, are able to validate and empathize, even when it is at us. It also encompasses how we present ourselves and our loved ones to the outside world. If you are talking to people about how they are never around, work too much, or drink too much, or if you are presenting yourself as flirtatious, it makes our partner’s feel unsafe. This is because how we talk about our loved ones primes or teaches others what filter to use when they interact with them, so if it is not a good one, we are setting our partners up for rejection or judgment.
- Physically safe means that we are free from violence, threats (incl. that you will leave when you are upset, or be kicked out, or divorce etc). It means that even when upset, drunk, in private or public, you don’t expose yourself or others to dangerous or potentially intimidating activities (like driving fast when angry, throwing things, getting in people’s faces and yelling, making threatening gestures etc). It also means that we have our basic needs for shelter and protection met. We are confident our tribe will have our backs & protect us.
When we DO have both of these elements, it transforms the relationship and it no longer matters that there are smarter, better looking, richer, stronger, healthier potential mates around. We can see them but they don’t matter because they are always going to be less valued than OUR mate.
Imagine you go to the circus and see some incredibly talented 7 year old acrobats. They are really talented! When you turn to look at your kids, most of us don’t look at them and think, geez, maybe I should trade them in, or “what a disappointment”. Instead we can appreciate the acrobats talents and still be incomparably enamoured with our own kids at the same time, because it is not a competition. No matter what anyone else can offer, it could not compare to the value of our own kids. When we both INVEST in our relationship and work to establish and maintain emotional and physical safety, competition disappears and with it the fear disappears.
Without fear, we become free to make mistakes, to focus on the things we enjoy in life (including our mate) rather than what we are trying to avoid. It allows us to tolerate and ignore the insecurities of increasing competition. This allows us to remain flexible, creative and healthier- which increases our chances of overall survival. Also when we feel safe we naturally take better care of ourselves (mentally and physically), have fewer miscommunications and report higher overall life satisfaction.
So, cole’s notes, invest in your relationships, whether they are romantic partnerships or close friendships, work to make them emotionally and physically safe and reap the rewards!
Note: This post was informed by research presented in “Last Ape Standing”