Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Compromising is rational

I'm growing my hair out. I've gone back and forth on my hair length a million times and usually what happens is that I start trying to grow it out and then I get so annoyed with it that I decide to just cut it all off (for any readers who don't really understand what I'm talking about: long hair is great if it's long enough to pull up, out of my face and off my neck, but there's always an in-between stage where your hair is long enough to get in the way but too short to put up - that's the point where I usually get impatient and just cut it off). But this time, I'm trying to stick it out and put up with the in-between stage. Why? Because my boyfriend likes long hair (by the way, what is up with guys and long hair?). But the other night, when I made some comment about growing out my hair, my boyfriend said, "Are you doing that because I said I think you'd look good with longer hair?" and my instant, knee-jerk reaction was to say, "No, of course not!" I mean, god forbid I do something for him that I wouldn't choose to do on my own, right? Of course, growing out my hair is a pretty minor thing but it's slippery slope - today, it's my hair; tomorrow, who knows?

I know I'm particularly sensitive about this because in past relationships, I have often suppressed my own needs, trying to be whatever I thought would make the guy like me more. And in a lot of cases, I would convince myself that whatever it was I was doing, I was doing just as much for me as for him (case in point: I actually DID enjoy hiking several miles every weekend but the fact that I haven't done it a single time since Mr. Outdoors Guy moved away tells me something about my real motivation). But over the last several years, being single has allowed me to do exactly what I want to do without worrying about anyone else's opinion or feelings and this allowed me to discover what I truly want/like/need, in a way that I know I couldn't really figure out while in a relationship.

But my knee-jerk reaction to my boyfriend's comment about my hair got me thinking about compromises. One of the core principles of economics is that rational people make decisions by comparing costs and benefits - if the benefits outweigh the costs, then you do it; if the benefits are less than the costs, then you don't. That may sound incredibly obvious but I have often found it a powerful aide in making sense of other people's behavior. If someone does something that I don't understand, I ask myself what benefit could they be getting from that action, or is it that they do not perceive the costs in the same way I do? Usually, this helps me get to a place where, even if I don't agree with the choice, I can at least understand it.

Unsurprisingly, I also tend to apply cost-benefit analysis in my own life, sometimes in ways that I'm sure seem strange to other people. And while it may not sound very romantic, I've found that thinking about my relationship in terms of costs and benefits can be helpful. Like the costs and benefits of cutting my hair - in the past, I've always gotten to a point where the costs of dealing with it outweighed the benefits and so I cut it off. But now, although the costs are basically the same, there is an added benefit, i.e., my boyfriend thinking I look good. And that's enough to tip the scale toward continuing to grow it out. The totally geeky, economist way to put it is that we have interdependent utility functions - his happiness contributes to my happiness and vice versa. I think the trick to not going overboard, to not compromising so much that I feel like I'm only doing something because of him, is having a rock-solid understanding of what MY costs and benefits really are before I start factoring him in. So yeah, I guess you could say that I am growing out my hair "because of him" but that doesn't mean I've suddenly become a spineless, irrational ninny.


The Singlutionary said...

some compromises are easy. its just hair. for me, hair isn't a big deal. its good to compromise on the easy stuff.

Anonymous said...

"If someone does something that I don't understand, I ask myself what benefit could they be getting from that action, or is it that they do not perceive the costs in the same way I do? Usually, this helps me get to a place where, even if I don't agree with the choice, I can at least understand it."

I love it! I'm going to try to do this with people who weave in and out of traffic on I-66.

I have succumbed to the in-between stage and chopped of my hair MANY MANY times. I recently managed to make it past that stage and can now do a ponytail or pinchy clip. I almost always have my hair up--one because it feels neater and two because I think I look worse with long hair. It makes my cheeks look puffy.

So yes, what IS it with guys and long hair? Even though long hair definitely does not suit my face as much as short hair, all my guy friends prefer me with long hair (I've been polling). My theory: men are trained to prefer long hair, as if it's not masculine to prefer short hair, or as if preferring short hair is somehow homoerotic. This is just my theory. I have no facts and figures to back it up. That's the most fun way to make theories!

Great post, thanks.

Clever Elsie said...

Believe it or not, the cost-benefit model actually has been applied to interpersonal relationships. I'm pretty sure it's called Rusbult's investment model of relationships, but don't quote me on that.

The way I see it, there's nothing wrong with doing something that makes your significant other happy as long as it's not something that bothers you. Every day, we do things for other people that we might not have done if we didn't know they'd find our efforts helpful, humorous, reassuring, comforting, encouraging, uplifting, or whatever. Why should we not make the same efforts for a romantic partner? It's true that it's easier to lose yourself in a romantic relationship than in other kinds of relationships, but that doesn't have to be the outcome.

I think a good rule of thumb is that it's okay to do something for your partner as long as you don't dislike it. If it's not your first choice or your favorite thing, well, so what? Life isn't designed to be one long series of favorite experiences. The danger is when you find yourself doing things you don't want to do, things you actually don't like just for someone else.

Btw, most of my boyfriends have preferred my hair long, too. I once heard guys prefer long hair because it's a sign of youth and health. Since a lot of the physical features men are attracted to are said to also be indicators of those two things, I guess it makes sense.

Ellie said...

Have the hair YOU want.

Jenn said...

@Singlutionary: hair isn't a big deal to me either but part of what I'm struggling with is the slippery slope - at what point is something a big enough deal that compromising isn't easy?
@onely: I actually HAVE applied my economist mindset to idiot drivers - I tell myself that maybe that jerk is actually frantically trying to get to the hospital where his wife is in labor, and it does help!
@CleverElsie: You're so right. I don't think I've ever done anything I actively don't WANT to do - it's often stuff that I'm sort of indifferent about. I do worry about what will happen when the compromises start having higher stakes (like, if we eventually move in together, how much independence am I OK with giving up?) but am trying to take things one day at a time.