Afternoon Inquisition

AI: The Hazards of Love

A few weeks ago, I put out a public request for AI topic ideas. I got a couple responses, one of which I used that day. Another suggestion stood out to me as something worthy of asking regardless of whether or not I was in a pinch. We’ve had plenty of discussions in the past regarding the institutions with which people involve themselves in the name of love. However, I couldn’t recall whether or not we had ever talked about the feeling itself in relation to one’s skepticism.

At any rate, thank you Jared (aka Expatria) for the topic!


“ […] and yet, to say the truth, reason and
love keep little company together now-a-days”
-Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III Scene I

We’ve all been there. You find a special someone, and he/she becomes the apple of your eye. You convince yourself the feeling is mutual, thinking “Of COURSE this is right! We SHOULD be together… she/he feels the same way! This is the start of something great!”

And then, you get rejected.

Maybe there were warning signs that it would never have worked. Maybe your friends cautioned you against going for it. Maybe you even had second thoughts… but you ignored them because, to quote Death Cab for Cutie, “You shouldn’t think what you’re feeling.”

Or should you?

When it comes to matters of the heart, are skeptics any better at coping with breakups or rejections than non-skeptics? Or do the rational and the emotional occupy separate spheres? Can you look rationally at a relationship, real or potential, or is reason simply not satisfying to the heart?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Chelsea is the proud mama of an amazing toddler-aged girl. She works in the retail industry while vehemently disliking mankind and, every once in a while, her bottled-up emotions explode into WordPress as a lengthy, ranty, almost violent blog. These will be your favorite Chelsea moments. Follow Chelsea on Twitter: chelseaepp.

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  1. Uh not only no, but HELL NO!

    In hearing stories from friends, and in some dealings myself, I have found that skeptics are no better at the emotional/romantic stuff than anyone else.

    Except they think they are.

  2. YAY, thanks Chelsea! Glad you liked the topic :)

    For me, reason has the potential to HELP prevent a mistake, but it can do little to nothing to alleviate any of the feelings said mistake might cause!

    I don’t think skepticism helps me too much in this regard. I guess it helps with recognizing confirmation bias in how I might interpret the signals a lady might be giving me. But by then the emotional investment is probably a sunk cost, and the recognition of biases doesn’t seem to be able to help it hurt any less when something just isn’t meant to be :(

  3. Recent break up for a very good reason. I know that it was a very good reason. But it doesn’t stop me from being heart broken. So can we have both?

  4. I am horrible at dating. I tend to break hearts. D: I’ve gotten quite good at it … and that’s not good. So I’ve made the decision that right now, being single is best. Because I don’t like hurting people.

    So basically, skeptick or not, I suck at love.

  5. Being rational makes my relationships different, but not necessarily better.

    I try to be completely honest and straightforward in every relationship, not just the romantic ones. Most people just don’t take hints well, and I think it’s almost always better to just tell them what you want. I don’t know if this counts as skepticism or just wisdom though.

    I don’t care about “romance” at all, and I never have. It seems like a lot of romantic things are really just expensive, useless items that have been marketed in a way that people believe you prove your love by wasting money. I also don’t ever want to do something simply because it’s always been done that way. Personally, I’d be much more impressed by a man who was smart and bought twice as much candy on Feb. 15 when it’s half-price, than by a man who wasted a bunch of money on some shiny useless trinket that I can enjoy for a few minutes until I get bored of staring at it.

    Periodically, I make a point to really think about what I want from a relationship. In keeping with my first point, I try to be clear about my intentions with any man I date. For example, I don’t want to get married right now and probably not within the next few years. If I meet a guy who is looking for marriage, it just doesn’t make sense for us to start a romantic relationship.

    Because I don’t really care about “tradition”, I don’t feel the need to have a husband just because. When I consider marriage and what kind of standards to have, the most important question is, “Is marrying this guy better or worse than being single forever?”

    I also don’t think of divorce or break-ups as the most horrible outcome possible. I think of romantic relationships the same way as friendships. It’s great if they last forever, but if it’s just over, what’s the point of continuing a shame relationship? Of course it’s sad and hard to go through, but I think it’s even more sad to keep up the facade of a relationship and both people lose the opportunity to look for something that is more right for them. I would want my husband to stay because he wants to, and not because of a legal contract or social pressure.

  6. I have atheist skeptical friends with really long successful marriages and some quite religious friends with the same kinds of good long lasting relationships. Conversely the failure rate seems about the same in both camps. But what seems to work for both types is also the same. A capacity to nurture a foundation of friendship, mutual respect and not being self absorbed seems to be what makes things work. Granted that’s not what gets things started typically, but if you are willing to be a good friend I would think the opposite sex would find that attractive. And what worked in my marriage still works after I de-converted from my religious beliefs a number of years ago.

  7. Omg this is a hard one.

    My ex girlfriend and I had a very rational relationship, and a very realistic discourse about the fate of our relationship (like we may not even be in the same country 3 years from now, it’s possible we won’t be together anymore).

    But I tell you what, this discourse crashes whenever there is any challenge. In the end you will crumble, no matter what. Not forever, but it’s like you never saw it coming. Because in fact, you never really believed it would end, you couldn’t. That would have made your love and the concept of fidelity pointless, see?

    So love is far more basic than any skeptic tendency. Rationality is not natural, it must fight to survive. Love will find it’s own way.

    Note that I may change my mind if I fall in love again, because in this situation, I could convince myself of anything, if not careful.

    That’s all for that little experienced based thesis.

  8. In my case at least breaking up is like lifting weights. Eventually you build calluses that make it easier. The first few times I was dumped I thought my world would end and I found it almost as hard to dump someone. But after awhile it didn’t bother me when a woman didn’t want to see me anymore and I could just as easily tell a woman that I wasn’t interested in her anymore.

  9. I’d say no. My wife and I discovered Skepticism together (while we were engaged) and it hasn’t changed anything in our relationship other than our ability to argue better :)
    But in the past, while I wasn’t necessarily a “skeptic” I tried to be as observant and “rational” towards others’ feelings (and my own) as possible. Didn’t help.

  10. I’ve only had one serious girlfriend for about a year and three months , and one sorta serious on-and-off-but-never-girlfriend for almost two years.

    First girlfriend relationship? Inexperience is a horrible thing. First year of college. A lot of fighting, heartbreak, different views. I was also religious at that time, and in the process of recognizing that my issues with religion stemmed from my lack of belief and inconsistencies of Catholic doctrine. Being heartbroken was different then than now, but mostly because I’ve gained a lot of experience and as Gabrielbrawley said, because you grow calluses (I usually think of it as thickening tree bark from scarring, but to each his (or her) own).

    It’s still hard. Especially because I have horrible tendency to go for, and occasionally end up with, people who are already in relationships (no, my experience is not limited to those two women, though they were both in relationships when we started going out). I know it’s not normally socially acceptable, but my morality indicates that it’s perfectly fine to go for what you want in most cases, so I do. Starting from behind isn’t easy, and thus usually leads to the other person staying in their relationship. I understand that to be one of the perils of my mostly unintentional modus operandi.

    Fuck yes, it still hurts. It’s no fun to be left alone, especially by someone you really like. But I think you learn to recognize the ride for what it is. I think it’s not as much a skepticism thing as a wisdom thing (though I do not claim to be wise) to gain the ability to distance yourself from the situation when evaluating it.

    I can usually recognize that what I feel is irrational. Doesn’t stop me from feeling it, wanting to act upon it, or sometimes acting upon it. “Fuck it”, no pun intended, is a perfectly valid response to some situations.

  11. @heidiho AND @loudlyquiet: I think you both make good points. Many skeptics tend to have a problem solving mentality, entering a relationship like its an equation: PERSON+PERSON=COMFORT+EMOTIONALSUPPORT
    People who are too focused tend to miss out on opportunities (tip o’ the hat to Richard Wiseman) because they’re thinking too hard about one thing and ignoring others. Focusing and thinking tends to be what we skeptics are good at. So I think you’re right, heidiho, those skeptics, who think that they can just balance the equation, won’t do any better than anyone else.

    loudlyquiet also makes a good point. It hurts to be in a failed relationship but that pain is a valuable teacher. Analyzing our mistakes and not ignoring them is what makes us better people in life as well as love.

  12. Having Asperger’s pretty much means I am utterly incompetent at the whole dating/love thing; so basically, when I want to go for it, I must do so almost blindly. That technique has actually worked out pretty well for me so far.

    “But Papa, here in death,
    I have regained my breath
    to sing, oh,
    the hazards of love!”

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

  13. @Mully410:
    I would reply to your cynicism with:
    love = instinct

    Its an instinct, an addictive and potentially rewarding instinct. One in which I am more than happy to participate.

  14. i have been blessed/cursed with a highly dualistic brain: i feel things very strongly and deeply, and i am also highly rational. both forces are strong, and when they agree, it’s wonderful. when they disagree, i find myself struggling to rectify the two.

    i can’t say whether looking at things rationally has helped me or hindered me in relationships, but i can say that my logic and emotion definitely inform each other.

  15. @carr2d2: I think rational thinking can help in relationships if you’ve developed the necessary social skills that may be likened to dancing. Some people are good dancers regardless of their capacity for rational and logical thought processes and some dancers are dumb as rocks. Better to be good at both I suppose. (caution analogy fail imminent)

  16. I think rationality can help in relationships, but love can be a very irrational emotion. I don’t want it to be reduced to formulas. Nor do I want to it to justify every crazy act.

    It’s a balancing act, I guess.

  17. If it’s any indication of whether I think love has to be rational, my husband and I married a month and a half into dating. That being said, and considering that rationality ≠ skepticism necessarily, it does come in handy sometimes as far as maintaining the relationship (if you’re having to be skeptical of your relationship or partner, there is something wrong).

    Being skeptical about some things doesn’t necessarily make anyone safe from the irrationality of love or other strong emotions.

  18. NPR’s Radio Lab had an episode called Choice (so worth listening to!) which showed that an entirely rational mind is actually terrible at making choices. A man with a brain injury that rendered him Spock-like couldn’t even choose between a black and blue pen, or which cereal to buy, much less maintain a relationship.

    I think skeptics are fooling themselves if they think being purely rational is better than the combination of rational + emotional. As in emotionally intelligent, not hysterical.

  19. Speaking as someone who has acted like a total psycho in past relationships, I’m going to say that the emotional generally trumps the rational in matters of the heart. That is, until a little time has passed and you’ve emptied a few bottles of gin.

    I have noticed that my ability to cope with problems in all types of relationships has improved, and I would definitely attribute that to a bump in my reason-meter. If nothing else, it has forced me to be really honest with myself. I have been married for almost four years now (we are both recently-minted skeptics). We both still respond to problems emotionally, but the path out, via rational thought, is much clearer than it used to be.

    I will add that we had what you might consider an emotional start to things. We haven’t really spent a night apart since we met, so one could argue that we are still on our first date (I know, barf).

  20. Really ironic that this should show up now, as I’m the new proud owner of a breakup this morning.

    And no, I handle these very poorly. I’m rationally aware of the warning signs, but I still just want to crawl in bed and cry.

  21. I don’t know if it is the skeptic in me but knowing my track record of 1 failed 3 year relationship I’m constantly second guessing my heart and my chances. I’ve felt the pain of heartache a couple of times, I know it is a small sample size but it doesn’t make it easier to try the next time.

    I would say that even now I’m weighing whether or not I should I even have a chance, or if I would make a fool of myself with a good friend potentially making things uncomfortable. You could say I’m overly skeptical of my prospects.

  22. Absolutely, positively not.

    I get carried away very easily not just in this regard but in most. I also have a very short span of attenti… ooh, a dog!

  23. Skepticism saved my life. Skepticism took away my reason to believe that life was part of a grand narrative. When I believed my life was part of a big story then a break up could be “wrong” as if I’d gotten the wrong script.

    Skepticism introduced to me to the idea that life had the meaning you gave it and not an intrinsic meaning that could be missed.

    That gave me a way to view breakup besides failure.

  24. @Nicole: That’s because I’m a friggin genius. ;-)

    And yeah, long distance is tough. My husband (fiance at the time) and I had to do this while I was in college, and it sucked bad. I still have bad dreams about it. Literally. I don’t think people should make a habit of it. Unless, of course, they don’t like their partner that much…

  25. Oy, I have no clue. I have no ability of reading when a woman likes me more than a “just friends” kind of thing and as a result I tend to not make attempts at asking them out. As such I have never been accepted, rejected, in a “Of COURSE this is right! We SHOULD be together… she/he feels the same way! This is the start of something great!” sort of relationship, or broken up.

  26. Um…it doesn’t happen often…as a matter of fact, its only happened 2x in my life, but, when I do get hit with infatuaction, I become a quivering pile of jello. I have no control over my emotions, and I can’t think right. However, both of the times I did that, it ended badly.

    After this last guy and I stopped seeing each other, and I got over my infatuation, we continued to be friends. Then, after a discussion about old wives tales, I proved myself right, and he defriended me on facebook. I went apesh*t, and left facebook for a week. I haven’t seen him since, and, on one hand, I don’t want to see him, talk about him, think about him, but on the other hand, if some unlucky twist of fate were to befall him, I’d want to know….does that make me mean/evil/a bad person?

    Also, after ALL this happened, I started thinking about some of the stuff that he had said during this span, and I realized, I let him say some pretty rude things, like he basically made fun of me for having to submit to a landlord, while he owns his place. Bear in mind, this guy is over 40, and I’m just 25-30.

  27. I’m thinking that a commitment to rational thought at some level is necessary for two (or more!) people to get along. If conflict arises and two people devolve to “I feel I’m right!” and “But I feel your wrong”, that conflict is unlikely to get resolved. It might become tolerated but with a solid lump of resentment thrown in somewhere. However, if people are willing to accept that they “feel” a particular way for some reason, they can then discuss what that reason might be. Rationality becomes a mutually accepted standard against which those reasons are weighed to resolve the conflict.

  28. I consider myself a hopeless romantic.
    I suck at dating, and probably at relationships too. And lack of experience is only going to make this problem worse as time passes and people expect me to have a certain knowledge of how relationships work.
    But I can’t help myself …

    I don’t care about “romance” at all, and I never have. It seems like a lot of romantic things are really just expensive, useless items that have been marketed in a way that people believe you prove your love by wasting money.

    I think you have a completely wrong idea of what constitutes romantic gestures. In fact, I’d almost dare to say that you’ve never really experienced something truly romantic if capitalistic consumerism is what you think romance is about.

    Romantic stuff is anything that’s thoughtful and meaningful. It’s not about spending shitloads of money on useless crap. Quite the opposite, it’s doing or giving someone something that shows you have listened to them, know them thoroughly, and took the time to do something special just for them.

    This could be expensive jewelry, but it could just as easily be slightly burned waffles and watery chocolate milk for breakfast.
    What truly is romantic is anything you feel is a sign of somebody’s attention to your happiness.
    Anything else is just a badly veiled attempt at buying your affection.

    … I’m constantly second guessing my heart and my chances.

    I think this is my flaw as well. Being skeptical/rational on matters that are supposed to be strictly emotional, you miss out on opportunities because you overthink an issue instead of just doing the irrational thing: take the plunge and see where you end up. On a few occasions, persistence, or at the very least having the guts to make the first move despite my reservations, has made a girl realize “hey, perhaps this guy and me could be good together?” where before the thought hadn’t even occured.

    Of course, a second downside to constant skepticism is that it’s really hard to build up trust once you have a relationship, which is exactly what you need for it to work.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many nerdy people are skeptics (or is it vice-versa?). It’s a similar mindset anyway. And I wouldn’t be surprised if awkwardness in relationships and romance are thus prevalent among skeptics because of this excessive rationalisation.

  29. Love is something I have never really understood; which probably explains why I’m still single. Well, sort of single. I have been in a relationship with someone for almost three years. It is not the perfect relationship that I’d always wanted, and there’s a lot about it that would boggle the mind.

    It’s more like FWB but I have loved this guy since we met almost six years ago. He’s not the ideal man I’ve had in mind, but he has this great geeky mind that I adore. There is so much more about him I cannot explain even to myself. There is nothing rational about our relationship other than we love each other. But even that can’t be considered all that rational.

  30. No, it doesn’t seem to be any easier. I know that there aren’t “soul mates” and I don’t think we were “destined to be together.” I know I’ll eventually find someone else, I know I’ll be happy again.

    But despite approaching the situation as rationally as possible, I am still profoundly unhappy with the situation.

    I know there are hundreds of millions of people in worse situations. That billions of people have gone through similar things.

    None of it makes it any easier.

    Being Skeptical isn’t being immune to emotion.

  31. I’ve had all kinds of love-based relationships, and I have to say that if a skeptic expects to have things last longer than 1 or 2 years, then s/he has to find someone who doesn’t take things personally, is not intimidated easily, has a similar sense of humor and truly appreciates those who are strongly curious about the world around them.
    I don’t think skeptics are any better or worse than others in relationships. No particular advantage.
    Shouldn’t there be a For Dummies book on care and feeding of skeptics?

  32. I’ve had all kinds of love-based relationships, and I have to say that if a skeptic expects to have things last longer than 1 or 2 years, then s/he has to find someone who doesn’t take things personally, is not intimidated easily, has a similar sense of humor and truly appreciates those who are strongly curious about the world around them.
    I don’t think skeptics are any better or worse than others in relationships. No particular advantage. And when you break up, are there “best practices” or something that says you did a “good job” of breaking up? (I mean other than not committing a crime LOL)
    Shouldn’t there be a For Dummies book on care and feeding of skeptics?

  33. @loudlyquiet:
    Indeed! LOL

    I’ve had a change of heart on this. If a person is truly skeptical, shouldn’t s/he welcome a change that puts the relationship closer to the truth? Let’s say you DO get involved with a person and s/he decides to pull the ol’ “it’s not you, it’s me” routine. What a great opportunity to test that statement. If the problem truly is the other person, you’ve done yourself a great service and you should cheer him/her out the door with a clear conscience!
    If not, and you find that perhaps the evidence suggests YOU are more of the problem than your soon-to-be ex, then you can celebrate inwardly knowing that you have found a bit of truth in an otherwise messy situation. You’ve gathered data that will help you in the future. Again, cheer him/her out the door with well wishes and keep in mind that there is a person who is “too smart for their own good” who will find you on the Internet through your posts on Skepchick.

  34. The reason I found myself as a Skeptic and Humanist is probably due to a love that didn’t eventuate for myself.A warm natural good natured lady I knew and fell for was (as I found out in the early stages of a relationship with her)swayed by star signs,full moon and general woo which I feel she grabbed hold on to, so as to really want a better life for herself.Long story short she spent several hundred dollars to see a psychic who gave her some insight into her future and bugger me I didn’t get a mention by this psychic,so she had to let me down gently and alas we were good together and now its a case of “if only”but it was her decision and I feel she is living in a mixed up reality of her life,we talk occasionally,but I could not ever be in a relationship with her again,I will support her if needed as she has had a terrible life to live.At the end of the day we cant change people as much as I would love too spend a lifetime with her,she is mixed up and confused but she truly believes what a woo person has told her about her life and she is allowing what they say to control her life it is bizarre to me but , so I move on and I wouldn’t be writing this if all this didn’t happen so to everyone in the skeptic and critical thinking community all I can say is “thank-you”

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