Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Too Much Tomato Soup, or Cognitive Bias & Curvy Edges

Have you heard of the More Exposure Effect? It's one of our best-loved biases as humans. It's the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them. It explains why you (probably) love Heinz tomato soup, and would actively choose it over another generic supermarket brand. You've probably had more Heinz tomato soup in your life overall then other generic brands, and now you associate Heinz with what canned tomato soup actually is.

So, of course, this got me thinking about relationships. Tenuous allegorical link incoming.

What if you've only had quite a lot of one kind of tomato soup, and you get stuck thinking that's the only kind of soup out there? (I watched the soup nazi episode of Seinfeld recently, that must be where all these soup metaphors are coming from. I'll stop with that now.)

This past year and a half I've had to re-evaluate so hard, with so much effort, what kind of relationship I'd like, or need. I've been a newly single woman, after being in successive relationships basically since the age of 15,  heading towards her mid-30s. Just writing that line makes me feel neurotic. And yet I'm not. This year (well, now 18 months of self-discovery and singular alone-ness) has been some of the most life affirming time I've spent. Of course much of it has been in the company of others, but really, mostly in my own company. And I've lived a lot of life-affirming moments. But usually as part of a couple.

I know that I have an innate desire to be paired up with someone - my own bias, I admit. I like time on my own, and I value my independence fiercely, but there's something in me that needs to be tactile, needs to hear the breathing of another, needs to look into someone's eyes before the lights go out. I'm someone who finds joy in making breakfast for two, who likes to think about what the other would like to do, or see, or watch, who lives for planning unplanned road trips and weekend breaks, who wants to touch, and smell, and taste the other person in their life, living moments with their hands in my hair, and our legs intertwined on the sofa, and cooking soup, or singing, or dancing together. I actually quite like having private jokes, knowing looks and winks shared only between us. I would hate to be one of the "smug marrieds" but I think I'd make a pretty excellent matching jigsaw piece for someone. You know, with the weird curvy edges.

However,  I'm fairly sure that this bias for the familiar, for the neatly sewn-up, for the happily ever after, has caused me to outstay many a welcome in less-than-healthy relationships. Sure, I've learned something from every guy I've been with, and I hope I've taught them things too. But my former need to be paired - like my less-than-reliable cheap bluetooth speaker - has meant that maybe I've missed facing the music. (Another terrible analogy. I can only apologise). What I'm trying to articulate is that I finally feel like I can be alone, and I can be OK with that. It doesn't make me a failure, even as a woman of 34 years old who has many,  many paired-up friends. And although my lovers might come and go, I'm not going to try to "catch" one or hold on to him to meet some kind of former standard, or some societal norm. No, he shall remain out of my road trip plans, and out of my bed, unless his crazy matches my crazy, big time. And right now, I feel more likely to be able to spot a true kindred spirit, by knowing myself better than I might ever have done, at a hundred paces.

And that feels like growth, and it feels as good as making someone soup. But not tomato soup.