Willard Waller was a sociologist who coined the phrase “The Principle of Least Interest.” It simply states that the person who has the least interest in continuing a relationship has the greatest power. Waller developed the theory after observing many dating couples at Penn State, where he noticed that romantic partners usually had unequal degrees of emotional involvement. He claimed that if the inequity became too large, one partner would be in a position to exploit the other emotionally. It’s a variation on supply and demand theory. In fact, although the concept was articulated specifically to relate to relationships, it has over time become an economic principle as well, applied frequently to negotiation and marketing strategy.
In her recent book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle cites Waller’s research and applies it to the hookup culture. She states that in the college hookup scene, men are the least interested in participating in exclusive relationships. They perceive that they have many women to choose from, and therefore have “no need to hold onto” one particular woman. In contrast, women in her study were focused on trying to turn hookups into boyfriends. Bogle sees this as an extension of the idea that women’s “clocks are ticking” while men “have all the time in the world.” For that reason, the imbalance continues past the college years. Women well into their 20s express frustration at guys’ general unwillingness to be in a committed relationship.
While there are exceptions, this means that most women enter new romantic encounters in a one-down position. I am consistently amazed at how even guys who are not sweet believe that they hold all the cards. They act like sex gods, assuming that women are trying to trap them into relationships. Perhaps they’re right. Overhearing a conversation on New Year’s Eve, I was struck by the general agreement among a group of girls that “boyfriends are ugly.” Again, there are exceptions, but there was definitely consensus that many girls “date down” in order to secure a commitment, even if temporary. To add insult to injury, many women tolerate boyfriends who treat them badly and are crap in the sack.
What are the options available to women who want to be in control of their personal relationships?
- Hard to Get, i.e. The Rules
The most common approach is for women to play hard to get, casting themselves in the role of Least Interested Party to gain the upper hand. The theory goes that by seeming difficult to attain, men will put forth more effort. The problem with this approach is that once the woman allows herself to be “caught,” she either becomes easy to hold onto (and is right back where she started), or must constantly play a game of one upsmanship to keep the guy interested.
Another popular strategy is for women to stop wasting time on the guys who don’t want something real. He’s Just Not That Into You, so don’t waste the pretty. This approach has several advantages. You don’t waste as much time. You become known as a girl who can’t be dicked around. You are not constantly getting crushed by jerks. On the other hand, this approach can lead straight to the dating desert. You don’t waste time with jerks, but where are the great guys who want to date? Guys know you won’t hook up randomly, so you find yourself ignored at a party. You may not be getting dumped, but life sure gets boring when there is no guy intrigue or boy drama.
If you control your own behavior, you have more control overall. No one can exploit you without your cooperation.
- Make sure that your level of interest is no greater than his. You will have more power if you are truly less interested, not just pretending indifference. Keep your level of emotional investment “appropriate” to the circumstances. The kiss of death: being needy, eager, too serious early on. Don’t go there. Take it slow.
- Develop a “walk-away” position. You know what you are willing to do, and what you will not tolerate. You are prepared to respect your own limits. When the other person crosses that line, you walk. For this strategy to be effective, it is very important that you clearly articulate your expectations in advance. If he doesn’t know what your dealbreakers are, he will be unable to honor them. On the other hand, if he understands the limits and doesn’t observe them, he is telling you clearly that he is not prepared to give you what you want. Once you have made your dealbreakers clear, you MUST see it through. If you cave, you will be in a weaker position than ever.
- Be independent. Act like a free agent when you are one. Don’t be exclusive with someone who has not agreed to be exclusive with you. Make a point of spending time with other guys, whether you want to or not. This is NOT about trying to make someone jealous. Do not flirt with his good friends. Go out and meet guys that he doesn’t know. Develop friendships and relationships with new people when you have the opportunity. Think of yourself as “single,” because that is what you are. You are entitled to hang out or hook up with anyone you want to, and owe no explanations.
- Keep your priorities straight. A hookup does not come before girlfriends, work, studying, family, Gossip Girl, etc. EVER. He is one person in your life, with a limited role to play, at least for now. Do not get caught up in analyzing every word he says, how often he is in touch, etc. Try not to discuss him constantly with your girlfriends–that just fuels the fire.
- Start strong and stay strong. You can express your interest and still be strong, because you are making it clear that your interest is conditional. You are not faking nonchalance. Think of it as making a decision not to get addicted to a potentially unhealthy substance. Too often women enter relationships in binge mode, and have purge mode thrust upon them. Keep your interest steady and your head on straight.