Here’s Why The Principle Of Least Concern Matters In Your Relationship

January 7, 2018

Taylor Swift was right: love is a ruthless game.

On my first date with my last boyfriend, he asked me if I’d ever heard of the Principle of Least Concern. I had not. He explained that a friend of his had told him about it, and basically, it meant whichever person in a couple cares less about the relationship holds all the power. His friend apparently lived by this principle, being careful never to care more for a woman than she cared about him.

After we became a couple, it became somewhat of a running joke between us. You definitely have the Principle today, he’d say to me. No, you take it, I don’t want it, I’d reply. Haha. 

But underneath the joking, I always felt uneasy. I hated the Principle, and I hated his asshole friend who told him about it. I knew that however much we laughed about it, the Principle was a real thing, and I also knew that I never had it. I was head over stupid heels, hoping so hard for things to work out. Trying so hard to be good enough.

The Principle dates back to 1938, when sociologist Willard Waller wrote about “the principle of least interest” in his book, The Family: A Dynamic Interpretation. In his research, Willard studied dating couples and found that in every relationship, one partner almost always had more power. One explanation, according to Willard, is that one person always gets more out of a relationship than the other one does. What they’re getting could be physical, emotional, financial, or some combination of those, but whatever it is, the person who has less to lose if the relationship ends is the one who gets to dictate the terms of that relationship.

If this sounds messed up, it is. It’s also human nature. Power dynamics affect every relationship we ever have: parent and child, younger sibling and older sibling, teacher and student, boss and employee. Put two people together, and one of them always needs something from the other one more than the other one does.

The classic dating how-to book The Rules, which was originally published in 1995 and has since spawned an entire series of titles, is based on the Principle. What are the rules? Don’t ever call a man, only answer the phone sometimes and always hang up first when you do, never accept a date for Saturday after Wednesday, always make him pay, don’t see him more than once or twice a week. Play hard to get and keep him at arm’s length. Basically, play hard to get and make him work for it.

The problem with this is, who wants to be with someone you don’t care about that much? If I’m really into a guy, I don’t want to follow a dumb set of rules about how I can interact with him. When he calls, I want to pick up the phone every time. (Although, who makes calls anymore? I’ll text him back every time, more like.) I’m not going to play games. I’m going to be my real, whole self, open my heart, and get vulnerable.

On the flip side, do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t really want to be with you? Do you know what that does to your heart? I do, because I stayed in that relationship for almost three years.

In the beginning, maybe I did have the Principle: I’d been dating so much I was burnt out and jaded. His online dating profile didn’t particularly impress me – although no one’s would have, at that point. My sister was dying and I was trying to distract myself with nonstop activity. I showed up to our first date hung over and wearing the same dress I’d worn the night before, which I’d picked up at a stoop sale for one dollar. I gave not a single fuck what he thought of me and was completely myself. Hashtag no filter.

Maybe that’s what made him fall for me. I charmed him by not caring. But sometime between the first date and the second one, just a few days later, I decided I liked him. I started to care. Was that my big mistake? Should I have played by The Rules until he married me? And if I don’t want to play by them, should I give up on love and accept that I’ll be alone forever?

I turned to that expert source, Reddit, for wisdom. “When did ‘dating’ become a contest of who’s the biggest unfeeling robot?” asks an anonymous poster, regarding the Principle of Least Concern.

“Dating is about finding someone you actively want to be with, and if you have the ‘caring less is always a virtue’ attitude then you’re going to end up with someone you’re not all that excited about,” answers Reddit user Dakru. “The real victory in dating isn’t a victory over someone, it’s a victory with someone. Winning means finding someone you care about who also cares about you. Yes, you lose if you care a lot more, but you also aren’t really winning if you care a lot less.”

“If you don’t want to play these silly games, just seek out people who don’t play them,” advises Dajbman22. “It may take a little more work, and actually getting to know someone a bit before something really takes off, but if this feels hollow to you, then don’t settle,”

Looking back, my ex gave me a pretty big clue what type of person he was on that first date, when he brought up the Principle in the first place. Next time, I’ll pay better attention before trusting my heart to someone who’s only in it to play games. Because ultimately, when you play a game, someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose. And that’s not how I want to live my life.

Imagess via shutterstock, giphy, reddit.

Comment: Who has the Principle of Least Concern in your relationship? 

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