Features & Columns

Advice Goddess: I Dunno, Maybe Padlock Your Diary?

My boyfriend of two years read my diary and found out that I had expressed feelings for another guy while we were together. I never acted on them (and I wouldn't have), and I probably shouldn't have told the guy I liked him. But my boyfriend shouldn't have been reading my diary! He broke up with me, saying he wouldn't be able to forgive me. Now he wants to come back. What should I do? I don't feel that I can trust him now.—Disturbed

Having regular sex with you does not give another person the right to rake through your diary like it's the $1 bin at Goodwill.

Your boyfriend probably equated your approaching this other guy with an attempt to cheat, but it sounds like it was something different—a sort of preliminary investigation into whether you had any chance with that guy. It turns out that we have a sort of inner auditing department that gets triggered to calculate whether "the one!!!" should maybe be that other one.

Accordingly, research by evolutionary psychologists Joshua Duntley and David Buss and their colleagues suggests that we evolved to cultivate romantic understudies—backup mates whom we can quickly slot in as partners if our partner, say, dies or ditches us or their "mate value" suddenly takes a dive.

What else might trigger going for—or at least testing the waters with—a backup mate? Well, though you didn't have sex with this other guy, it seems instructive to look at why women tend to have affairs. Research by the late psychologist Shirley Glass finds that women view seeking love and emotional intimacy as the most compelling justification for cheating. (Seventy-seven percent of women surveyed saw this as a compelling reason to have an affair, compared with only 43 percent of the men. Men were more likely to see sexual excitement as a compelling justification to stray—with 75 percent of the men, versus 53 percent of the women, giving that reason.)

As for whether you should take your boyfriend back, the question is: What was missing that led you to try to trade up, and is it still missing? We're prone (per what's called the "sunk cost fallacy") to want to keep putting time and energy into things we've already put time and energy into, but the way to judge whether something's actually worthwhile is to assess how well it's likely to pay off in the future.

If you feel (and act) more certain about your partner, he is less likely to have mate-guarding impulses triggered (like the temptation to snoop). However, if you do get back together with this guy, privacy rules need to be spelled out—and followed. (Presumably, your daily journal entries start with "Dear Diary," not "To Whom It May Concern.")

My husband and I were visiting friends, and he started walking around their house flossing his teeth. I told him this is not okay, but I couldn't really tell him why. Could you please explain why it's not appropriate to go around flossing so I can tell him and get him to stop?!—Embarrassed

What's next, margaritas and oral surgery on the deck?

Locking doors didn't get added to bathrooms as some sort of design quirk (like shutters that don't shut on those aluminum siding "Tudor" houses in suburbia). Most of the behaviors we perform in bathrooms aren't all that audience-friendly—which is surely why we don't see Netflix specials like "Mr. Jones Takes a Poo." Though that activity, like flossing, has health benefits, the rest of us don't need to bear witness. In fact, we're grossed out if we have to—and we seem to have evolved to feel that way.

Evolutionary psychologist Joshua M. Tybur, who researches disgust, explains that our capacity for getting grossed out seems to help us avoid disease-causing microorganisms, which could put a crimp in our being able to survive and pass on our genes. Disgust basically acts as a psychological "Keep Out!" sign when we encounter things that could infect us, like bodily fluids, spoiled foods, insects, rodents, and dead bodies.

Whether disgust is likely to be triggered is actually the perfect guideline for whether some behavior is a no-go in public. If whatever behavior you're contemplating could cause some bit of something—a piece of chewed food or some bodily icky—to go airborne, it's bathroom behavior.