Discover more from Pirate Wires
Why Do Women Online Blow Relationship Issues Out Of Proportion?
why women online constantly encourage one another to escalate small or nonexistent misdeeds into existential relationship threats
In general, why do we hate liars, and fear snakes? Why are men so competitive? Why are women so verbally inclined?
Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain human psychological qualities in terms of their ancient advantages. In other words, which dispositions, traits, and impulses helped our ancestors survive, compounded over time, and came to shape the modern man? Today, through the lens of this fascinating field of study, a journey through one of the great questions of our time: why do women give each other such absolutely terrible advice in online forums?
Diana S. Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist and author, and writes at her Substack Dissentient. She guests today for Pirate Wires with a great new dispatch from the intersection of human culture and technology.
When I was pregnant, I joined a forum for women who were all having babies in the same month. A user, I’ll call her J, complained that while she was feeding her baby breakfast one morning, her husband came up to her and said, “I have the whole day free. What can I do to be most helpful?” Overwhelmed by caring for her baby and sleep deprivation, she snapped: “I’m too burned out to know what needs to be done. You should know what needs to be done!” Her husband walked away dejectedly. J never updated us about whether her husband found a way to make himself useful, or spent the rest of the day eating Doritos and playing video games.
At the time, I was surprised that no one defended J’s husband. That punishing a man for offering to help around the house is a great way to ensure he never offers to help again didn’t seem to occur to anyone. Instead, everyone maligned the husband for imposing “mental load” or “emotional labor” on J. And a few complained that their husbands asked how they could help in the same way.
In online spaces like pregnancy and childcare forums, women seek advice, ruminate about their anxieties, and commiserate about their relationships with partners and family. The support they get — and give — is usually helpful. But online, women seem to rarely do anything other than unconditionally support each other, regardless of how frivolous a complaint is. So why do women in online spaces give each other unconditionally supportive, sometimes terrible relationship advice? This behavior actually gets at the heart of the complicated ways that women socialize with one another. Let’s take a closer look.
One common theme of advice women receive from each other in majority-woman online spaces is that they should be more demanding and punitive of their male partners. For example, in 2021, on a subreddit for women whose babies were due in February 2022, one stay-at-home mom who had two children with her husband, and a third from a previous relationship, posted about her husband refusing to get the COVID vaccination. The responses were wild. For example, the second most upvoted comment said he didn’t care about the safety of their children and that she should get a divorce. This year, I saw a post from another woman, in a different subreddit, who was concerned that her husband hadn’t initiated sex in the several months since they conceived. “Do you see me as an incubator?” she asked him tearfully. “You kind of are an incubator,” he blurted. His comment was certainly inconsiderate. But only one response suggested he might just be thoughtless — or have insufficient theory of mind — rather than actively malicious.
In female-dominated online spaces, women often encourage each other to punish their male partners. For example, an argument and several hours of silent treatment will be viewed as a mild punishment for a husband that’s seen to have done something wrong. Is a long conversation or an argument punitive? Women might enjoy long, drawn out discussions about the state of a relationship, but men — usually less reflective and verbally skilled, and wary of upsetting their partners with a wrong word — often find these kinds of conversations stressful and disempowering.
Another common piece of advice you’ll see in women-dominated forums is that women should make ultimatums for their male partners to go to therapy. Ultimatums like these tend to benefit women because, in therapy, they’re in a privileged position because of their greater emotional and verbal skills. At the same time, men tend to be highly averse to therapy. And at the moment — especially since the pandemic — there’s unreserved, unqualified popular support for therapy. But psychology, generally — and therapy specifically — are hostile to men. Clinical psychologist David Ley told me that the therapy industry “has some negative and ideological ideas about men, that don’t help them to create welcoming environments for men.” It may be controversial, but my cynical interpretation is that women often use couple’s therapy as a form of punishment, a way to have another woman convince their male partners to yield to their demands, or a way of making the man prove his commitment to the relationship with time, energy, money, and pain.
Why are women, in general, unconditionally supportive of each other online? “Women care a lot about whether their same sex friends are loyal to them,” my friend, colleague, and female friendship expert Tania Reynolds told me. Women are also more likely to signal that they’re kind, agreeable, and concerned about others. When they gossip, or transmit negative information about each other, they often couch it in terms of concern. For instance, instead of calling Veronica a drunk slut, a woman is more likely to say, “I’m worried Veronica’s alcohol consumption is getting out of control. I’m worried about her sexual health.” Or instead of saying that Bridget is a bad friend, you’re more likely to hear a woman complain that “Sara’s dog died and Bridget didn’t text her. Sara is so upset.” Online forums offer a context that is totally unique in evolutionary history — women competing to be seen as the most loyal and supportive.
This loyalty signaling is also why women online offer especially punitive and severe advice. Let’s say Sara and Joe break up because Joe stops being an attentive boyfriend. They stay friendly because Sara doesn’t think Joe did anything terrible. But Sara’s friend Lisa decides that Joe should be ostracized and gossiped about, so that he loses other sexual and social opportunities. Lisa is signaling that she demands better treatment for Sara than Sara does for herself. Similarly, a woman online who says “divorce him” or “don’t talk to him for three days” is demonstrating that she thinks the OP has high social value. Such high social value that any degree of mistreatment should be considered intolerable, like suggesting a peasant who doesn’t kneel for a queen should be put to death.
Why do women have these different friendship values? Most of our female ancestors had to live among their male partners’ relatives (aka patrilocal residence), where they were surrounded by near strangers, many of whom (like cowives) would have been actively competitive with them. This competition usually didn’t break out into physical aggression, because kids with injured or dead mothers either fare poorly or don’t survive at all. Thus, women were more likely to be indirectly or relationally aggressive (for example by spreading rumors) rather than physically aggressive to compete with other women for resources, mates, and social influence.
A history of intergroup conflict, where men banded together to defend or aggress against rival groups, has also left traces on men and women’s friendships. For instance, men are more likely to have groups of friends, rather than “best friends.” According to social psychologist Jaime Krems, men’s friendships are more coalitional and “males typically prefer shoulder-to-shoulder relationships.” Because group cohesion is more important than any particular dyad (one-on-one relationship), men’s friendships are more resilient over time and men are more tolerant of other men. But ancestral women, who had to navigate the social landscape by finding other women to help with childcare, or to care for their kids when they themselves were sick or injured, had to have high standards for loyalty, kindness and commitment. And it’s easier to monitor signs of commitment, loyalty, helpfulness, and mutual benefit in a dyad than in a large group. Combined with their greater sensitivity to breaking friendship “rules,” like “doesn’t disclose my feelings and personal problems to others,” women’s friendships are more fragile, and require continual maintenance and negotiation. These dyads aren’t that stable, which is why women are more likely to express “friend jealousy”.
Another reason women are so supportive online is related to the importance of social information. In the competition among women for friends, status, and resources, information is ammunition. Even though women online are most often strangers, disclosing social information is rewarding, because it’s how women establish intimacy. The unconditional support women give each other can be seen as a reward for the disclosure of valuable information. We tend to reward behavior that helps us achieve our adaptive goals, like learning sensitive information about others in our group.
Women initiate the majority of divorces and express more dissatisfaction in relationships, and estimates show that a third or a half of people who get divorced regret it. As Louise Perry says, “there is a lot of space between ‘happy’ and ‘irreparably unhappy’. In the past, those people remained married; now they usually don’t.” Recent research has shown that women are more likely to be given feedback that inflates their performance at work, compared to men. This is one of many findings showing female bias, including those showing that women are more likely to be seen as victims. And when considering other women in relationships, women inflate their estimates of how wronged other women are, and encourage unforgiving and often irrational behavior. How much is advice from other women, online or in person, contributing to the dissolution of relationships with minor or tractable problems? While I hope that women are receiving advice from other women with the requisite skepticism, it’s inevitable that some of this loyalty signaling nudges women toward breakups or divorce that they may ultimately regret.