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Miss Conduct's Theory of Romance

Posted by Robin Abrahams  February 11, 2013 05:58 AM

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Valentine's Day, that most hated of all holidays, is upon us. This year, in lieu of chocolates or roses, I've got a gorgeous lush psychological theory for you, beloved readers! 

Most of us have, at some point or another, tried to create a romantic moment or gesture for a loved one only to have it not quite pan out. Maybe it was Valentine's Day, maybe an anniversary or birthday or (God help you) a proposal. Maybe your beloved was a great sport about it, but you could tell from the look in their eyes that this was not, in fact, their notion of that one perfect evening. 

Most gift-giving advice, especially for heterosexual couples, is either Mars & Venus blathering or product guides based on another person's tastes or interests: What to buy if your girlfriend is a bookworm or your fella is a philatelist. Those are inoffensive and good as far as they go, but they don't necessarily scream romance. 

So here's my Theory of Romance, based on work by David McClelland, a great man with whom I had the tremendous privilege to work early in my grad-school career, and Dan McAdams, author of one of the best non-academic books on psychology I have read

One way of thinking about individual differences is motivation--what gets a person going, what cranks her engine, what he feels lost and despondent if he doesn't get. Some people love to solve problems, others to be the center of attention, still others to teach or serve or share or command. McClelland and McAdams researched three major motivations--power, achievement, and intimacy--that everyone has to some degree, with one or two are usually dominant throughout a person's life. (Like most psychologists, I am very high in need for power and intimacy, with just enough achievement motivation to get me through statistics and the graduate school bureaucracy.) 

Instead of relying on gender stereotypes or the Air Mall catalog, awesome though it is, to solve your romance problems, try figuring out your boo's motivational style. 

Power: People with high power motivation love the spotlight, being in charge, being expert. Think Don (and Megan) Draper--or Captain Kirk. If yor beloved is high in need for power, a quiet night by the candlelight might be pleasant enough, but hardly exciting. Instead, suggest an activity that allows your significant other to share expertise with you. Maybe she'd like to teach you to ice skate, or he'd love to take you to the museum and put his knowledge of pre-Columbian pottery on display. People high in need for power love to share their expertise to empower others. Then dress up fancy and go somewhere chi-chi with lots of good people-watching for dinner or drinks. 

Achievement: If people high in power motivation are like Kirk, the achievement folks are more like Spock. As Dr. McClelland used to say, "Need fo achievement wants to build a better mousetrap. Need for power just wants the world to beat a path to its door." Achievers get a charge out of solving problems, taking well-calculated risks, and general lifehacking. Invite your high-achievement beau to show you around the MFA and you may wind up irritably sipping coffee for an hour in the atrium while he composes  a letter on his iPad on how the management could improve the exhibits' human-factors engineering. 

If a high need for achievement person tells you that she hates Valentine's Day and doesn't want anything, or that what he'd really like is a carton full of Styrofoam peanuts because there's an experiment he wants to try with his cat---believe it. In the absence of explicit guidance, however, plan something clever for your achiever. Hide small boxes of candies throughout the house where s/he will find them during the day. Write a song parody. Bake a cake in the shape of the TARDIS. Make plans for an activity that neither of you have tried before (power motivation wants to teach, achievement wants to figure it out with you).

Intimacy: This would be McCoy. Who, if you were hanging out in the Enterprise lounge, is probably the person you'd enjoy talking to most, regardless of Kirk and Spock's charisma (and better manners). People high in need for intimacy are fascinated by other people, and get their biggest charge from deep personal relationships. They're not people-pleasers though: like McCoy, folks high in need for intimacy don't tend to hide their rough sides. We'd rather be disliked for the right reasons than popular for the wrong ones. The high need-for-intimacy person is the one who comes home from a party utterly exhilarated because she had one really fantastic conversation. 

These are the folks whose idea of romance is a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou. The remote bed & breakfast, the sparsely populated island resort tugs for these folks. So does stovetop popcorn, Two-Buck Chuck, and staying up all night watching each other's favorite childhood movies on Netflix. (A high-intimacy person's notion romance spans an impressive fiscal range. These are the people you find dating bankers one year and buskers the next.) They'll treasure your handmade gifts regardless of quality. The achiever, on the other hand, will be genuinely pained by your lack of craftsmanship in an area he himself is expert in, although he'll feel guilty. The powermonger will be thrilled to have inspired a work of art, but if you think she's going to wear those earrings to the office--!


And that is my motivational theory of romance. 
May you all have the means, motive, and opportunity 
for a wonderful Valentine's Day, readers!
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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