The Power of Emotional Decision-Making

It's hard to know when to leave, but trusting your emotions is a good start.

This is the story of how I decided to leave my first marriage. It is also a story of self-reckoning in which I teeter and stumble to a realization that despite the myth I’ve long treated as truth, I can, and must, trust myself. The narrative concludes happily, more or less. But I cannot supply you with the ending — resolving, at last, to leave — without explaining to you why I chose to marry in the first place.

By the time I was dating the man who would become my ex-husband, I had conceded to a specific account of myself, a text of many authors wherein my voice was present but dampened. I was emotional — jarringly, colossally, ungovernably emotional. And, as I had learned, mine was the sort of disposition that provoked, if not jest, then certainly unease. In my sophomore year of high school, one classmate referred to me as “Crazy Rachel,” presumably because my exuberance and steep sensitivity struck my fellow disaffected youth as quintessentially unchill. In the midst of a tear-soaked, nighttime conversation over AIM, another friend referred to me as their “favorite mess.” (By the by, both of these friends were straight, white, and male.) I learned the definition of “histrionic” at an early age — in elementary school, probably — because it was a term my family had more than once applied to me.

I don’t mean this essay to be an airing of grievances. (Although, “Crazy Rachel”? Really?) Americans have always floundered in their responses to acute expressions of emotion. And expressive women, especially those who, like me, have a history of mental illness, fit conveniently into long-established narratives of hysteria in which femaleness is both the diagnosis and the symptom. It’s a cultural response, naturalized through years of reiteration: agitation, even disgust in the face of a woman’s unbridled reaction, be it a weepy outburst or a raucous orgasm.

College offered liberation from commonplace adolescent vexations, but not from myself. The intensity with which I felt every disappointment, every slight, even every joy seemed shamefully excessive. What’s more, I began to question whether it was prudent to follow my own inclinations. Surely my attempts at logic were muddled by sentiment. I was a Marianne Dashwood, ill-equipped to navigate my own circumstances without an Elinor at my back. (Certainly this is not the lesson Jane Austen wants us to take from Sense and Sensibility, but at the time, I was embarrassed by the ache of recognition, and Marianne shared the blame I imposed upon myself.)

When I began dating my future ex-husband, during my junior year of college, I did love him. I also applauded myself for gaining the affections of someone who seemed to be everything I wasn’t: steady, practical, and motivated by logic. Through some primal provocation, a Darwinian spark, I had ensured my survival by pairing myself with a person who, to my mind, was better suited to the world than I seemed to be. What a smart decision it was to love this man.

In the past few years, a spate of research has contested my self-suspicion that I am too emotional to make sound choices. In August 2007, researchers Myeong-Gu Seo, from the University of Maryland, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, from Boston College, published a study revealing that “individuals who experienced more intense feelings achieved higher decision-making performance.” Through a web-based stock investment simulation, Seo and Barrett discovered that those participants who could more effectively parse their emotions were, consequently, able to temper their biases and ultimately make better decisions.

Nearly 10 years later, in March 2017, writer Olivia Goldhill came to a similar conclusion. As she wrote for Quartz, “We’re inescapably irrational, and far better thinkers as a result.” Drawing on work from Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, Goldhill emphasizes that rational thinking has its limits in an unpredictable world.

“In a world where you can calculate the risks, the rational way is to rely on statistics and probability theory,” Gigerenzer explains. “But in a world of uncertainty, not everything is known — the future may be different from the past — then statistics by itself cannot provide you with the best answer anymore.” Henry Brighton, Gigerenzer’s colleague at the institute and a professor of cognitive science and artificial intelligence at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, goes so far as to characterize our reliance upon logic as downright odd. He remarks, “The whole idea of using logic to make decisions in the world is to me a fairly peculiar one, given that we live in a world of high uncertainty, which is precisely the conditions in which logic is not the appropriate framework for thinking about decision-making.”

As Brighton describes it, attempting to apply logic to in a world of mercurial circumstances is like trying to grapple a tiger with a butterfly net: It’s simply not feasible, and the outcome isn’t likely to be positive. And yet it’s the fundamental mutability of the quotidian that makes us long for an organizing principle. Floundering in my own chaos, I’ve sought the impossible: a narrative with a denouement I could accurately predict — ways to know, without a flicker of doubt, that what I chose was, in every essence, right.

But as Goldhill observes, certain problems cannot be solved with quantifiable methods. “Though emotions can derail highly rational thought, there are occasions where overly rational thinking would be highly inappropriate,” she writes. “Take finding a partner, for example. If you had a choice between a good-looking high-earner who your mother approves of, versus someone you love who makes you happy every time you speak to them — well, you’d be a fool not to follow your heart.”

It seemed to me, however, that my heart was a bit of a nitwit. One year into our relationship, when I began wondering how to be sure about my affections and if my love for him was the enduring sort, my brain bellowed in alarm, as if I were treading too near a cliff. I was supposed to love this person. In tethering myself to him, I had, I thought, chiseled for myself a trenchant path, one that marched confidently toward the horizon, unswerving. Happiness lay in the way of practical love. The only choice that mattered was my choice to be with this man, because it was the only one that seemed reasonable. Whatever doubt prickled at the back of my neck now, it was not to be trusted.

My future ex-husband and I dated for more than three years before he proposed, and then we didn’t marry for another two years. In that time, I would, with performed cool, survey everyone who was close to me, sussing out their views on my relationship and thus reiterating to myself that my decision to commit to this person was the best choice. I was markedly less demure during conversations with my therapist, wherein I would pick apart my significant other, breaking him into smaller, more discrete shards and examining each one with terror. I demanded to know: Was it normal to harbor the annoyances and quibbles that so often reared their heads? These were inconsequential — they couldn’t possibly mean that I didn’t love him. Right? Right?

Love cannot be solved for or unearthed like seashells hidden by sand — it leaves no certain traces. But having determined myself to be an emotional hazard, I ultimately decided to hand myself over to inertia. I had been happy enough with a man who was good and who believed himself to be good for me: better to marry him and spare myself from ruminating further.

This was an absurd conclusion to reach, I would later realize, because the marriage was a catastrophe — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was catastrophic, a veritable bull barreling through a china shop stuffed with wedding crystal and flatware and Le Creuset. I wanted to divorce mere months after the wedding. I fell in love with someone else. I cheated. And when I became overwhelmed by my own brutality, I overdosed on Tylenol.

After coming clean to my then-husband and being discharged from the hospital, I possessed no greater urge to stay married. However, my behavior seemed only to reify what I thought to be the case: I couldn’t trust my own impulses. Surely my only recourse was to recommit to the man who was trying to forgive me, to do penance, to find, somewhere within my reeling heart, a docile and loving wife.

I began conducting surveys again, though I knew it was folly. No one could tell me it was better to remain married. Friends responded to my leading questions — “Clearly this will get better?” — with sympathetic, helpless shrugs. By now I had a new therapist who, much to my chagrin, would not tell me either to weather the matrimonial course or to jump ship.

“How do people know when to leave?” I would plead. Her response was always gentle, always obscure: “People leave when they can’t stand to stay.”

Gradually and begrudgingly, I accepted that there was no logic to rely upon, no expert’s opinion on the State of My Union. I — Crazy Rachel, the mess, the girl whose heart seemed to hold a million tiny selves, clawing at its walls — had to choose.

“If you leave, you’ll be okay,” my mother told me over the phone. “Me?” I thought. “How is that possible?” But I appreciated the vote of confidence, without quite understanding why: I was slowly, achingly making up my mind.

People leave when they can no longer stand to stay. Or people leave when they feel they must. It’s a form of knowledge, this illumination, but the visceral sort — the “gut feeling” half the world tells us to heed, while the rest admonishes against following it too slavishly. I’m not sure where I stand on that matter. But at last it occurred to me that my emotions have never been indecipherable or in conflict; they’ve merely been loud.

And when I finally consented to hear them, I stood like a pillar against their crashing chorus, waves upon waves squalling in unison. I had always known my own heart; I’d known it too well and foolishly thought it would be more convenient to ignore.

I told him that I had to leave; he didn’t protest. The next morning, I walked out into the broad blue of the May sky, wriggling my left ring finger, now unadorned. I was skittish, astonished at my own audacity. How could I possibly be this sure?

And yet I was. I am.

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