"Women see grooming as an indication of a serious, long-term romantic involvement," explains Dr. Michelle Sauther, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. "In social mammals, grooming is much more than hygienic—it demonstrates strong bonds and relationships. A lot of grooming women do may be to demonstrate to other women that this man is their partner."
That would explain the compulsion to pick publicly, but private grooming and tending seems much more about intimacy. "Grooming seems to help facilitate social relations and establish dominance hierarchies," affirms William McKibbin, a Ph.D. candidate in evolutionary psychology at Florida Atlantic University. "I suspect that the social relations aspect may help to explain, in part, why human women might "groom" their partners. Because humans are unique among primates in forming long-term monogamous relationships, grooming may help to form and maintain those relationships. Certainly grooming someone, or allowing someone to groom you, would seem to be a sign that you are comfortable with and care for that person." Intimacy Affects Your Stress Levels
Still, it can take a while to get to that stage. Felecia H., a newlywed from Del Ray Beach, FL, waited out their initial courting period before she got to "play nurse" with her husband, Derick. "When we started dating, we were at that awkward period where you don't want to say anything (about his blemishes). Then I'd say, 'Babe, why don't you take care of that?' But he wouldn't listen. Eventually it just became a thing where we'd be watching movies and I'd just start picking at his face. Now we'll joke around and he'll say, 'Come play doctor with me! Exfoliate me!' I guess you get comfortable when you start living together, so it became an acceptable thing."
Felecia does feel these habits are part of her role as nurturer. "I have a younger brother, so I'm used to taking care of him."
When I ask Alexia why she thinks she does it, she suspects it's because she's a neatnik in general. "I'm like that about my house. I like to have everything really clean and I think that's sort of how I see it on him. If I see a blemish, I just want to pop it to make it clean." Sharing a Bathroom? Cohabitation Tips
Or she might be looking for payback cleaning of some form. McKibbin says that among apes, such give and take is common: "Chimpanzees are more likely to share food with a chimp that has groomed them in the past. So literally, it can act as a 'scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" type of interaction.'"
Fortunately for Alexia and her man, this mutual "scratching" is reciprocated…and even fun. "He's a picker himself and he likes to do it to me and he likes it when I do it to him. We'll get into bed and I'll ask him to do my back. There will be times when we are having sex or being really intimate, and I'll see something and have to go for it. It's ridiculous!"
And believe it or not, his picking might bode well for her relationship. "Male primates often use grooming to establish sexual relationships with females. They do so for the same reasons the females do—to publicly demonstrate to others that there is a bond and to assess the parenting qualities of their partner," says Dr. Sauther. "A couple of months before the mating period, male baboons will follow the females everywhere and try to groom them and huddle with them."
My husband, meanwhile, isn't quite there yet. When I summon him from the couch to attend to a "situation" I can't reach myself, he rolls his eyes with dread, yet dutifully rises to attend to my needs. In spite of his reluctance to perform an act that in his words is "gut-wrenchingly disgusting," I suspect he secretly likes the fact that he's the only one I'm asking.