This came up in conversation I had with a (much younger) person yesterday … I thought a lot about my response, so I figured I’d post it here.
If you just want to go on dates, have fun, hang out, and enjoy life in the company of others, and if you end up with someone long term, well, cool, if not, ah, well, no biggie …. then this isn’t for you. But, if you have looked around and seen how often couples end up together who are, in fact, terribly mismatched and deeply unhappy in one another’s company, and you’ve decided that isn’t the kind of partnership you want – then this is for you.
First, you have to acknowledge that dating is about actively looking for a life partner, a spouse - not just choosing someone to hang out with for awhile, or someone to go to the dance with next week. In this perspective, ‘dating’ is intended to see if the person is a good fit for you as a partner for the long term – not just “someone I really like to hang out with right now”. This is very different than the way most people see ‘romantic attachments’ these days.
The short version of the rule is this: never date anyone longer than six months unless you are absolutely certain you want to marry them. There’s no point tying up fragile hearts and wasting their time and yours if you aren’t actually going to go through with getting married.
So, the corollary is, if you aren’t looking for a spouse, then don’t date anyone exclusively – or if you do, at the very least, don’t let it go on more than six months. It’s not fair to you or them, because your heart gets all tied up in the relationship, inertia takes over, and your lives get entangled (you share the same friends, you are used to doing everything together …) and then breaking up later is even harder. This is how people end up married to people they aren’t matched well with: it was fun at the beginning, nobody was taking it seriously, then somehow, a year or two had passed and being together got to be a habit, then more time went by and breaking up was more trouble than it was worth, or a pregnancy happened, or it just seemed like getting married was the next thing to do … and here they are, married to someone they liked enough to date for awhile, but not someone they ever really intended to marry. Or they don’t get married, but they spend three years together … then three more years in another relationship that fizzles out … then a couple more somewhere else … and you’ve wasted years on relationships that didn’t click at the start (waiting longer doesn’t make things better – it just wears you down).
So if you’re looking for a partner for life, then accept that that’s what you are doing, and go about it with your eyes open. Don’t just “end up” getting married to someone you dated for years ‘cause they were familiar, comfortable and … well, it seemed good enough at the time.
This is where it becomes obvious that it is important to know what you are looking for, and that means you need to know a lot about yourself: you need to know what kind of person you are to live with, and you need clear ideas about the kind of person that you want to live with. (For instance, I know I’m really, really hard to share space with – and so I need someone who is pretty easy going about most things around the house, but who is also strong enough to tell me when I’m being unreasonable and to cut it out.) So you need the ability to objectively assess both yourself, and your potential partners. This is not something that is easy to do, and it takes quite a lot of practice. And, learning to do it tends to sting quite a bit – as most of us aren’t anywhere near as ‘nice’ or ‘easy to get along with’ as we’d like to think, and admitting those kinds of things to ourselves is very difficult.
Start with yourself. If you’re still young, then it is almost certain that the person you are is a rapidly changing landscape and from one week to the next your ideas of who you are and what you like to do and how you like to spend your time are all over the place. That’s a normal part of growing up. Don’t tie yourself to anyone else until that crazy “try everything on and see how it fits” phase has settled down! Trying on different kinds of partners might be part of this – maybe you go out with a ‘quiet sort’ for awhile, and see what that is like, then someone more outgoing, then someone kind of in between … but never more than six months. You’re testing things out, seeing what works … and refusing to get yourself caught in the wrong place too soon.
You’re going to say “but what if the quiet one I started off with turns out to be exactly who I end up needing five years down the road … I’ll regret letting that go!” Well, maybe – but more likely, things will sort themselves out and you’ll find yourselves back together, having each learned more about yourselves in the time apart than you ever could’ve learned had you clung to each other hoping and praying that “this is the one”.
If you let time do its work on you, if you pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t and then you start actively seeking out people with the characteristics that bring out the very best in you … you’ll find the right match. Maybe not as soon as you’d like, but then, the old saying is “marry in haste and repent at leisure”.
It’s tough taking a realistic view of dating and relationships in our crazy society, which talks up ‘perfect dream romance that lasts happily ever after’ as though this were the normal thing everyone should expect to have happen to them by the time they are eighteen. Then again, just look around – buying into this fantasy hasn’t exactly gotten us a bunch of stable, happy households, has it?
Maybe it’s time for a change.
Six months. Might be an idea.
For those who have watched my life and say “hmph, a whole lot you know” … yeah, you’re right. This advice came to me too late to change my path, but the woman I learned it from has a rock-solid marriage and is a totally amazing person to boot, and I think she’s really on to something here. Perhaps, had I thought about things this way earlier on, my life may have taken a different route. Ah well, our lives make us who we are and I’m content to be who I am after all the adventures … but perhaps this advice will be of use to someone in the next generation.