Is it okay to not know if you’re going to marry the guy you’re dating?
I’ve been dating a guy and I enjoy my time with him and when I’m not with him I want to be. All I ever hear is how you will just know you’ve met the guy you will marry. The thing is that this guy could very well be that guy but right now I don’t feel that way. But I don’t feel like it’s not a possibility, you know? I don’t want to rush into anything and just want to really get to know him.
Not Ready to Commit
Dear Not Ready,
When I read your question, I jumped for joy! Why? Because it’s so lovely to hear a voice in opposition to the happily-ever-after, professionally photographed love story your best friend’s sister posted on Instagram. That Instagram probably got 700 likes because, 1. It’s the perfect photo of the perfect couple and 2. It was an exemplar of *true* love. And despite what social media would advertise, most of us are like you. We wander along the path of relationship-decision-making that winds in between two extremes on either side (forever happiness or eternal loneliness), unsure of where we fit, or if we even fit at all.
Firstly, because this letter is for you, Not Ready, I’m going to use “boyfriend” as a stand-in term for a “significant other,” but if the term “boyfriend” does not apply to others reading, please insert an applicable synonym. Next, I want to answer your question with clarity and reassurance: It’s Okay. To Be. Unsure. Yes, so many people seem to experience the love-at-first-sight paradigm, and, those who don’t would have us believe they did by posting their picture-perfect relationships on social media. But I truly believe that most of us will never experience the moment in our dating relationships where we suddenly *know* someone is The One. (Read more of my opinion on The One here).
I think we’ve grown up under the impression that if a relationship presents some sort of strain, difficulty, or challenge, it isn’t “right.” This is problematic, because when an inevitable disagreement comes up, we’re paralyzed because we’ve been trained to believe that the only good relationships are the perfect ones. We begin to wonder if there isn’t a boy out there who has never looked at pornography, or who doesn’t have student loans, or who likes the same music you like, and if that boy wouldn’t be a better fit. While these thoughts are perfectly normal, and even healthy, I believe they can lead us down a dangerous trajectory–one where relationship success is defined by 100% compatibility. It’s also defined by whether your boyfriend wears the “right” clothes, or has the “right” career ($$$), or even if he says the right thing at the right time. We start to design an impassible obstacle course filled with standards relationships will simply never meet. Eventually, the strain is too great, and a relationship that was once simple and beautiful and easy becomes poisoned with unreasonable expectations, and it ends because, “there must be someone better out there.”
Please don’t misunderstand, there are many relationships that won’t procure enduring happiness, and many others poisoned with unhealthy communication styles, habits, and assumptions. So how do you know if your relationship is the former, or the later? I have a few ideas.
Ruby’s Guide to Healthy Relationship Analysis:
- (Only) The Dealbreakers Matter
Everyone has a List (more on that later). But when I say “Dealbreakers,” that’s exactly what I mean. Dealbreakers don’t mean your boyfriend’s music taste isn’t exactly the same as yours, or that he’s a morning person when you like to sleep in. Oh, your boyfriend isn’t an exact male copy of you? Not a dealbreaker. Dealbreakers are the things that you can’t/won’t compromise, things you view as rigid non-negotiables. They could be things like having a family, or how he treats others, or a love of the outdoors. They also might be none of those things.
It’s important to recognize when a dealbreaker is irrational. Maybe you plan to have a family (a dealbreaker), but you’ve also always wanted exactly 5 children–no more or less. Is there room for compromise around the number of children you want? Is having exactly 5 children a non-negotiable? When pondering whether your current relationship, I recommend writing down these non-negotiables in a physical space–a journal, word document, letter, etc. Spend time with that list, ponder it, allow it to fill you up. There shouldn’t be too many items on it, and if there are, there’s a good chance you’ll never find someone who meets or exceeds all of them. In fact, if your current relationship embodies most of the listed items, I’d say you’re in pretty good shape.
Isolating your non-negotiables, becoming familiar with them in an intimate way, and holding your boyfriend to only the expectations specifically regarding those dealbreakers is a healthier way to approach a relationship. Additionally, have a conversation with him about your list, so he knows and understands what really matters to you. Ask him to do the same. The more information you have about expectations, the greater likelihood of success. This is also an exercise I recommend to those in both fresh and seasoned relationships alike, including married couples, because dealbreakers and non-negotiables can shift and change over time.
- What About The List?
We’ve all done it it–as early as age 6 and as recently as today. We’ve all made The List of things we want in a future spouse. These are often petty things like “plays the guitar” or “has eyes like Liam Hemsworth’s” or “texts me ‘good morning’ and ‘goodnight’ every. single. day.” Like rolling a snowball, these lists can get real large, real quick, and become so comprehensive, the possibility for someone to meet all of the items is close to none. Frequently, the things on The List aren’t even qualities that we, ourselves, possess. I think The List is one of the reasons so many relationships fail.
If you’ve created a physical The List, or perhaps even a mental one, I would encourage you to sort your items into one of two columns: 1. Unchangeable, 2. Changeable. Unchangeable qualities look like: eye color, ability to play the guitar, height, etc. Many others, like a ‘goodnight’ text, might be achieved with some simple communication, and thus fall under the Changeable column. For example, expecting your boyfriend to text you every morning and night if he doesn’t know how important it is, is like a teacher expecting you to pass a test you weren’t even told about, let alone afforded the time to study for. If there are things on The List that fall under Changeable, they’re probably going to require a conversation (hint: communication!) If they fall under Unchangeable, perhaps review whether they’re truly pertinent to your happiness. If a boy is 5’11” and not 6’3”, does that mean you can’t be happy with him? Very rarely will the answer be “yes.” If Unchangeables don’t belong in your much more intimate Dealbreaker list, it’s time for them to go. Really. (Insert hand wave emoiji).
- But wait, there’s more!
“But what if he’s a Democrat?” “What if he doesn’t make very much money?” “What if he uses the wrong ‘your’ all the time?” “What if he wants to live in Utah forever?”
These are all questions that sometimes float uncomfortably in the space between the two aforementioned columns, and may require a little bit more contemplation on your end. In the healthiest relationships, each partner accepts the other for who they are presently, with the hope that there will be personal progress and forward movement. But if you relate to the increasingly common notion of “I will marry him when *this or that* changes” or “I would feel better about our relationship if *this or that* were different,” you’re likely setting yourself, and your boyfriend, up for disappointment. Change, in any capacity, must come from within. Any other kind of change isn’t sustainable or lasting. So if he’s a Democrat and you’re a Republican, you’re either going to have to accept that, embrace it, and move forward, or evaluate whether that difference belongs on your Non-negotiable list. But “Eventually he’ll come around and vote Republican, and then things will be better” is both unfair, and unlikely.
- What About Anxiety?
Most relationships are conceived in a place of bliss. You make each other laugh, blush, jump for joy. But happiness isn’t > than everything, because somewhere along the line, life happens. Parents divorce, dogs die, the frigid curtain of winter facilitates depression for a few months, and you’re not always going to be happy. Believing a relationship is “wrong” or “right” based on your current level of happiness is unreasonable. Feelings are as fleeting and unpredictable as weather in Utah.
If you do feel consistently anxious, stressed, or unhappy, it’s certainly fair to assess why you may be feeling those things. So ask yourself this question: Are external experiences in my current relationship aligning with the internal emotions I’m experiencing? (Such as, perhaps you’re not communicating effectively, or your boyfriend isn’t meeting the needs you’ve clearly articulated). Yes? Okay, then maybe there’s a reason you’re experiencing sadness or anxiety. But if you step back and view your relationship with clarity and find that things are stable and filled with love, communication, and effort, but you’re still experiencing anxiety or sadness, it’s very likely those emotions are coming from somewhere within, not from your relationship. So often we view anxious feelings as a sign a relationship isn’t right. The reality is, relationships are hard, commitment is scary, and happiness isn’t always constant. If you have anxiety, address it, read about it, manage it, see a therapist. If your car isn’t running, you either put in a lot of effort and energy to fix it, or pay someone to fix it for you. Why are emotions any different? Why are relationships any different? If you want something to work, you have to put in work.
In sum, if there were a formula for relationship bliss, it’d be this:
(Communication) + (love) – (dealbreakers) ÷ (nobody knows what they’re doing) x (effort)² = no relationship is perfect
And this is everything I know about relationships, which is such an infinitesimal, minuscule amount. But it’s enough to know that when you find one that makes you laugh, cultivates a space where you feel loved, and inspires you to progress, it’s something to hold on to. So, no, Not Ready. You don’t have to know. You may never know. But don’t wait around for The One. Because The One might live in Europe, or China, or a Polynesian island, and if you wait around, you’re going to be waiting for a while.