There is an old joke in the dating world: A man is always in search of a woman who A) cooks like Julia Child and bakes like Betty Crocker, B) is a lady in the streets but a fox behind closed doors, and C) supports and inspires him to pursue his dreams with reckless abandon despite all obstacles and political odds. The punch line is that never should these three women meet.
While this joke elicits a smile even among the most committed of men, the truth is that finding the right woman is only one part of the equation. Timing is equally important, and without it love everlasting is just not in the cards. No amount of hoping, wishing, praying and ultimatum declaring, ladies, will make him yours ’til death do you part if he’s not there yet.
Love Me Two Times: Stages of Commitment
When it comes to a long-term romantic commitment there are two times in a man’s life: ready and not ready. Perhaps the writers who gave Carrie Bradshaw life on the now cult classic “Sex and the City” were on to something when they wrote that men are like taxis driving around with their lights off. Sometimes they’ll pick up someone if they feel like it—sometimes a lot of people—but generally speaking, they’re unavailable. Then suddenly, as if men had their own ticking biological clock, a man realizes that he’s ready for the next stage of his life: settling down. His available-for-commitment light flicks on, and the next woman who jumps in the backseat stays for the ride of a lifetime; she meets the “One” and he meets his nuptials.
As funny as that analogy might be, it’s not entirely true; well, not for happy and successful long-term relationships. Acting on timing alone without enough compatibility may just lead you to wonder what exactly is in your prenup. Despite high levels of chemistry, a relationship without shared compatibility is a surefire road to dissatisfaction on the other side of the “honeymoon period.” The throes of lust and liking usually only last up through eight months to a year, tops. And the worst part is that sometimes these kind of relationships drag on well past their due, prolonging the frustration and boredom experienced by both partners. There are countless relationships between two ultimately incompatible people ranging from “just dating” to living together—and even married—that are empty ventures drifting into nowhere.
How did we get here? Hooking up routinely with Mr. and Ms. Right Now, knowing fully that they are not the marrying kind is a recipe for disaster. Serial daters take up with “fillers” until something better comes along, but nothing does. So there they stand, afraid to be alone but mortified by the idea of being spending the rest of their lives with the person they’re with. Take it one step further as time marches on and two very incompatible people can end up committing to one another because they both feel obligated because of how much time they’ve spent together. There never really is a right time to commit when you’re with the wrong person.
The right person moves their partner with their heart, not drags them reluctantly each step of the way toward a level of commitment they’re not ready to provide. Timing without true compatibility leads to settling for less in the long run, and it’s not good enough. The bottom line is that no one has to settle to settle down. The people we choose to spend our time with, whether fillers or not, become the ones that our fill lives, so keep a refined list of Must Haves and Can’t Stands in hand at all times.
But if not now, when?
Not every relationship should be abandoned when fumbling toward commitment, especially if you’ve got broad-based compatibility and things seem to be going relatively well. However, there comes a certain point in every long-term relationship when one partner questions where it’s going. Is he “The One”? Should she be “The One”? Relationships are unions to be monitored and assessed periodically, even after marriage. It’s best to be on as much on the same page from Day One as Day One-Million-and-One. Absolute honesty ensures two people are traveling on the same path, so don’t hide what your needs are—from both your partner and yourself—just because you’re afraid of a negative outcome. A serious, long-term commitment needs to be desired by both partners for it to work without repressed doubts and resentments undoubtedly cropping up as much larger obstacles in the future, so do express your thoughts.
Tell your partner you’re feeling, how much you enjoy their company, and that while you really love what you’ve got together, you just wanted to check to see if you’re on the same page. What you’re really asking is if you both share the same relationship goals. Remember to address your needs gently. Don’t beat a dead horse and erupt into a negative, tear-filled explosion if you don’t get the resounding “Yes, I feel the same way” immediately. Men and women process information and emotions differently. It doesn’t mean your relationship is over or won’t succeed. It’s been said that women fall in love with a man in his presence, and he falls in love with her in her absence. So state your case and then give him time to process it on his own. If he comes back with a response that it’s not the right time but that he still loves you more than anything in the world, don’t overreact; wait it out and then reassess the situation once your fears and insecurities have a chance to abate. Resist the urge to force the issue. Repetition is not the key to success in this situation if you don’t want to push him to an ultimatum that may end your relationship permanently. If anything, repeating “The Talk” may even the opposite effect, and can signal for him the beginning of the end. Over time if you’re having talks that lead nowhere but a high level of personal dissatisfaction, you may have to think about your relationship in the greater context of your life. As much as you may love someone, are they or will they be able to give you what you need to be happy? Are you on the same page? Will you ever be? If your answers are unequivocal “no’s,” you may have to gather all of your resolve and make the decision to leave. The perfect partner will want you as much as you want them.
The Mechanics of Serial Dating
Tell any group of women a joke about noncommittal men and you’ll get some snickers and cynical comments, but there’s nothing funny about being mixed up with a true noncommittal partner. It’s painful to lose your heart to someone who’s just not entirely there for you the way that you are willing to be for them. On some level they want to be there with someone someday, and will sometimes express that they want to be there (thoroughly confusing and misleading their partner), but in the end they’re not ready, and may never be. This is what’s known as unrequited love.
Where does it come from?
Romantic rejection experienced early on or observed early on in dysfunctional families growing up can lead people down a path of avoiding the kind of close, intimate relationships that they really long for deep within their hearts. But despite the desire deep down inside to have a serious, monogamous, committed relationship doesn’t mean they can. Not having healed fully from a painful set of experiences has left them genuinely distrustful of other people, and of their own ability to make the right choices. Unhealed wounds can even go as far as someone not feeling as though they deserve to be with the right kind of person. They are afraid to open up. Relationships are mutual agreements of commitment. When faced with a proposition to take a relationship to the next level of agreement, a serial dater will break off what seems to be a perfectly great relationship because they cannot agree in good faith to commit. Risking any kind of rejection from a relationship that they consider serious is too much to bear, so they date people that they like, but not enough to warrant a serious commitment in their hearts. That next level of commitment with someone they never really took seriously on deep levels would blow their avoidant choices wide open into conscious view, and it’s too much to bear. Fear of being alone ironically keeps them alone on a very deep level—a self-fulfilling prophecy. During the last few interactions together, the true serial dater might say things like “I’m really confused” and “I don’t know what I want,” and that “it’s not you but me”—and they’re absolutely correct. It is them. They chose you from the beginning knowing full well that it wouldn’t work out on any sort of long-term level, so when it started to get hot and heavy, they reached for the eject button.
I’ll save this relationship!
Trying to save these serial daters is a lost cause that will only lead to more pain, frustration and a lowering of your own standards. Deep personal issues and forces are at work that time alone can’t solve. Listen to their “it’s not you—it’s me” breakup speech and keep moving, allowing yourself to feel hurt and keep seeking someone who will elevate you to the equal pedestal on which you both belong. Until the true serial dater reconciles their alienating motivations hidden by superficial expressions of affection, he or she will keep substituting the same types of good-for-right-now-but-not-forever people over and over like interchangeable widgets, and will leave a wake of broken hearts in his or her path.
What if it’s me?
If you are the noncommittal half in a relationship and you feel or know that your partner is pushing for a deeper level of intimacy than you feel comfortable providing, take a step back and assess what you’re looking for in the relationship. How do you feel about them? Could this change with time? Are you on the same page with your partner? Are you on the same page with yourself? If you’re with the wrong person, are you sacrificing a fear of being alone with the certainty of being dissatisfied in a go-nowhere relationship? Do you realize you may be hurting your partner by doing that? No one is immune to the toxic feelings of rejection nor the immense joy of love. Both are two parts of the whole known as love, but there is a fairness to love that should be respected. If it becomes clear you do not feel the same level of love and/or commitment as your partner—and suspect you never will—you might want to think about doing the right thing for them and breaking it off, even if you can’t see that it’s also the right thing for you to do for you. If you ever have any hope of having a deep, lasting relationship in which you can finally feel secure and satisfied, you’ll have to take a leap of faith, risk loneliness and make the move toward self-honesty. Past hurt doesn’t make you damaged goods, nor should it set an impossible barometer upon which to judge future potential partners. The anger of past trauma hurts like nothing else, especially unresolved anger mixed with its opposite desire, love. Feeling two diametrically opposed emotions toward someone has the potential to stall people for entire lifetimes, but only if you let it. Don’t waste any more years letting past traumas color your interactions with the opposite sex. It’s not healing time; it’s stalling, and it can leave you feeling very empty over the years. If you need a therapist to sort through it, get one. With a lot of soul searching and honesty, you will know exactly when your time is to settle down, and it will be with a partner who is the best thing you’ve ever known. Far past the unsure feelings of your past relationships, you’ll know with absolute surety that you never had to settle to settle down—and neither did your partner.