I was going to include this letter in the last batch. Then I realized that this one alone could take up a whole article, since it brings up so much good stuff:
“Hi Dr B! I’m not sure if you remember me. I spoke to you on Skype over a year ago about whether it could work out between me and my boyfriend who is 5 years younger than me. I was concerned about my biological clock and whether he would be ready in time to make a commitment towards marriage.
Now I’m about to turn 31 and he’s 26. He is totally committed to our relationship and my parents adore him. He treats me really well, is responsible, self-disciplined, clever and insightful so I feel like I can really grow with him.
There’s just one problem. I’m writing to you because I want your opinion on whether you think I’m sabotaging my relationship. I’ve been seeing all of these flaws in him, I know I’m being critical which probably says more about me than him but… I’m not just sure that I’m totally connected to him, as I thought it would feel different than it does and what if I meet someone in the future that understands me more, that I can connect better with.
How do you ever know you’re making the right decision about spending your life with this one person? Are you just supposed to know? Am I self-sabotaging my relationships because I’m searching for the perfect person? I’m feeling confused and frustrated because at first I wasn’t sure if HE would be seriously committed to this relationship. Now after 2 years of him being a pretty great boyfriend, I’m not sure if it’s ME who’s going to be happy. And sometimes I don’t know if I’m ever sure of anything. I think I’m afraid of making the big decisions in life. I only want to get married once and I want to be happily married. Hoping you can shed some light on my situation. Thanks! Carina”
Well well. Isn’t it interesting how the pendulum swings. One second you’re the pursued; next one, you’re the suitor. One day you’re the one who wants commitment; next day you’re the one who wants out. How come nobody taught us about this stuff in high school, or college? Mom, Dad? Help, aiuto, ayudame, hjälpa mig, aidez-moi, hilf mir, komakam konin already. (If “help me” in your language is not there, please put it there in the comments!)
Fret not, me hearties. I’m here to give you some sure-footed guidance – or at the very least, to stumble through it with you.
First of all, I’ll note how times have changed. My mom was married by 24 and had already borne both of her kids by age 30. Nowadays, women get married much later and have kids even in their 40s – sometimes using high-tech prods and pills to get them to ovulate and bear offspring far after Mother Nature’s timetable.
So – does that mean 30 is too late for marriage? Too early? Should Carina commit now, because she’s got a good guy on the hook and her eggs are a-shrivelin’ by the minute? What if she changes her mind? What if he changes his mind?
Ay carumba. Let’s break this down:
Are you ready for a long-term committed relationship involving marriage, grill, minivan and 2.3 kids?
Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that evolution doesn’t care, and it has arranged the 3 billion base pairs of your DNA such that the species Homo sometimes-sapiens propagates itself, whether you’re ready for it or not. Witness the 40% rate of teenage pregnancy in the US: offspring happen.
The bad news is that sometimes we are sapiens, and this gets us into a jam. We start thinking, “Do I make enough money to pay for private school?”, and this gets us thwarting evolution’s carefully laid out plans three million years in the making to REPRODUCE ALREADY DAMMIT because it doesn’t know what private school or violin lessons are and frankly it don’t care.
Which makes thinking both the bane and boon of our existence, dagnabbit. Here’s what Old Possum (aka T.S. Eliot) had to say about this (from the ‘East Coker’ section of Four Quartets):
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Wasn’t that pretty? Yes, it was. And what the hey does it have to do with Carina’s conundrum?
Everything, my lovelies. Here’s the thing: love has phases. You start with the initial madly-in-love period (aka limerence). During this time, your brain looks like it’s hooked on cocaine (or worse), and you can’t see straight. But if feels soo goooood.
Eventually (in 18mos on average), this wears off and becomes something a little mellower which scientists call companionate love. The difference between limerence and companionate love resembles the difference between an epic all-day romp in the sack vs. a nice afternoon cuddle. Both are fun, but the intensity and nature of the fun are different.
Since limerence is basically a drug-induced state, its passing can sometimes feel like a recovery from a long hangover: “Holy cow – who is this person I’ve been with for 18 months?” Nod if you know what I’m talking about.
So what Carina may be experiencing is the diminution of that intense, connected feeling she had with her guy during the limerence phase. She’s “lost that loving feeling”, as the song goes. And now that she can see more clearly, she’s questioning the whole basis of the relationship. And maybe love would be love of the wrong thing.
Wait – buy how can you tell if you’re really connected to someone anyway? Which aisle in the pharmacy has a Connect-o-Meter? And should you ever buy a cheap one?
Carina has a chance here to deepen her relationship with this fella by deliberately getting to know him better. One way is to ask the 36 questions that Prof Arthur Aron came up with 20 years ago, which has been making the rounds of the internet recently. Do you know your partner’s favorite movie? His fondest memory? The nature of his relationship with his siblings and parents? His favorite children’s book? No? Get crackin’, then.
There is this fallacy that somehow, once we get together with someone, we can stop the courtship process because, well, you know each other. Intimacy is this process of merging, of fusing, and we’re basically one entity so what else is there to discover?
Wrong! You never know each other. And treating your partner as merged with yourself, as your “better half”, is precisely what kills romance and passion, as Esther Perel argues so eloquently in her supremely wise masterwork Mating in Captivity. To sustain passion, romance, interest, you need space between you. You need to be able to see your partner as The Other, just like you did on that first night that you met when his sight made you quiver.
This is what Kahlil Gibran, another wise cookie, had to say about marriage and togetherness for the long haul (from The Prophet):
…Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
So, Carina, if you’re still listening, this is what I think is happening:
First of all, 30 is still pretty young in this day and age. You may still feel like you need to go out and explore, figure out who you really are and what makes you happy. I mean, is this as good as it gets? How can you know unless you have other experiences to compare it to?
On the other hand, you may be ready to settle down. In which case, I would invoke the advice of my friend and damn good dating coach, Evan Marc Katz: Don’t hit on 20.
In fact, the advice is so good, I’m gonna put it in bold and all caps:
DON’T HIT ON 20.
Now I can hear your thoughts: “Umm, ahh, Dr Ali. I’m confused. What exactly do you mean? We shouldn’t be flirting with 20-yr old guys? But they’re so cute and tasty!”
So for those of you who aren’t gamblers: in a game of 21 like blackjack, you ask for as many cards as it takes to get as close to 21 as possible. If your cards add up to 20, that’s pretty good! You don’t want to “hit” anymore, which means to request another card, because then you’re very likely to go over 21 and “bust” (aka lose).
So if you’ve got a guy who’s attractive enough, considerate, kind, and “treats me really well, is responsible, self-disciplined, clever and insightful so I feel like I can really grow with him”, you may have yourself a 20. ‘Cause nobody’s going to be perfect.
My main criterion is simple: if you consistently feel like a better version of yourself in his presence, and he has no detectable dealbreakers, then it’s likely that you have a keeper.
But what’s this I hear?
“I’ve been seeing all of these flaws in him, I know I’m being critical which probably says more about me than him but… I’m not just sure that I’m totally connected to him, as I thought it would feel different than it does and what if I meet someone in the future that understands me more, that I can connect better with.”
What kind of flaws are we talking about here? Does he leave dirty socks around the house? Torture cats just for kicks? Subscribe to Guns & Ammo? Cook crystal meth on weekends?
In other words, you’ve got to know what your dealbreakers are. Nobody’s going to be a 100% perfect fit anyway, so you need to figure out if the imperfections are cardinal or venial. If you don’t have a list of dealbreakers, I highly recommend that you check out this interview I did with Dr Isabelle Fox on her book The Prospective Spouse Checklist: Evaluating Your Potential Partner, a volume I believe all single ladies should possess as a reference. You may also want to read this post from some time ago about whether or not to take the plunge.
And of course, he’s only 25. And as T.S. Eliot said in Prufrock, “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse.” What if he gets bored? What if he decides that he’s too young to settle down? What if he gets spooked when kids appear?
You just can’t know these things. In a way, this is the most pernicious line in the whole letter: “I only want to get married once and I want to be happily married.”
Well, that’s just not up to you, Carina. As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, you are entitled to your labors, but not the fruit of your labors. You do your part – be present, supportive, kind, generous, good in bed, encouraging, open, a catalyst to his growth – and the rest you leave to the universe. All you can do is your best.
Maybe this article helped clear things up for you a little. Even more likely, it has made your decision even more complicated than before. That’s good! Because these things are worth thinking through. Especially when there’s the heart, mind and body of another person (whom you like a lot!) involved. Would you be doing him a favor if you got married to him half-heartedly? Sometimes a timely, amicable breakup (vs nasty rancorous divorce involving vulnerable kids) is the nicest thing you can do for someone you love.
So: Figure out who you really are and what you really want. Not ready for long-term commitment? Then don’t drag someone else along into it reluctantly. Know what your dealbreakers are. Don’t hit on 20. And always do your best, because then you can rest easy that you’ve done your part and let the relationship take its course.
PS: Ever wonder why men pull away? On Wed Jan 20, I’ll be the featured speaker on the Why Men Pull Away series of free online lectures put on by my friend & colleague Cyndi Olin. There are some great (and funny!) speakers in the lineup, including the fabulous Arielle Ford. The series is already well under way, so sign up here to make sure you catch my talk and the other good ones. No cost to listeners.
PPS: Know friends who would find this email useful? Then feel free to spread the love and forward it to them. I will love you forever, and I’m hoping so will the recipients!
PPPS: If you’ve read The Tao of Dating and have nice things to say about it, I’ll be infinitely grateful if you could express yourself in the form of an Amazon review. And if you haven’t read it yet – well, you’re still here all the way to end of this rambling email, so apparently you like to read what I have to say. May want to check it out. Thanks! :)