Some of life’s biggest changes have a way of sneaking up on you. You can’t know, for instance, when you meet someone new that this is going to be the person you’ll want to wake up next to every morning until the day one of you doesn’t wake up anymore.
Many of us know so little about each other when our hormones take over. How effectively we are able to determine whether a relationship has genuine potential—whether this time it’s “real”—is one of the linchpins of relationship success.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
The more time you allow for building intimacy while you’re dating, the better your odds of connecting with a genuine person, not an imagined image. When a couple new to one another chooses structured activities like dinner and a movie, it sometimes serves to keep actual intimacy at bay.
Of course, there is no such thing as an actual soul mate. You choose to love someone, to stick with them through time. True love is more in line with the reality described by Tim Minchin’s delightful love song, “If I Didn’t Have You.”
The more you disclose about yourself, the more you discover how much you can trust the other person to handle your disclosures with sensitivity. Among the most helpful attitudes you can adopt in a relationship are openness and a willingness to take emotional risks.
I once had a student with an erratic dating history who insisted that he couldn’t tell a new dating partner his religion for fear of her prejudice. When he finally did tell her, and she reacted in a prejudiced way, he felt reinforced for not being more forthcoming earlier. But one of the main purposes of intimate honesty early in a relationship is to find out if the receiver of your confidences can love the fullness of who you are—and if not, it’s time to move on.
One woman told me the main reason she chose her husband—even though she’d been more sexually excited by a previous lover—was that “there was a tremendous honesty.” She’d been engaged a couple times before, but each time she realized that either the young man wasn’t someone she could count on, or he was a person that made her "cringe" every time he went near her. When she met an honest fellow, she realized, “The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t let him go.”
BEWARE OF PROJECTING
Projection—how we sometimes see in someone what isn’t there—is another fallacy that begins (but doesn’t end) when you’re new together. Understand that you aren’t in your right mind when you’re lusting after and romanticizing someone. Those feelings are a reflection of your body’s intense desire to connect with another body, not necessarily a reflection of the reality of sharing a life with someone. Thus we rationalize that our beloved is exactly right for us. When you’re projecting, you’re missing the actual person in front of you.
One of the key aspects of successful love is that who you are as individuals and who you can become over time, both separately and together, forms a complementary unit. Your personalities, attitudes, and values mesh, if not at first, then eventually.
Therefore, we all tend to go through a detective stage to determine who this other person is. No need to hire a private eye, though. Assuming your beloved isn’t a clever serial killer, most of what you’re seeking to determine will show up if you stay alert and avoid distorting what you see into what you wish it were.
Or you might be overlaying what you most fear. Take a clear-eyed look at your partner’s same-sex parent, but also examine the other parent’s marital interactions. This can provide you with vital clues to your loved one’s current behavior—or partial truths. For instance, your partner may expect you to behave like his opposite-sex parent, and thus will interpret a miniscule similarity as foretelling doom.
Another woman told me that she and her husband were engaged within two weeks of meeting each other. “I’d always dreamed of having a life of peace, because I was raised in a family where my father was a rager. I hated it. Who knew I was marrying one?” Still, this couple managed to do what so many try and fail to do: deal effectively, once and for all, with the issue that subconsciously compelled them to choose someone just like dear old Mom or Dad.
FLEXIBILITY IS WHAT LASTS
We can’t predict precisely which characteristics are going to be called for in any particular set of future experiences. Try thinking of the two of you in terms of television sets as-yet-untuned to the channel lineup. But rather than checking to see which channels your partner gets, you have an opportunity to set your channels in unison as you grow, develop, and share experiences together.
Just so long as you determine in advance that your lifemate-to-be is cable-ready for a vast number of channels, including some as yet unnumbered, perhaps not to be needed for decades (such as the one that dictates behavior when one partner has a terminal illness).
And take heart: If you’re already part of a couple, you and your partner can upgrade yourselves at any time. The human personality is hugely adaptable, in spite of the folklore suggesting we can’t change. We can indeed change ourselves—slowly and with great difficulty, and only if strongly motivated. And, as we know, when one member changes, the whole family system changes.