Throughout the animal kingdom—from mammals and birds down to insects—there are complicated mating rituals, behaviors we refer to archly as “courtship” rituals. Standing back and observing these behaviors from a respectful distance, it seems clear that they are designed to encourage mating with the healthiest animals. Usually, the males are demonstrating to the females that they are genetically well-endowed and strong enough to defend the female and the offspring they expect to produce. They do this by showing off their plumage, or their antlers, or by strutting back and forth in a complicated dance—or in any of a number of other subtle tests of strength and courage. Embedded in the idea of survival of the fittest is survival of their children. These courtship rituals are not simply a showy way of expressing interest. They are integral to the whole process of mating and parenting a new generation. They have to proceed in an orderly way.
We are not exempt from the demands of evolution. Our courtship rituals are marked by certain familiar activities, which we think of more modestly as dating. In order for dating to be successful, it has to proceed through stages. No one has given a label to these different stages. We think of the whole business as more or less continuous. Still, certain things have to happen at different times. There is a natural pace to a dating relationship. That pace is determined by cultural factors. What happens when is determined by what is expected from couples at the particular time and place in which they live.
There are societies in which conventional dating, as we know it, does not exist. Brides are bought and sold. In some places they are captured. Throughout long stretches of history that practice, which is akin to slavery, was common. Nothing like courtship existed in these relationships. There is still the widespread practice of arranged marriages. They tend to work in cultures which support pairing off in this way. Even then, the participants sometimes have the right to say no. These cultures demonstrate that love is not a necessary condition of a marriage. Western ways prove, I think, that it is not sufficient. I think this is what is important in choosing a husband or wife. In order of importance:
- It is critically important that the prospective partner is a nice person. I think most people are nice, but certainly not all. I had a patient who broke up with her fiancé because he was rude to a waiter. That made sense to me. Waiters cannot answer back. I think people who are rude to waiters are bullies. Someone rude to a waiter is likely, sooner or later, to be rude to a spouse.
- It is important to marry someone who is interesting to you, who makes you laugh, if possible. Couples spend much more time talking to each other across a table than they spend in bed together making love.
- It is important for the couple to share similar ideas about gender roles (who does what in the family and around the house), about financial matters, about child upbringing, about religion, and about how to resolve family disputes. These attitudes sum to a view of how their marriage will proceed.
- Couples should have sexual desires that are not so divergent they cannot be compromised. If someone wants to have sex once a week and the other prefers three or four times a week, they can, if they have good will, compromise readily at twice a week. But if someone’s natural rhythm is once a month, that compromise is more difficult. It is possible for one person to have sexual idiosyncrasies that are so unusual that even a partner who has good will may not be able to accommodate them.
- It is helpful to be in love at the start of a marriage. Loving each other makes it easier to overcome the invariable disputes that come up almost daily. (How warm should the house be? Should we go out tonight or stay at home and watch a ball game on television? Do we have to eat hamburgers all the time? Why do you always mess up the bathroom? And so on.) According to some brain studies, romantic love lasts about three or four years. (Don’t ask how they figured this out.) By that time, hopefully, the couple has adjusted to each other. Children may have appeared by that time; and they too tend to bind the couple together.
It is usual to speak of being in love as the most important thing in deciding to get married—or staying married, for that matter. It is not. Most emotionally healthy people fall in love readily. If a relationship comes to an end for any of the reasons that such a thing can happen, the healthy person is likely to meet someone else and fall in love all over again in months or, perhaps, a year or so.
I saw a young woman twice a week in psychotherapy. She had all kinds of reasons for despising men, including their being untrustworthy. She spent one Monday session telling me in detail of these reasons and counting off for me all the unsatisfactory men she knew. Indeed, they were the only men she knew. That Thursday she told me she was engaged to be married to someone she had met after our session on Monday! I asked her how that could be.
“He’s different,” she told me complacently.
I saw another woman for the first time after she had been jilted by her lover of the previous two years. She spoke about the possibility of killing herself, and, when she called me the next day and spoke to that effect, I was so concerned, I made a home visit to make sure she was all right. The following week she was in love with someone else!
These women stick out in my mind because of the suddenness of their falling in love; but there were very many men and women who were terribly despondent, and, every once in a while, suicidal about being jilted, who then went on to meet someone else and fall in love all over again just a few months later. A general rule is no one kills himself/herself over a relationship that broke up six months before.
Sometimes love is given the credit, or blame, for holding marriages together. I saw a woman once who escaped from a marriage which struck me at the time as the world’s worst marriage. Her husband beat her, lived off her income, seduced her friends and deserted her from time to time. He also bought a dog which she did not want and which, ultimately, he left to her care. A few weeks later she told me she was thinking of going back to him. Trying to remain calm, I asked her how she could possibly consider returning to that situation. “I love him,” she told me. She changed her mind when she met someone a few weeks later.
The considerations I list above are most important in determining whether someone will be a good husband or wife. Yet, when dating, the first thing everyone looks for is good looks. This is reasonable. It turns out that having a symmetrical face, and an attractive figure, are good indications of genetic viability. Any unusual variance in physical appearance suggests something is wrong somewhere. (For this reason, an unusually attractive woman can be constructed by making a computer composite of the faces of a randomly selected group of forty or fifty women.) In an odd way, being beautiful means being average, that is, having no particularly distinctive features.
So, it is natural when dating to wish to appear to be attractive and to meet someone who is attractive. However, the advantages of being attractive, or even beautiful, are transient. It is like a salesman getting one foot in the door. Everything that is really important comes afterwards.
The pace of a dating relationship
The progress of a dating relationship depends in part on cultural factors, as described above, and also on the age of the couple who are dating. The description I give below is my impression of how these things usually work out among those people I have seen. They are from a suburban community; and they live in the twenty-first century. They are more or less educated.
Imagine a couple who have already met. Both of them had a good time and thought the other person was really nice. (You do not have to imagine all the unsatisfactory dates they had before meeting each other.) If the man does not call the following day, the woman will feel less enthusiastic. This is inevitable. It does not matter if she thinks, or is told by others, that it is not reasonable to expect someone to call right away. Being wanted unambiguously and unmistakably makes a difference. It is natural for her, and everyone else, to like someone who likes her. It is not appealing for someone to seem cool. There are, indeed, some people who are turned off by someone coming on very strongly, but these men and women are likely to get turned off sooner or later anyway. Is it irretrievable for the relationship if the man does not call right away? Of course not. But the longer he waits to call, the less enthusiastic the woman is likely to be. Calling a week later has stamped the relationship as lukewarm.
There are sometimes good reasons for someone backing away from a relationship, although those reasons may not be apparent. Such a person is said simply “not to be ready.” I took care of a woman who had been severely phobic to the point of being housebound. When she got better and started to date, she did so aggressively. I thought she really wanted to get married; but she dated one man after another. One of the men, who went by so fast I never heard of him, met my patient again the following year. Now, she noticed him. They were married some time later.
Some men—and women too—purposely go slowly in the early stages of a relationship so that they “will not get hurt.” This does not work. People get attached anyway. The only way of not getting hurt is not to get into a relationship in the first place. The only way to avoid disappointment in life is not to want anything—which is not possible. Or desirable.
Assume that the man did call, and they have gone out again. They still like each other a lot. Then, if they do not arrange to see each other as often as possible in the next few weeks, once again, the relationship will start to cool. If one person feels it is possible that this dating relationship can mature into something permanent, he/she will be discouraged if it seems the other person may not feel the same way. Being discouraged repeatedly leads to drawing back.
Assume the couple above still like each other very much after a number of dates. Is it important to have sex for the relationship to continue? How soon in the relationship should this happen? Yes, it is. Except for the few couples (in this area of the country, at least) who believe for religious reasons that they should not have sex before marriage, a relationship that does not develop in the context of sexual intimacy will begin to falter. How soon depends on the ages of the couple. Couples about twenty years of age can continue for months without having sex and without endangering the relationship. In the late twenties and thirties, my guess is about six or seven dates. In the late thirties and forties probably three or four dates. Oddly enough, as people get into the sixties and seventies, it seems that sexual relations become less important. Relationships, even marriage, can survive for relatively long periods of time without regular sexual relations.
I remember an attractive, professional woman of twenty-seven who had gone out with a man from a prestigious law firm. He was interesting to her, but he had not made a pass at her in the four or five dates she had seen him. Her presumption, which was reasonable, I thought, was that he was gay or that he had some sort of sexual inhibition. She chose not to go out with him again.
Sometimes, it is the person who is hesitating to have sex that I happen to see in psychotherapy, usually for other reasons. The explanations he/she may give for hesitating are varied. Some women say they are embarrassed by how they look when they are undressed. Some men say they are afraid of failing sexually because they had been impotent in the past. Still, the bottom line is that they have a problem. The problem does not have to be fundamental or persistent. It can result from some fear that comes up only in the context of that particular relationship. It can be temporary. But if it does continue, it endangers the relationship.
Along this somewhat conjectural course of a growing relationship, I think there are other particular times when something has to happen—or the relationship will begin to fall apart. After a number of months, the couple should be thinking about moving in together. After another six months or so of living together, they should be talking about getting married; otherwise one or the other of them will get fed up; and they will break apart. Finally, most relationships that have come this far begin to feel secure and certain to both people and result, finally, in marriage.
There are exceptions to all these guidelines. There are couples that hold together despite being unable to get past these various landmarks; but they are few. Some people skip right over these different steps. They meet someone today and are married a few months later. I would not want to bet against their marriage holding up even though their courtship was shorter than that of others. Some even skip the final step. I know two couples who have represented themselves to the world as being married, but who are not. Although they were friends of mine, I did not discover that fact until I had known them for many years. I found out about one couple only after their “divorce.” (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd,com/blog