Finding "the one" is the bread and butter of chick flicks but in a world populated by nearly 7 billion people the odds of finding a one-and-only soul mate are statistically close to zero. So why do so many people say "I just knew he (she) was the one!" shortly after meeting the person they eventually marry? In a new Redbook Magazine survey 23% of the 2000+ married female respondents "knew he was the one" immediately and an additional 25% knew after a few weeks. It wasn't a nationally representative sample of women and hindsight is often distorted, but there is something to these quick epiphanies - it's about timing. Any partner who is a good-enough match on core values, sexual attraction and personality features has a good shot at suddenly becoming "the one" when two other things are in place - mutual emotional maturity and situational readiness.
A big indicator of whether you have the emotional maturity to weather the storms of a shared life is how good you are at delaying gratification. If either you or your partner are still letting "I want to feel good right now" rule your life without taking a long view of consequences you are not ready. If you are immediate gratification-driven but in love with the idea of commitment you may think you have found "the one" many times over, only to break up and start over again. Or you may try to have your cake and eat it too by keeping more than one partner in play and giving mixed messages about commitment to all of them.
Another indicator of emotional maturity is embracing interdependence - the ability to be self-reliant while also being comfortable with giving and accepting support. If you are afraid you can't live contentedly and well without a partner, chances are you will make relationship decisions that are based on security-seeking rather than balanced self-sufficiency and ability to depend on others. The more dependent you are, the more likely you are to think every love affair is "the one" at first, in order to hold on to (a false) sense of security.
On the other hand, if you're looking for love but you've convinced yourself that it's foolish or weak to ever depend on anyone other than yourself, you are what psychologists call "counter-dependent" - and you'll make sure it's never a good time to commit. You might do this by rationalizing that no one ever meets your copious criteria for a perfect match, when the real deal is you don't trust anyone to share the reins with you. For some people, interdependence is easier to maintain in friendships than romantic bonds because romantic attachments dredge up many more family-of-origin vulnerabilities related to abandonment, control, sexual anxieties etc.
Emotional maturity also includes the ability to be resilient after suffering losses. If you are afraid that losing love will crush you beyond repair you are more likely to try to force-fit inappropriate partners into your love mold and stay in bad relationships too long just because breaking up seems unbearably painful. If you are confident that you can pick yourself up and learn something about yourself and others from relationships that don't work out, you can cut your losses in a healthy way.
Finally, emotionally mature people have a developed sense of empathy. They can understand and support someone else's feelings and attitudes, even if they disagree, without jeopardizing their own.
Twenty-somethings face legitimate quandaries when it comes to committing to a partner for life. (Read Unhooked Generation for excellent coverage of this phenomenon). Higher education, tough economic times, frequent job changes and a bigger smorgasbord of dating and mating options delay situational readiness. Marriage and other declarations of lifetime commitment have become the dessert rather than the entrée for lots of people - and more and more people are choosing to skip dessert altogether and live rich, contentedly-single lives. See Bella DePaulo's blog on this website for a tribute to lifelong vibrant singlehood.
In 2008 the average age of marriage was about 26 for women and 28 for men - the ages at which emotional maturity and situational readiness begin to converge to maximize our odds of successful committed relationship these days. The rest is as it always was... a bit of serendipity and a leap of faith.
© 2010, Linda R. Young, Ph.D. All rights reserved