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Try Before You Buy

Stung by a bad breakup, I dove into research to understand how healthy relationships take shape.

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Can I ask you a question about your laptop?"

Sitting in a cafe, I glanced up from my screen and saw a stocky guy with cropped dark hair and a small scar over his upper lip, holding a copy of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist . His inquiry about how well I liked my computer turned into a friendly chat about skiing and art. He had an alluring aura of confidence. I gave him my number.

A few nights later, we hopped along a row of restaurants and bars for hours, locked in intense conversation about our lives, values, and aspirations. I was 22, a recent college graduate focused on cultivating my work as a health and science journalist, with a dream of writing a book someday. Dylan, as I'll call him, was in his late 20s, a graduate of the same university and now working in finance. He thought grad school might be on his horizon, but confided a secret yearning to start a vineyard.

I wasn't very experienced in the realm of relationships. I'd gone on plenty of dates and had a boyfriend for a few months once, but had otherwise always been single. During college, when my friends went to frat parties and had drunken hook-ups, I was knuckling down on my studies and trying to get a head start on my career. For the first time though, with Dylan, I felt the thrum of something promising.

We had lots of marathon dates and soul-searching talks, yet as our kind-of-sort-of relationhip unfolded, he ran hot and cold. One day, he would look at me as if I were the only person in a crowded room. The next, he'd say that he needed time to figure things out, explaining that he had to focus on his own career or his personal growth. Four months after we met, he ended it—by text message, no less.

Reeling with confusion, I talked to my close female friends—young women who, like me, are ambitious and educated, and for whom the kind-of-sort-of-relationship is wearily familiar. Behind each of them lay a string of short-lived connections with men of our own age range, education level, and career orientation. Every encounter had started with electric bursts of mutual interest followed by excuses: They were overwhelmed with medical school, too busy job hunting, still dealing with a recent breakup, or "just not ready for something serious."

I wasn't sure if I should still believe my mother's assurance: "When you meet the right person, it all just works out." Does it really? Is there more to it in the modern age? I turned my questions into that dreamed-of book, for which I interviewed more than 100 people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s about their relationships past and present.

Hearing from men was enlightening. It underscored that, rather than being callous cads or commitment-phobes, they were learning about themselves and often dealing with the pressure they felt to attain a certain level of achievement and stability before settling down. Some told me that, when they first met her, they hadn't felt ready to love the woman who eventually became their wife. Others recalled how they'd hurt or strung along women who, they knew, might ultimately be great life partners.

Photo by Deanna Spivey

The women I interviewed helped me understand that the bumps on the winding path to love, while not always pleasant in the moment, can actually be crucial to getting there. Many told me about intense, ill-defined entanglements—"almost pathological," as one writer in her late 20s said—that ultimately helped clarify what they did and didn't want. Reflecting on her own history of wild-ride relationships, a married digital media director in her 30s told me, "I always thought I'd have to be safe but bored or insecure and in love. My husband opened me up to a whole middle ground."

I also came to appreciate that great relationships don't always have flawless beginnings. One woman recounted how the man who would become her husband had refused, early on, to officially recognize their relationship for a long time while he was launching a business. Her girlfriends implored her to walk away from him, but she stuck with it, seeing that his character was far superior to men with whom she'd had whirlwind romances in her 20s. "I just trusted this person," she told me. "Now I have a relationship I'm proud of."

Much of what I heard is confirmed by research on relationship formation. Dating, researchers find, is in many ways a process of collecting and assessing information, determining how we fit and feel with potential mates. And as we collect data, timing is key. Mercenary as it may sound, a period of evaluation helps us determine our preferences before we buy the goods. And a relationship is more likely to succeed if both partners actively choose one another, and grow together, rather than responding to social pressures or expectations.

In a way, my research was something I'd begun as an effort to minimize my own risk. I'd wanted to hatch a plan to find a partner that eliminated the discomfort of dating. Along the way, though, I stumbled onto the reality: Heartbreak helps connect the dots as we chart our way to love and partnership. Dating isn't about avoiding pain and uncertainty, but rather embracing it as part of the process of connecting to the right person. Taking risks is implicit in the formation of a meaningful relationship. Agency lies in deciding which risks feel as if they're worth it.

I still carry some emotional scars from my four-month roller coaster with Dylan, but they mean something to me in the context of a bigger picture. I now feel a greater ability to let go when the stars don't align and to lean gently, but without expectations, into prospects that seem to hold promise. I'm still young, only 25, with a lot of experiences yet to come that I hope will guide me toward my ultimate destination—lasting love. But I understand now that determining who or what is wrong is an uncelebrated but important step on the journey to Mr. or Ms. Right.

Jenna Birch is the author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love , which will be published in January 2018.

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