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Wrong Person, Right Time vs. Right Person, Wrong Time

Forget the cliché: Many times love doesn’t—and isn’t meant to—conquer all.

Source: Pixabay

I can’t begin to count the number of times a client or couple I worked with were ensnared in a union that seemed doomed from the start. So let me explain this regrettable, but all-too-common, phenomenon.

There are many reasons that two people decide to marry. In healthier instances, it’s because—both by nature and nurture—they resonate beautifully with one another; their constitution, personality, beliefs, and behavior blend exceptionally well. Rather than feel threatened by the inevitable differences between them, they also tend to be less critical and more accepting of these discrepancies. Consequently, their disagreements don’t degrade into dig-in-your-heels arguments that resist any adaptive resolution.

But in many instances, two people never suited to have a permanent relationship end up (miserably) in one. And the fortuitous circumstances initially bringing them together become even more complicated when they have children—or in fact got married in the first place because they’d had sex and the female partner became pregnant, so that at the time (perhaps because of their religious affiliation) they determined it was the only “right” thing to do.

I’ve done counseling with people who grew up in horribly dysfunctional families and so were ready to do virtually anything to extricate themselves from their painfully felt abuse. The living conditions at home were so intolerable that as soon as they were old enough, any person who seemingly cared for them—and was willing to “rescue” them—compelled them (however rashly or prematurely) to make a lasting commitment they’d later come deeply to regret.

As they shared with me, these individuals’ dominant concern was “just to get out of the house.” And this overriding priority made them vulnerable to choosing, almost as a default, the wrong person to settle down with. Such an impulsively chosen partner may have been, or was on the verge of becoming, a serious addict; or fundamentally incompatible with them; or, alas, an abuser him- or herself. But given their state of psychic emergency, none of these (and other) warning signals were discernible. For their anxiety, anger, or depression was so disturbing that escaping what was simply unbearable trumped all other considerations.

Of course, many other factors can prompt a person to choose a mate poorly matched to—or even unworthy of—them. To name just one, when a person’s friends are all getting married and starting a family, and in growing older they fear they might end up alone, isolated and unloved, they’re likely to “compromise” themselves for a partner that isn’t, and realistically can never be, a good marital choice.

I’ve always believed that it’s better to stay single (however frustrating that situation might be) than to marry the wrong person. But the irresistible hope that many people can’t let go of can propel them toward a decision almost guaranteed to return to haunt them. They can't but cross their fingers that, once married, their now committed state will make things better between them and the person they’re already experiencing difficulties with. As the ambiguous saying goes, “Hope springs eternal in the human heart." (See “7 Downsides of Hope.”)

In short, if you marry a person out of desperation, or the fear you may never do any better, or because of a compatibility that’s basically superficial (like having extraordinary sexual rapport), odds are that such a relationship will fare poorly.

... So much for committing yourself to the wrong person because, apparently, the time is right.

But what if the time isn’t right at all? What if you’re just not ready to marry, yet your prospective partner seems almost miraculously suited to you—that is, you have no doubt whatsoever about their being “the one”? Still, you feel too young to marry, or are about to go off to college in another state, or have just gotten divorced and need time to be alone and grieve, or your parents vehemently oppose the union, or marrying now will significantly interfere with the advancement of your all-important career, and so on. What then?

Although it’s true that there’s no single right person for any of us (as though if we miss one opportunity, we’ll forever forfeit our chance for happiness), do we really want to forsake a relationship that—ready or not—seems ideal?

There’s a crucial analysis to be made here. That is, even though the time or place may be wrong, if the person seems just right for you, might it still be workable? This isn’t a subject that lends itself to scientific scrutiny, so my thoughts here are based largely on my more than 40 years of experience as a therapist. But it would seem that if two people really love and respect each other, there are many ways they can make it work. If, intuitively—without, that is, employing a two-column sheet diagramming all the pros and cons about the other person—they simply know that this is the relationship they want, then in most (though not all) cases they’ll find ways of changing their earlier plans to accommodate this “big picture” knowledge, their ultimate guide. As another famous expression goes, "Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Consider this powerful quote by Heidi Priebe, though given the complicated world we live in, it could use some qualifications and caveats:

You never meet the right people at the wrong time because the right people are timeless. The right people make you want to throw away the plans you originally had . . . and follow them into the hazy, unknown future without a glance backwards. The right people don’t make you hem and haw about whether or not you want to be with them; you just know. You know that any adventure you had originally planned out for your future isn’t going to be half as incredible as the adventures you could have by their side. That no matter what you thought you wanted before, this is better. Everything is better since they came along.

When you are with the right person, time falls away. You don’t worry about fitting them into your complicated schedule, because they become a part of that schedule. They become the backbone of it. Your happiness becomes your priority and so long as they are contributing to it, you can work around the rest. (“The Truth About Meeting Someone at the Wrong Time,” ThoughtCatalog, updated Nov. 8, 2018)

As compelling as this argument is—or at first blush would at least appear—consider the position of another writer, who admits that in the real world there are various, more compelling reasons that the right person for us might come at the wrong time, making a permanent relationship with them untenable. In “5 Signs You’re With the Right Person at the Wrong Time” (Elite Daily, August 17, 2017), Alison Segal notes that the relationship may not be workable because:

  1. "You’re not the best version of yourself yet.” [For instance, you may be in the throes of an addiction and be too afraid to share this with your otherwise ideal partner—and may even end up “ghosting” them.]
  2. "Your career is your significant other right now.” [If, presently, your values make professional stability or development your highest priority, you may not be prepared to make the adjustments required to commit yourself to someone else—regardless of how much you might care for them—and they for you.]
  3. "You’re still getting over your ex.” [“The readiness is all” is a quote that goes all the way back to Hamlet, and like other admonitions about just making the time right when it really isn’t, you can’t simply catapult yourself into the future when you still need time to resolve the past. Leapfrogging over grief doesn’t leave you ready to start a new relationship—and who knows what you might be feeling about this new person when your mourning over a failed relationship is complete? Besides, there may be things you still need to learn about why your former relationship didn’t succeed before you enter a new relationship anticipating a different outcome.]
  4. "You struggle with codependency.” [If, essentially, you’re not on good terms with yourself and have poor interpersonal boundaries, you’re not yet healthy enough to co-create a sound, mutually satisfying relationship. Before committing yourself to another, you must work on the unconditional self-acceptance that, till now, has eluded you.]
  5. “You’re about to move.” [Again, it’s a matter of priorities. If you’re about to relocate somewhere far away and that’s key to your existential or career preferences, starting a relationship with someone “bound” to their present location (whether because of work or family) may not be workable for either of you.]

Or, as Kenya Foy concisely puts it—in her “6 Options You Have When You Meet the Right Person at the Wrong Time”—circumstances “like immaturity, emotional unavailability, or geographical distance” can prevent a relationship from blossoming (July 20, 2017).

To end this piece with yet another viewpoint on this ever-controversial, and probably irresolvable, dilemma, here’s a perspective far more cynical than the romantic one advanced earlier by Priebe:

When we meet somebody who seems ideal, it is only natural to want to make that connection and to manifest a relationship with that person. Those feelings may even be reciprocated and we may even begin an intimate relationship [with them]. But if that seemingly right person comes along at the wrong time, for us or for them, the relationship is doomed to fail. Although all the other boxes are ticked—attraction, values, life goals, geography—if the timing is off, neither party has any power over the course of the situation and the reality needs to be accepted. (Diane Koopman, “The Heartbreaking Truth About Meeting the Right Person at the Wrong Time,” Lifehack, n.d.)

Searching for some middle ground here, I’d like to turn once more to Shakespeare and his memorable quote, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). To me, what this telling line implies is that regardless of how well the fit between you and someone else might be, the need for mutual compromise and accommodation—rarely fitting either of your fantasies of ideal love—will almost always be required. (See "Compromise Made Simple" and "To Accommodate or Confront?")

So, like just about everything else in life, it’s vital that, whether you decide to fight for a relationship or flee from it, you don’t let your emotions run away with you. For any decision made impulsively is all too likely to be one you'll regret.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.