Posted by Some Dude on August 6, 2012 at 3:08 pm
Got a relationship question you want to ask, or a situation you want thoughts and advice on? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and watch this space for my answer! R. asks,
My boyfriend and I have been together for three years, and we both just graduated. We’re planning to stay together, we have jobs in the same part of the country, and we’re thinking about moving in together. But I’m worried that I’m only staying with him out of inertia. I don’t know if I’m ready to settle down. What should I do? Am I leading him on?
This is a complicated issue. A year and a half ago I fielded a question from a guy in a similar position. On the one hand, should you break off a relationship when nothing is wrong? On the other, does something have to be wrong for you to be unsatisfied? As Prof. Gilbert has observed, we’re really bad at anticipating what will make us happy, so don’t necessarily rely on your instincts to make this decision. You’ll get a more accurate prediction of how you’ll feel by observing what others have chosen in your situation, and how it turned out for them.
Do you want to get married? I don’t necessarily mean to your current boyfriend, and I don’t necessarily mean in the immediate future. The Atlantic ran a really fascinating article about half a year ago that talked about, among other things, the effect that women’s equality has had on the status of men and the nature of marriage. The article cited noted feminist writer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who says that “females are still programmed to look for older men with resources, while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes,” but as women are increasingly equal to (and in some areas already surpassing) men, high-status women (such as the women of Harvard College) have more and more trouble finding higher status men who are willing to reciprocate high-status women’s attraction. Kate Bolick, who wrote the Atlantic article, admits that she’s reached the point where she’s taken for granted for too long that she would always have desirable men to date, and now that she’s about 40 she’s realized that she probably missed her opportunity to marry.
My point in all of this is that if you’re not ready to marry right now, or to this guy specifically, those are pretty straightforward and easy to resolve, but reluctance to commit to a relationship for the rest of your life won’t necessarily go away on its own. Don’t take for granted that you will always have the option of getting married. That means you will eventually have to come to terms with being permanently single when you’re older, or reevaluate your aversion to settling down.
Do you want to have children of your own? This is a more time-sensitive question, since you can ignore the societal clock but the biological clock stops for no one, and most women say they do want to have their own biological children. Serial entrepreneur and blogger Penelope Trunk wrote a frank “Blueprint for a Woman’s Life” last year that every serious feminist loves to hate – but for all the hatred it’s garnered, Trunk’s “blueprint” is still ruthlessly realistic. If you know you want to have kids, it’s worth taking seriously. She recommends that by age 24 women should be looking very seriously for a husband to settle down with, in order to be married by 28 and have two children by 35.
On the other hand, there are substitutions for old-fashioned pregnancy now if you want to be a parent, such as in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, or adoption. And you can raise a child without a spouse (although statistically it’s not as good for the child).
How do you decide what to do? Don’t worry about leading your boyfriend on – if you broke up with him, he’d be very unhappy at first – who would not be? – but it would wear off. This is about you. If it’s not going to work out, you should break it off to save yourself the lost time.
There is no “the one.” There is only the last one, the last in a series of ones. There would probably be other ones after that if you kept going. I think the questions to ask are: could you make it work, and are you motivated to make it work? Long-term commitment is not easy. I’m sure you’ve worked that out for yourself after three years in a relationship – sometimes it’s boring, sometimes you argue, sometimes you feel like you’re compromising. And three years in, your passionate head-over-heels emotions have faded. The rose-colored glasses are off. Do you like what you see?
Whether your boyfriend has all the checklist qualities you want from an ideal mate matters much less than if the relationship is sustainable. Here are some ideas that might help guide introspection: How solid is your relationship? How satisfied are you with it on the day-to-day? What advantages – and what limits – does it give you? For instance, it probably gives you emotional support, a regular sex life, and potentially the financial benefit of having two incomes (among many other things), but it would also limit where you can live to places where your boyfriend could also find work (among many other things).
Also understand the real alternatives you’re weighing your relationship against. Are you willing to give up the emotional advantages of a relationship for the more practical freedom of singledom?
And while we can all “trade up” to someone better, that doesn’t mean that we should. Think about your favorite brand of shampoo. You use that particular brand for a reason. What does it cost – $5 a bottle? $20? Now imagine that you found an even better brand, a step above, but it cost $2000 a bottle. What would you need to do to fit it in? You’d need a very high-paying job, and you’d probably need to budget other purchases around it. But the change doesn’t stop there: chances are that once you’re accustomed to $2000 a bottle shampoo, cheap soap or toothpastes wouldn’t be enough for you either. Would you be able to keep that going? Is achieving an incremental improvement in the shampoo worth all that cost? Committing to a “higher quality” mate can come with similar trade-offs. How much would you need to change yourself to achieve it? Would such a relationship be sustainable?
Bottom line, if your relationship is sustainable and nothing is actually wrong, err on the side of trying to make it work. Chances are, you’ll be happier. If something is wrong (like your boyfriend is abusive, or you have totally incompatible life goals, or the relationship is stressful and frustrating, or you bring out the worst in each other), then throw in the towel earlier to give yourself the best opportunity to find a relationship that does work for you.
Special Thanks to the wonderful women of the International Women’s Forum. Email Some Dude at email@example.com.