Most single people now have multiple options for dating adventures.
Many of my patients have agonized over this kind of conflict. They’re not discontented with their current relationship, but they still find themselves wondering if they should keep looking for a better one. They ask questions like, “Could there be another person out there that I could love more? What if I leave this relationship and then winding up realizing it was the best I’d ever have? What if I’m never sure no matter who I’m with? How do I make the right decision?”
Over the four decades that I’ve been a relationship therapist, I’ve developed an exercise that often helps them answer their questions. I ask them to imagine that their search for the right long-term partner can feel like traveling through an archipelago of islands, sampling the attractions and limitations of each. There is always the wonder of new experience, the exploration of all that is offered, and the decision to nest there or to continue searching.
The relationship-island metaphor is an easy way to describe the dilemma of many partnership-seekers today. They find themselves going from relationship to relationship, basking for a while in the beauty of the initial experience, only to eventually feel restless and wondering if it’s time to move on.
As they imagine those journeys with me, they quickly realize that there may be infinite possibilities for new “relationship island” experiences for them. They also can see that any island they settle upon could eventually not feel like the right choice later on, and they fear that happening. They’ve watched their friends make sincere and authentic commitments that somehow fell apart over time, and they don’t know how to predict those heartbreaks for themselves.
It was easier in the not-so-distant past, where many people were born, grew up, and forever remained on just one metaphorical relationship island. They were not often exposed to the possibility of other choices and were prepared to be content with what was readily available. Many times those options were made for them well in advance.
Today, with the twin developments of migration away from family and the explosion of technology, most single people now have multiple options for dating adventures. They’ve gained the freedom to endlessly explore new possibilities, but are often overwhelmed with fears of making the wrong long-term relationship choice.
The sheer amount of media dating sites and the opportunities they offer can add to the conundrum. The uncertainty of unknown qualities and backgrounds of potential relationship partners can actually make those metaphorical islands more intriguing, but also more potentially dangerous. What is advertised in the “relationship option travel guide” is not always what shows up in the actual experience?
The combination of all of these variables keeps relationship seekers forever wondering when to stay in their current partnership or when to let go and move on.
Is the partner I’m with the best I’ll ever know?
Should I take the risk of leaving this relationship behind and keep looking?
Am I just endlessly searching for a relationship that is just a fantasy?”
How can I know that it’s time to commit to the partner I’m with or to look for someone new?
Am I settling for what I have because I’m afraid I won’t find anyone better than the person I’m with?
Am I just doomed to search forever because I’ll never be certain?
Though there may be as many different answers as there are relationships, there are some guidelines that can help with those decisions. The following six are the ones I’ve found to be the most helpful.
1. Can I trust love at first sight to last?
The answer to the first part is yes. I have known many couples who knew they were right for each other within the first hours they met, and their relationships remained strong and successful. My husband and I are a living example. We met at an ice-skating rink when we were fourteen and married at nineteen. Growing up off of, and with, each other, we needed a lot of support, good therapy, and the unwillingness to ever give up.
I have gathered and amassed the stories of other couples who have had similar experiences. The following statements are a compendium of those philosophies that we share, and what we feel has helped us not only stay together but never regret the decision we made to do so:
Good relationships take commitment and work and helping the other partner grow and mature throughout both the good and bad times. The partners within them must keep learning from each other and are willing to acknowledge the mistakes they make along the way.
They watch other couples carefully to see what broke them up and what kept them together, and change their relationship accordingly when they can.
They realize, early on, that they could change some things about the other, and could not, or should not, attempt to change others.
They face potential deal breakers head on and know they have to resolve them in order to keep going.
They don’t expect perfection, but commit fully to do better.
They know that there would always be other temptations, but would never risk losing each other by indulging in those desires.
Their differences are seen as challenges that keep them interested in each other.
They are determined to use their conflicts to make them stronger.
2. Learning from the successes and failures of past relationships
It is a sad but true fact that many people pick the same kinds of partners and repeat the same mistakes in every relationship. For many understandable reasons, they continue to interact in the same ways but somehow believe that there will be different results.
Those relationship partners tend to expect that each new “relationship island” will be the best place to settle but are doomed to be disappointed when it does not prove to turn out as they thought it would.
Most of these relationship seekers are well-intentioned and truly intending to make better choices, yet they find themselves endlessly repeating old patterns. They may be blocked in some way from seeing and understanding why their relationships continue to disappoint them. They often fall into score-keeping as they try to determine who was the “bad guy,” rather than learning what each of them could have done better.
The people who have been lucky enough to grow and transform into better versions of themselves through their relationship experiences, find ways to value their past, rather than what they, or their partners, may have done wrong. They know that they could not have become who they are without having experienced what they did. Those attitudes, interestingly enough, make them more valuable to new partners. No one wants to inherit the anger or disappointment from past relationships.
Using again our metaphor of relationship islands, these people know how to learn from their past errors and how that knowledge helps them to choose better ways of being in the future. They also don’t fear mistakes or failures as humiliating, because they know that future relationships will also continue to keep them learning about what it takes to make relationships thrive.
3. Having a clear vision
If you’re going to go exploring to find, and to know, what can be the most important relationship of your life, you must have a plan, a purpose, a goal, and a vision of how to get there. With so many possible partnerships potentially available, how do you know when you’ve sampled enough to know that it is time to settle in and make the best of what you’ve got.
If you randomly wander through your own relationship islands, you will, at times, be diverted by shiny objects that promise in the moment but will not necessarily give you what you need in the long run. You will also be attracted to those places and things that are familiar and feel secure, even if they have not met your needs in the past. If your intentions are based on a clear understanding of who you are, what you need, and what you can give, you are much more likely to choose more wisely.
Let’s do an exercise to help illustrate this concept:
If you could design the perfect relationship island partner that includes all of the good things you may have left behind, but omits those actions or experiences that hurt or disappointed you, and have the above knowledge clearly in mind, what would he or she look like?
Think of the personality characteristics, behaviors, philosophies, beliefs, social circles, crises coping mechanisms, physical attractions, family attachments, career choices, emotional temperaments, financial attitudes and obligations that would be most important to you were you to live happily ever after on this relationship island forever.
A clear vision of what you know you need, what you also know you can’t live without, and cannot bear, will help you not waste time with people or in places that have no capability of ever measuring up to what you need.
4. Fearing commitment as entrapment
You have arrived at your newest “relationship island.” You have explored it without bias or prejudice from your past relationships to accurately evaluate what it offers. This island seems to have close to everything you’ve ever wanted in a relationship, and also wants you. So far, so good.
Then, your old experiences of entrapment flare and emerge. You feel self-doubt and lack confidence in this choice. Self-doubt begins:
What if what you’re experiencing only feels good because it is new?
What if you haven’t adequately remembered everything you were supposed to in order to correctly evaluate what is in front of you?
What if what you are experiencing is not what is really true, and that you might be unable to commit when you get more data?
But what if you’ve never been able to stay the course before thinking that you just keep making the wrong choices but are wondering if it’s really your own fear of any commitment? What if you’re just terrified because you believe that, if you make any commitment, you will end up feeling entrapped?
Those fears are in all of us. Thinking that a relationship will eventually lose its luster because all discovery is over and boredom will inevitably set in is the innate terror of many seeking long-term partnerships. Those who have known the joy of new and limitless wonder of a new relationship only to see it become lackluster and predictable are, understandably, fearful that will happen again.
Those who overcome those fears acknowledge and accept that long-lasting, rejuvenating relationships always face that danger, but they know how to keep it from happening. They make sure that both partners embrace continual personal transformation and continue to add new dimensions to the relationship as it matures. They value the security that prediction offers, but also realize that too much predictability will inevitably lead to boredom.
Though all long-time partners need occasional separation from one another and outside excitements to keep their relationship alive, they also know that their one-on-one relationship must be guarded and enriched on a continual basis.
One can easily become entrapped by the fear of entrapment, itself. The avoidance of deeper intimacy and its chosen obligations to another can be too much pressure for some people. They may feel better in honest acceptance of their need to endlessly explore their archipelago without feeling inadequate or wrong. If they are to stay in relationship integrity, they honestly tell each new partner their truth. There are many who might still opt for the temporary enjoyment of a potentially temporary relationship.
There are many people who cannot let go of an imagined relationship even when they’ve never found it. They are not necessarily foolish or wrong to hold on to hope and desire for that fantasy, even if it will never materialize. It is human to do so but rarely results in success.
Sadly, most people who search for fantasy relationships can lose out in valuing what they actually can have. There is so much that is out of their control that can happen at different times. Sometimes, for example, people may live in areas where one gender is much more plentiful than the other. Or the fact that most people feel less valuable as they age or if they cannot compete in other areas that their social circles value. Physical attractiveness is high on the list for most men, while power and leadership are characteristics that most women find valuable in their partners. Some of those traditional stereotypes are shifting, particularly in newly defined transitioning relationships, but still, hold sway in many partnerships.
6. Belief that relationships are not limited
To extend our metaphor, imagine that you’re now on the “relationship island” that you will live on for the rest of your life. It has most of all you’ve ever wanted but you’re worried that your desires and needs might change as time goes by and you’re not going anywhere.
With all that in mind, you’ve decided that this is where you’re going to stay. You don’t want to spend your life finding fault with the things that are wrong or complain about what is missing. Instead, you’re determined to embrace what you have and continue making it better and better.
Perhaps without realizing that they are even doing that, most people fully intend to do just that when they make a long-term commitment. They feel good about the promises they are making and, even knowing that they are bound to feel some misgivings and worries in the future, they are at ease with their decision.
Many of those who make it into forever-happily-devoted partners have learned the secret to that outcome. They have never seen the options offered on their “relationship island” as fixed entities. They absolutely trust and believe that their relationship is not rigid nor limited. In fact, they see it as having infinite possibilities for innovation and continuously new perspectives. They express that attitude in the way they think about being together:
When there are temptations outside the relationship, they talk about them together and recommit to each other with that new data in mind. Instead of being jealous or insecure, they re-examine their relationship to bring back those feelings within it.
When they feel trapped or bored, they add new dimensions to the relationship that rejuvenate it, whether bringing outside experiences in or creating them together.
They commit to, and master, successful conflict resolution. Arguments are never “rehashed.” They are debriefed, much as any team does after a game, searching for how they can do it better the next time around.
They make certain that their positive interactions continually outweigh their negative ones.
They know that they can lose one another at any time, and never take the future for granted.
In short, they do not allow the relationship island to cease its capacity for new discoveries because they, themselves, are in continuous transformation. Those capacities are present in every person, and in every relationship, if the partners believe that truth and embrace it together.
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The last exercise:
Make a list of the most significant relationship islands you’ve lived on in the past. Write down next to each partnership what you saw in it when it began, what kept you in that relationship for as long as you stayed, and why you eventually chose to leave.
When you have finished, look at your patterns. What have you sought in relationships? Have you been realistic in your expectations? What have you learned about yourself in living through them? What are you looking, for now, that is different from what you might have in the past?
Then acknowledge and accept whatever limitations exist in your life that will make your options more available. Critically and honestly assess your actual values in the environment in which they can best be appreciated.
Lastly, ask yourself to honestly look at whether or not you truly can thrive in a long-term relationship at all. Not all people need to be, and it is not wrong to thrive more in sequential partnerships if they are available. If you offer interesting, valuable, and exciting thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to a partner, even if you never intend to commit, you may find many takers who are fine with that offer. As long as you are authentic and honest from the beginning, you are not promising something you can’t deliver.