I recently read an interesting post over at Lisa Arends excellent blog, lessonsfromtheendofamarriage.com, where she discusses a number of misconceptions about marriage (and relationships in general).
Her first “misconception” really got me thinking, and it’s about how long it takes to “get to know someone” before you know the relationship is solid enough to consider something like marriage.
I won’t rehash her post as you can give it a read on your own. But I do want to explore this idea of getting to know another person, and how long it can and potentially should take; not just for marriage but also before relationships “go through milestones”.
First, what are some of the milestones that relationships go through? Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list (that I’m sure is missing some important things) in an order that is probably fairly common:
- Holding hands
- Spending the night together (which may or may not include sex, but let’s be honest, probably does)
- Introductions to friends
- First fight
- Meeting the parents
- Living together
- Making major purchases together
Notice that I didn’t include “getting to know someone” as a milestone?
I left it off because there is no event or milestone for getting to know someone. Getting to know someone is a continuous process that will probably go on for your whole life (or at least the duration of the relationship); I don’t think it’s something you ever finish.
You can never fully know another person, because they are always growing and changing. Hell, I don’t think you ever fully know yourself! I’m 43 this year, and consider myself to be a pretty self-aware guy. But even now events occur that change me, in ways both big and small. Sometimes things happen and how I respond surprises me. So if I can even surprise myself sometimes, it’s a pretty safe bet someone else will never be able to accurately predict everything I will do.
We are always growing, and changing. And our partners are too.
If accepting that continuous growth and change means we will never fully know our partner, the question becomes when do we know them enough (for whatever the next step in our relationship is)?
Going back to my list of relationship milestones, when do we know them enough to hold hands? For the first kiss? To have sex? To meet the parents? To get married?
Does it depend on the number of days/weeks you’ve known each other? The number of hours you’ve spent together? The things you’ve shared?
Looking at these milestones I’m not convinced there’s a “right” way to do this, or a “right” timeframe.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a fairly common flow here. I would say in most cases, a couple will at least kiss and hold hands before having sex. The time gap between those things could be counted in months, weeks, or it could be counted in minutes.
If you somehow are having sex before kissing or holding hands, then you’ve probably got some sort of Pretty Woman thing happening where you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute. Probably not common, but hey – if it’s happened to you who am I to judge?
Meeting friends, parents, living together – these are all things you probably don’t do until you have a belief the relationship has a shot at lasting a while.
And marriage (for those who go down that road) is something you REALLY shouldn’t do until you feel you know the other person fairly well; and have a high degree of confidence the relationship will make it.
But looking at marriage – what’s the “right” time? How long do you need to know someone before you can feel you know them enough to have that confidence and make that sort of decision?
A year? Two years? Twenty?
I’ve seen it recommended that you should wait one of two years before getting married, and I guess that makes sense.
But I know a couple who were engaged on their first date, and 50 years later they are still together. I can’t say I would recommend that, and statistically the chances of success are pretty slim. But for them it worked.
I also know a couple who dated for almost 20 years before getting married (and are still together).
I know couples who dated for the commonly recommended one to two years and are happy 20+ years later. I know others who married after two years and divorced a few years later.
Here’s the thing …
Almost 50% of marriages end in divorce, and often the very characteristics that endeared people to each other as they “got to know each other” in the first place are ones that contribute significantly to the relationship falling apart.
So it’s not like there’s some magic way of measuring whether or not you know each other “enough” for things to work out.
Things sometimes go wrong. Relationships don’t always work out.
So, what do you do?
It seems obvious that how well you know someone DOES matter. But how do you best position your relationship to succeed?
Let’s start with you.
If you need to know someone, then it stands to reason that they also have to know you. For this to happen I think you always need to be willing to be authentic; which means you need to be willing to be you – whoever that is.
Of course this means you actually have to have some idea of who you are (which isn’t always the case). Are you self-aware? Are you accepting of yourself and your faults, and are you willing to let someone else see them?
A common paradox in relationships is we want to be accepted for who we are, yet at the same time we are afraid of being rejected for who we are. So we often try to be who we think the other person wants us to be.
Some people will play a role and try to become someone else. Other will be themselves, but will be careful about which sides of themselves they show – hiding the parts that they don’t feel will be accepted.
In the short term, these strategies may work. But if they do, what have you really accomplished? You’ve succeeded in convincing someone to like…
Not you (at least not the real you).
Help me understand, how exactly is this a good thing?
Because eventually the real you will surface. And if your partner doesn’t like the real you once they see you, then all you’ve done is waste time.
So being always being true to you is the best approach. And if someone doesn’t accept you for who you are? Then they probably aren’t someone you want to be with anyhow. That doesn’t mean you should never change – because change in the form of self-growth is a positive thing. But any changes you make need to be because you want them, or see a need for them yourself.
Let’s say you do everything right.
You accept yourself for who you are and go into a relationship being honest and authentic. That’s great, and is (in my opinion) the best and healthiest way to approach things.
But YOU are only half of the equation – and you have no control over how the other person is approaching things. For the best relationship to occur, both people need to be honest, authentic, self-aware, and willing to be vulnerable.
When that does happen and two people are being authentic and are willing to let each other in, I think you can know each other well enough to know if things can work pretty quickly. Within a few days you can get a pretty good sense of each other’s core character and value. Within weeks, you should have a strong idea if the two of you are compatible.
And within a few months you should start to see if there are any “red flags”, showing that perhaps the other person isn’t being as authentic as you think they are – because it’s hard to keep a mask up over extended periods of time.
Looking at relationships, what are the things that actually matter?
- Are your core values aligned?
- Do your personalities complement each other?
- Do you accept that a relationships is about more than just you?
- Are your love languages in alignment with your partners, and if not are you willing love your partner in the way they need to be loved?
- Do you know enough about each other’s hopes and dreams that you can see the two of you growing, building and sharing together?
- Are you both willing to accept that periodic issues in relationships are normal, and are you willing to deal with them when they occur?
- Are you both self-aware – willing to accept that you each have faults and willing to take responsibility for your own contributions to the relationship?
If you can answer yes to at least most of those, then I think you have a pretty solid foundation and everything else should be pretty easy.
Thinking back to the question of when do you know each other enough; it doesn’t matter what the milestone is – whether it’s holding hands, living together or getting married there will always be risk involved in taking that “next step”.
But there is no magic timeline. What works for one couple may not work for another. I believe that if both people are self-aware, authentic and open with each other, they will quickly know enough about each other to know with a high level of accuracy if the relationship can work or not. When things feel natural and easy, you know that it’s a good fit no matter how long it’s been.
After that, it’s up to you.
Because the success of a relationships is less about how well you know each other than it is about how well you accept that you will need to grow together and choose to continue to choose each other each and every day.