On Run-on Relationships

Lauren F. Winner

Expand image Our culture today puts a lot of emphasis on fully knowing our dating partners and ourselves before even considering marriage. What are the benefits to this way of dating? What are the drawbacks? Lauren talks us through the meandering world of long-term dating.

From Meeting to Marriage: 18 Months
People often ask me how long Griff and I dated before we got married. I tick off the increments on my fingers: We met in June and were friendly for a few months until, in October, we had The Talk (which took place in a teashop, and surprised us both, since each of us had convinced ourselves that our crush was completely unrequited). Then we dated till May when we got engaged, and we got married the following November. So, a little more than a year of dating and engagement, and about 18 months from meeting to tying the knot. It wasn't until the summer of our second year of marriage that we had known each other as long as I'd dated my college boyfriend.

I'm not holding our chronology up as some kind of a standard — there's no set dating calendar that suits everyone. Still, I am surprised by the number of people who respond to our outline of meeting, dating and marrying by saying, "What a quick romance!" or "What a short engagement!"

Occasionally, I wonder if those people are right. There were moments in our first year of marriage, which were rough going, when I wondered if we would have been better off waiting. Maybe we should have gotten to know each other better before plunging into sex, domesticity, shared checking accounts (and a shared closet), and everything else that accompanies marriage.

But most of the time, I'm thankful that we didn't have a much longer dating relationship. Before meeting Griff, I'd been a willing partner in quite a few long romances. There was the college beau I mentioned above, whom I dated for about three years. Then there were two subsequent relationships that lasted more than a year. In hindsight, I can see some of the pitfalls of those oh-so-long relationships.

The Dangers of Endlessly Long Relationships
What's wrong with a dating relationship that lasts for two or three years? Doesn't the old adage say, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure"?

There are, of course, some situations where dating for many years is appropriate and wise. I think of my friends Gina and Hank. They're now happily married, and they dated for almost four years. Gina knew, early on, that she cared about Hank, but she also knew that they approached Christianity from two radically different perspectives. During their years of dating, they searched for (and found) a church they could both joyfully attend, they joined a small group, and they were mentored by an older Christian couple.

But most long relationships are nothing like Gina and Hank's.

Often, long relationships are fraught with ambivalence. You genuinely love, or think you love, or want to love, the person you're dating, and maybe he genuinely loves you — and yet, somewhere, there's uncertainty. You're not really sure you can commit. You and he play a sort of push-me, pull-you game: For a few months, one of you is sure that you've met your life-long mate, and the other person puts on the brakes, and then, a few months later, you switch roles.

This sort of deep-seated ambivalence isn't good for anyone. When your best friend is in a relationship with a man who's fundamentally ambivalent, you can tell her plainly that she deserves better and should extricate herself — but when you're the one in the fraught relationship, it is often harder to see the costs of devoting so much emotional energy to such an uncertain situation.

Pots and Pans, Birds and Bees
bAnother danger of endless dating relationships is our tendency to play house. The longer you date someone, the more you become inclined toward a certain kind of faux domesticity. You're not likely to buy pots and pans with a guy you've been dating for two months, but it can seem a perfectly reasonable thing to do if you've been dating for two years. This playing house can feel enjoyable, but, in fact, it is disordered.

You buy something with someone when you assume you have a long-term future together. But when you're dating, you have no way of knowing if you have a long-term future, and to make purchases as though you do is to delude yourself. (I know whereof I speak: The list of quasi-domestic purchases I made with those ex-boyfriends could fill up the rest of this column.) Your desire to make long-term investments with someone else may be a useful clue: it may tell you that you do indeed want to spend your life with this particular man. But make the commitment before you buy the accoutrements.

Playing house, of course, isn't just about buying pots and pans. The faux domesticity of dating often includes sex. And if pots and pans are symbols of a certain level of commitment, sex is, too. Sex has no place in a relationship other than marriage . Enough said about that, don't you think?

Compatibility Skills
Finally, long-term relationships teach us to "fetishize" a certain kind of compatibility. In other words, we date for years and years in part because we want to make sure we completely know ourselves and our potential mate. We want to ensure that we're really compatible. But this logic, which often attends long-term relationships, is faulty.

Clearly, there are some people with whom we're more compatible than others — it's probably not wise for someone who is committed to living in California to marry someone who can't even consider leaving his childhood town in New Hampshire. But for the most part I believe that we learn to be compatible inside of marriage. I myself have been guilty of over-emphasizing some abstract "compatibility." During my first year of marriage, I sometimes found myself thinking, "Maybe Griff and I should have dated longer; if we had, we'd have realized that in fact we're not compatible at all!"

I now see that the very terms in which I was thinking were flawed. Yes, there are certain ways in which Griff and I are more easily suited to one another (we have very similar approaches to money, for example) and ways in which we are less easily suited to one another (I'm much more introverted than he, and he likes to socialize more than I do). But that doesn't add up to our being "compatible" or "incompatible." In fact, it is through marriage — not through dating — that we are learning about our real compatibility. It is through marriage that we are learning not whether we are compatible, but how to be compatible with one another.

So Why Do We Stay in These Relationships?
There are lots of answers to that question, of course, but I think the most powerful one is hope. For whatever reason — because we've been in a string of lousy relationships, or because we feel like men don't usually pay attention to us and this one has, or because we've invested so much time and emotional energy in this relationship that we feel like we just can't let it go — we want to hold onto this guy and hope that things will get better.

Or perhaps we feel a lot of pressure from friends and family, or even from ourselves, to get married. So we stick it out.

Or we stay because it's easier to be in a relationship, even a lousy one, than to have to wonder what we're going to do on Friday night.

Or we stay because we're in love.

All of those answers and more explain why I stayed in so many long-term relationships, even after it had clearly soured, and the guy and I were stuck in a cycle of attraction, ambivalence, drama, and pain.

In hindsight, I wish I'd gotten out of those relationships sooner. I wish I had devoted far fewer nights to angsting about men with whom I eventually broke up.

How Do You Know?
That said, it can be incredibly hard to know when, or why, to end a relationship. There's nothing wrong with sticking with a relationship and maturely trying to work though some hard patches. In fact, that's good training for the sticking-it-out required by marriage.

In some cases, it's really clear that you should get out of a relationship. If someone is physically or emotionally abusive, end the relationship and break off contact with the guy. And if you find yourself pining for someone who really doesn't return your affection, who plays hot and cold with you, who seems to enjoy toying with you more than he enjoys being with you, end that relationship too.

Other cases are trickier, and, in fact, it might be wiser to not make this decision by yourself. Talk to your girlfriends, who are often willing to speak the hard truth and tell you that your latest beau is not treating you well. And talk to someone a little older — maybe a graduate student who works in residence life at your college, maybe a campus minister — who can offer you a different perspective. If you can, talk to your parents, or an older sister, or an aunt. They may be able to help you see that you should get out of the relationship, or more fully commit to the relationship. They may be able to help you see revealing patterns in your own dating life.

Finally, it may sound hokey, but praying can help, too. Prayer is not, of course, a magic wand. But often when we pray for discernment, the Holy Spirit moves within us and helps us see ourselves, our circumstances, and our desires for what they really are.

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