Expert Q&A: Figuring Out Where You Stand
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Q: I've been dating my boyfriend for a year, and he says I should stop talking so much about moving in or getting engaged. How can I stop asking him about where we stand?
A: Love should be a simple process: you meet someone, you both "click," you fall in love and then you get married--or, as recent statistics show, some of you move in together-and live happily ever after.
But, oops, it just doesn't seem to go that way today. People are waiting to get married for the first time at a later age, and issues such as job uncertainty, wartime deployment, and difficulties of blended families are making couples postpone engagements or decisions to live together.
Yet, the problems of finding a better job or a second one, seeking more training or education or dealing with kids almost pale in comparison to not knowing where your romantic relationship is going. As strong as we might think we are, we humans are not very good at weathering the uncertainty of love. Fear of abandonment is a fundamental stressor.
Survival depends on being connected to someone or community. So, when you risk falling in love and putting your heart and trust in someone, you want to know that the other person is a wise choice who is committed to caring for and about you. Each person's ability to withstand the emotional insecurity of not knowing is unique. Often, there are good reasons for uncertainty about your relationship status. Perhaps education has to be completed or a soldier needs to end a tour of duty.
But, excluding these good reasons, after anywhere from six months to two years, you can no longer stand the open-endedness of your relationship, and you ask the question that some partners don't want to hear: "Where is this relationship going?" For women who want children, the combination of time passing by and the uncertainty of the relationship especially intensify fears of abandonment.
I wish I had a magic answer about when-or whether-to ask this question. Here is a guide to help you examine your relationship and curb your need for closure.
1. Identify and accept the real constraints on your relationship. Some relationships truly are in stall mode-but only for a while. Illness, military deployment, education completion, securing a good job, and the management of pressing family issues such as elder care are some of the common reasons that future plans with your partner are on hold. The best way to handle this situation is to stay calm and be supportive.
However, when the issue has been managed, avoid from asking the "where is this relationship going" question. A better approach is to ask your partner about his or her thoughts and feelings about the incident or experience. What has he or she learned? How has it changed him or her? These questions address your partner's reflection and reshuffling of priorities and values, and, by asking them, you demonstrate deeper care for him or her. Your empathy will prompt your partner to drop the defensiveness that questions about the relationships might spark. The process of your partner's responding to your support will likely touch on how he or she feels about you and your relationship status.
2. Don't spend a lot of time taking the emotional temperature of your relationship. Instead, let the relationship develop. Love and closeness have to be lived-not talked to death. Sometimes, the more you ask about where you stand, the more you drive your partner away. Usually, it is wise to wait for the man to broach the subject. Men often take longer to feel comfortable in an intimate relationship. Their brains have a smaller area to manage interpersonal connections.
Good, healthy relationships that don't have any understandable obstacles usually have a love-life cycle of their own. For example, engagements often occur within six months to two years. If you do get engaged within a shorter amount of time, I recommend a longer engagement. The brain chemical oxytocin, often known as the brain's love drug, usually calms down after about 18 months or two years. So, it's wise to wait until you are both literally in your right minds before making getting married.
3. Develop smart dating and screening skills. Of course, the anguish of not knowing where you stand can be minimized if you learn to choose more wisely in the first place. Your grandmother's advice about love may sound old-fashioned, but it carries a great deal of wisdom. For example, love rarely reforms playboys, and the freshly separated or divorced are more likely to have too much unfinished business. Smart dating questions can also yield a person's values. Instead of asking about favorite music or television shows, ask instead open-ended questions such as: What conclusions have you made so far about life and people? In three years, what do you want your life to be? What don't you want to do as your parents did? What has your last few relationships taught you?
4. Don't accept emotional crumbs. Often, the need to get married-or at least move in-is so strong that you overlook warning signs that your partner is not a smart choice. When your desperation goes up, you over-accommodate to behaviors you shouldn't accept. I've counseled clients who justified their partner's physical abuse or demands for demeaning sex. For example, one of my clients felt that time was running out for her to have a child, and so she was willing to put up with her partner's temper and rage. Another client was so enamored with her partner's wealth, lifestyle, and fame that she agreed to participate in unpleasant sexual activities. The more crumbs you accept, the more unsure you are about the relationship. Soon, you could find yourself badgering your partner about his relationship plans for you.
Usually, though, the crumbs are more difficult to detect. For example, perhaps your partner expects you to do things that he or she wants to do and doesn't respect your wishes. Or, your partner belittles you or your family in public. It's too easy to dismiss these hurts. One of the more common hurts that many of my younger clients accept is the partner's desire to move in together indefinitely. At first, the high of living under roof squelches the doubts and hurts, but eventually someone wants more than the other person can give.
One way to help yourself assess whether your partner is relationship material is to take a personal physical and emotional reading of your feelings and reactions. Is your stomach churning or your heart beating too fast? Do you feel sick, hurt or angry? Develop mindfulness about your responses to your partner.
5. Don't' go back and forth over "should we get married or move in." Often, when one person has doubts about the relationship, the other person has similar doubts, too. The ambivalence about the future of the relationship is shared, but the fear of losing each other is so strong that when your partner express doubts or want to break up, you rush to reassure him or her. Then, over time, you express your doubts, and your partner calms you down. Pay attention to this pattern of not being on the same page about your relationship. It's often a sign that you feel you need to be in a relationship-but not necessarily with your partner. Breaking up can feel worse than being alone, but don't let your fears trap you in a relationship that is going nowhere.
Overall, when you choose wisely and trust in your own ability to manage life, you will not have to worry about where your relationship is going.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."
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