Approximately 40 to 50 percent of married couples divorce— the divorce rate for second and third marriages is even higher. Partly this is because people allow themselves to be, for a period of time, swept away by faulty cultural ideas about love and how love should progress. Taking the time to get to know people, and to know yourself, can make all the difference when it comes to healthy, long-term, romantic partnerships. Here are five steps to smarter coupling.
1. Get To Know Yourself (your real self): Getting to know the real you is not something that happens automatically. It takes time. It is not a light switch that you just turn on one day. Recognizing who you are, what you like and dislike, takes not only experience with life but also self-reflection. Take time to examine your reactions, your upsets, and the situations that make you defensive. Be honest with yourself. A lack of self-acceptance is possibly the #1 reason why people marry the wrong partners. For example, if you are a fairly uptight or Type A personality, but you keep telling yourself you are the easy going type, then you risk coupling with the laid-back type to prove to yourself, or to the world, that this is who you are. Then once the marriage is in full swing you are perpetually frustrated that your partner is unreliable or that you are the one who has to constantly stay on top of things. Know yourself and accept it. Work on this so you no longer turn to partners or to the idea of commitment for the purpose of completing a part of yourself that only you can do or undo.
2. Get A Life: While you are figuring out who you are, work to build a community that reflects your true interests. Make deep friendships; work on building a fulfilling career, hobbies, and outside interests. Commit to long-term goals— graduate school, a job plan or experience you need to gain to eventually reach a meaningful goal. Find ways to make yourself feel better when lonely or upset— that are separate from your romantic relationships. And too, find ways to experience pleasure and joy that will work for you no matter what life throws your way.
3. Date: People may be terrified of breaking up. They hold onto high school, college, or early twenties sweethearts with the cultural fantasy that love should come from youth. Of course there are occasional examples of when love blossoms early and lasts a lifetime. But for many it doesn’t. After 10 years in a marriage, two hopeful young kids can turn into two very different people in full adulthood. Personality and identity may not entirely form until we are close to 30. It is wise to give yourself time to get to know who you are and to experience different relationships. Committing and breaking up is painful, but it is also part of learning what kind of match is the right one for you for the long term.
4. Be Yourself: When you don’t communicate with your partner about what upsets you or what you don’t like in the relationship, then you are not known by your partner and you can’t possibly feel at ease. Why would anyone couple up for a long period of time if they can’t feel relaxed, comfortable, and ultimately loved unconditionally? If you are your real self and a partner makes you feel habitually criticized or judged, this might not be a fulfilling match for the long-term. Or, if you constantly feel you put on a show for your partners or want to keep it all perfect, consider taking some time off from dating to work on your self-esteem. People divorce when along the way they learn their partner isn’t really who they thought they were or when a person becomes so frustrated with having to be perfect that they finally throw in the towel. Start now, when you have less to lose, by communicating with your partners or friends about the good, the bad and the ugly. Learn to work through conflict and to take responsibility for your feelings and actions.
5. Be Aware Of The Fantasy: It is extremely common when in love with someone to be engulfed in a fantasy where you conflate who the person really is with a fictional image you may have of him or her. Notice if you are making excuses for your dates or romantic partners. Instead of trying to talk yourself out of the negative, consider who they really are. Notice when you are intoxicated in a fantasy world, throw some cold water on your face and take a real look at the person in front of you. Also, take a real look at the person you are when you with this particular person. Are you a good version of yourself? Or, does this partner bring out your dysfunctional side? (I describe specific exercises for dating and building intimacy in my workbook, Getting Close to Others). Accept who you are and who others are in your presence.