We were sitting at a coffee shop, holding mugs in our cold hands when she asked me the question I get asked more often than you might expect. The question goes like this: “How do I know if this guy is the guy?”
“Should I marry him?”
I listened, mostly, and asked her questions about what she wanted in a guy and if he fit that description. We laughed at the strange things we put on our lists, and talked about loneliness and waiting. Normally when a single woman would ask me this question, I would list off several qualities I considered “non-negotiable” and explain how I had “just known” my husband was the one. This time, however, when I opened my mouth, something different came out.
How did I know he was the one? I didn’t.
None of us do.
A few weeks after this conversation, my marriage fell apart.
Or, more accurately, the few threads I’d been desperately trying to hold together to for the past few years finally came unraveled. The irony is not lost on me that this conversation happened in the way it did such a short time before my marriage ultimately ended. She and I talked in mid-September. By November my husband and I were separated. By April we were divorced.
And to be honest, after the end of my marriage, I found myself feeling like I had even more I wanted to say to her back on that day in September. There are no perfect words to answer that question, but these are words from my heart and I thought maybe they might help. So Grace—this one is for you.
I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I’m learning.
You may be asking the wrong questions.
It’s not hard for me to remember what it’s like to be on the dating scene—especially now, since instead of starting a family this year like I had planned, I am starting over. I know it’s stressful at times and you’re trying to “figure people out” and no one is saying the things they want to say and you’re wondering what he’d look like in a tux and if he’d fit in with your family.
I get it. I’ve been there.
But listen. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: spend less time trying to figure out how to dress, how to act, how not to act, when to text, when not to text, who should pay, etc. and more time asking one question:
How do I feel about myself when I am in this person’s presence?
Spend less time trying to figure out his resume and more time trying to get to his heart. (tweet that)
Spend less time trying to beef up your own dating resume (all the things you think make you appealing to a person who might want to marry you) and more time wondering if you’re the kind of person who is open to a real relationship.
- Can you tell him what you think—even if it will hurt his feelings?
- Are you able to let your guard down in front of him?
- Are you able to hear what he has to say—even when it’s difficult?
- Do you tell him how he makes you feel and is he able to receive this?
- Do you enjoy his company?
- Would you rather be with him than by yourself?
We spend so much time worrying about the details of a person. How much schooling have they had? What is their job? What kind of car does he drive? Do I like her style? It’s not that these are bad questions. It’s just that we can get lost in the details when details can be easily manipulated.
Accolades can be empty.
A person can accomplish a lot—so what? Do they have good character? Are they a person of integrity? I wish I would have spent less time trying to put together the resumes of the men I dated and more time asking myself:
How do I feel about myself when I’m in his presence?
Time is on your side.
My ex-husband and I got married quickly. Very quickly. And if I had it to do all over again—if I could go back—I would have just given us more time. We needed more time. Think about a flower, or a plant. You cannot yell at it or rush it or do anything really to make it grow faster. It just needs time and space and water and good soil and lots of attention and care to grow.
You relationship will grow in its time.
You cannot rush these things.
I’m not saying endless amounts of time will automatically make things clear that are complicated. It won’t. What I am saying is that, if you don’t feel ready to decide yet whether this guy is “the guy,” then you aren’t ready to decide. Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself the time you need to bring clarity to your situation and clarity to your heart.
It will be a different amount of time for everyone. No need to beat yourself up for the amount of time you need.
And look, I know you’re getting older every day and more and more of your friends are getting engaged on Facebook and it feels like you are the last one and you’re going to get left behind. I know there is a chance that if you wait “too long” you will miss your chance. The person you’re dating might just walk away. But listen.
What is for you will not pass you by.
There is no such thing as missing your own boat. (tweet that)
You cannot mess this up.
And most of all, time is always, always on your side.
Side note: if you are in a relationship with someone who pressures you to make a decision before you are ready, I would consider this a red flag. Pressure to make a decision fast usually means the person pressuring you worries you won’t make a decision in his or her best interest if you’re given too much time. Ultimately you want to be married to someone who says, each time you have to make a difficult choice in your marriage, “Take your time. What’s good for you is also good for me.”
Dating is not about finding a husband or wife.
I spent most of my dating life thinking this whole thing was about finding a husband. It wasn’t until after I was married I realized I had mostly missed the point. Dating is incredible practice toward a good marriage. But finding the “right person” is not the point. Who you are becoming is the point.
Dating is not a weird holding cell or mandatory waiting period before the reward of your real life. It is your real life.
The people you date are your teachers (and you are theirs).
So in other words, the happy relationships, the hard ones, the confusing ones, the pushy guy, the wishy-washy guy, the controlling woman, the afraid-of-commitment woman, the time you find yourself losing your temper for no good reason, the disagreements, the butterflies… all of this is your teacher.
So maybe a more helpful question than, “should I marry him?” is “what is this person here to help me learn?”
Learn to speak your truth.
Along these lines, one major thing I wish I would have practiced more while I was dating was honesty. Difficult, brutal, terrifying honesty. We spend most of our time dating trying to veil the truth, to dance around it, trying not to say anything that will make us too vulnerable, or hurt anyone’s feelings, or make us seem “too forward” or trying to follow some arbitrary set of rules.
My advice would be: learn to get over that. Learn to speak your truth, to show up for yourself, to hold space for yourself and for someone else. Learn to say, “no thank you” or “I don’t see a future with us” or “I really like you” or “I’m not ready” or “What I need is… (fill in the blank)”
What’s better than finding a spouse is learning to be at home with yourself.
A failed marriage is not a failed life
A year ago, I was the girl who judged people for getting divorces. Ugh, it feels so awful to write that, but sadly it’s the truth. I didn’t know I was doing it. A few of my friends had been through divorces and it wasn’t like I sat around thinking they were terrible people—I didn’t. But I did find myself thinking, on occasion, about how that would never happen to me (judgement is sneaky like that).
Divorce was not an option for me. I was strong, I told myself. No matter what happened, I would fight for my marriage. And I did fight. Even when things got worse than I could have ever imagined they could be, I kept fighting, kept telling myself that if I could only fight harder, I could save us. But the end of a relationship, I have learned, isn’t always the result of a lack of fighting.
Sometimes the strongest thing we can do is to let go.
Remember you can do all the right things and still end up getting divorced. Well,“all” the right things is probably a stretch. Let me say this: you can do so many good, wonderful, beautiful, brave, remarkable things and still not get the outcome you hoped for—not the one you went in seeking. We do not control outcomes. We do, on the other hand, control attitudes and responses decisions about how to move forward
Notice how quick you are to judge your efforts by your outcomes in life—and how truly damaging this can be to your soul.
The most damaging words I spoke to myself during the divorce process, and that were spoken to me, went like this: “So you couldn’t make it work?” And here’s the response I have learned to give myself each time those awful judgements come up: “no, I couldn’t make it work. That was never my job. My job was to show up, every day, to do the very best I could, to leave it all on the field, and to trust that the outcome of my marriage does not reflect the shape of my soul.”
A “failed” marriage is not a failed life (and by the way, can we redefine failure?)
I hope this is an encouragement to you in the dating process, more than a caution. You cannot and will not get it all right. Putting that unrealistic expectation on yourself not only sets you up for disappointment, and doesn’t leave room for the magical and mystical and miracle in your life. Did I want to get divorced? No. This is not the story I asked for. It is not what I dreamed about. But it is also not my end.
Give yourself permission to make mistakes. To not know everything. You are a beautiful, amazing, remarkable work in progress.
Be honest about red flags.
Most of us are trying to look for a person with no red flags, when the truth is we all have red flags. Literally every single one of us. If you think you are in a relationship where there are no red flags, there is your red flag. Someone “without” red flags is just good at hiding them.
Here are some that would catch my attention.
You are giving up what’s important to you
Do you find yourself giving constantly giving up what’s most important to you? Giving up hobbies? Friends? Dreams? Are you canceling your own plans for the sake of his? If this is the case, I would ask yourself: why?
I would also ask: is this my choice?
Is it a choice I really want to make?
Why can’t I bring my whole self into this relationship?
His friends don’t like you. Or you don’t like them. Or he doesn’t have many friends.
Have you asked the people who are closest to him what they think about him? What do they love about him? What have their biggest fights been with him? What would they consider his greatest weakness and greatest strength?
Ask his best friends.
Ask his parents.
Ask his siblings.
If you’re lucky, you might even get to talk to an ex-girlfriend.
It’s a myth, by the way, that an ex-girlfriend would only have negative things to say about him. What would happen if you asked her, “why didn’t things work out for you two?” It’s all just information. You can do with that information whatever you want. None of it has to be conclusive. It can all be helpful.
He won’t talk with you about the things that matter to you.
Are there certain conversations that are “off limits”?
Does he use anger or violence—or even threats of violence—to shut you down? Do you feel like your thoughts, opinions, emotions are important to him? Does he really hear you? If you are afraid of a person, or if you can’t communicate clearly and openly, you cannot experience an intimate connection with them.
You don’t feel like yourself when you’re with him
If you don’t seem “like yourself” when you’re around him—or, if your friends or close family members are communicating to you that they don’t recognize who you are becoming—this might be a good time to take a pause.
It’s possible that the person you’re becoming is who you want to become.
But if that’s the case, he won’t feel threatened by having that conversation with you.
You are excusing concerning behavior
If he flies off the handle or threatens you, or if you have a conflict that gets out of hand, or if you’re wondering why he’s so secretive and private… do you find yourself excusing the behavior and the problems and the conflicts?
Do you tell yourself, “well, it’s because he’s stressed…”
Rather than excusing concerning behavior, ask some questions. A therapist once told me that she was much less concerned about what a person does than she is about what that person thinks about what he or she does.
What does your partner think about the behavior you see that is concerning to you?
If you are willing to ask the question, you might very well get the answer you need.
The One you are looking for might be closer than you think.
I learned quickly after my husband moved out of the house that my problems did not disappear because he was gone. While we were married, I complained that he was critical of me, but after we split up, I would walk around the house and listen to the voice inside my head say things about myself that were at least as hurtful as the words that had come out of his mouth at one time or another, if not worse.
You’re so stupid, how could you possibly think that?
You’re going to wear that?
Who would ever want to date you?
I would go almost a whole day without eating and then suddenly realize starving myself was ignoring myself the way I had always accused him of ignoring me. So I made the conscious decision to become the very best partner to myself that I could possible be. I know that sounds weird. But this is really what I did.
I would think to myself: if I were dating someone, or married to him, how would I want him to treat me right now?
Then, I would treat myself like that.
I started with small things. Three meals a day. Just feed yourself, I would say. I would set a timer, and I wouldn’t let myself skip a meal. If I thought, “I’m not really that hungry” I would respond to myself, “yes, but you need to keep your strength up—you should at least try to eat something small.”
That’s what I would have wanted a partner to say to me, so I started saying it to myself.
When I couldn’t fall asleep at night, and I would wish there were someone there to comfort me, I would ask myself what I wished that person would say to me, and I would say those things to myself.
“Worrying is not going to fix this.”
“You’re doing a good job.”
“Sleep now and we’ll talk about these problems tomorrow”
My point is that, while it will be nice when someday, someone comes along who you can share your life with, for today (and even after that person comes) YOU are the one. You are the one who has been ordained to take care of yourself, to speak kindly to yourself, to provide for yourself, to feed yourself, to encourage yourself, to be “the one” for you.
This is the hardest task you will ever undertake. Harder than finding a spouse, believe it or not. But you can do it. You are brave and strong and beautiful and so worth loving.
You can ask for help.
You are not alone.
You’ve got this.
I hope you don’t have to go through a divorce. Truly. But I also want you to know that even if you do go through a divorce—or another kind of heartbreak all together—you are going to be okay. You are powerful and resilient and incredible and not a minute is wasted. Not your dating life, not your married life, not your post-married life.
Right now, a beautiful, imperfect, magnanimous, totally resilient version of YOU is busy unfolding.