Some of my children are now dating. I found this out several years ago when my oldest son stood in the kitchen with his arm around a pretty teenage girl and a big, stupid smile on his face. “This is my girlfriend, mom.”
Uh oh. It was time to take the ‘conversation’ to the next level, I thought, eyeing her mini-skirt. So I talked with him, well at him really, about the difference between love and infatuation, the importance of safe sex, mutual respect, how we know when it’s the ‘one,’ etc. etc. Of course this wasn’t our first go around with these topics, but the ante had just been upped and I felt the need to repeat myself many, many times.
However, while I was imparting my infinite wisdom, his eyes were glazing over. Apparently my advice needed to be streamlined into golden nuggets of twitterable length. So here’s what I’ve come up with, and I think it applies to anyone dating, not just teen-agers. My kids have since verified that this is in fact useful information, and occasionally they will ask me to repeat it.
There are only two rules.
Number 1: Never date anyone more messed-up than you. People are not projects. (I sometimes use colorful language here for emphasis, and to sound cooler than I am, but since this is a blog post…)
Okay who remembers thinking, and maybe this one applies to the ladies more, “I know he has some issues, dare I say red flags, but he will change for me.” Um, nope. We all hope that the right person will help us become the best version of ourselves. In a healthy relationship, I think this is absolutely true. But the raw material has to be there, and in recognizable form, right from the start. It’s exhausting and sometimes destructive when it isn’t.
Further, and from a different angle, it really isn’t fair to think you have the right to change someone else. People are not projects, and I surely wouldn’t want to be considered one.
When my son broke up with his first serious girlfriend, he shared that the relationship had been one struggle after another. When he ended it he told her, “Don’t change. You are the absolute perfect person for someone, it just isn’t me.” If we can’t be honest about this, we deny our self and our partner the opportunity to be with that someone who really is a perfect fit.
Number 2: Everyone has issues. Your partner’s issues can’t push your buttons.
No one is perfect. For example, my husband and I both have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Case in point - I have a particular counter space that needs to stay cleared, and if it isn’t then the things on it must be arranged geometrically and to my liking. If they aren’t, I begin to twitch and pace. My husband likes his t-shirts folded and arranged a very particular way in his drawer. If they aren’t, he will take them all out and fix them.
Now, my t-shirts can be squashed haphazardly, and his counter space can have keys and money strewn all over, but if I’m doing the laundry, I put the t-shirts in the drawer the way he likes, and if he’s cleaning the kitchen, my counter items are arranged neatly. The thing is, we get it about the other one’s quirks. And we try hard not to sweat the small stuff.
But if something really does bother you, it probably isn’t small stuff and you should pay attention. Bigger things that push our buttons need to be handled. Or we need to admit that they are fundamental differences and may make us incompatible.
Fast-forward a few years and the same son is breaking up with another girl. He tells me he thinks he just annoys her all the time. His lighthearted nature is interpreted as not caring deeply, his charming forgetfulness is considered callous, his interests are said to be frivolous. “Mom, I push her buttons and she pushes mine, and soon we are not going to like each other very much.” Oh he does listen!
Back when I was dating, one of my very wise aunts suggested I identify the three things that were most important to me in life. Whether this was having children, practicing a faith, a career, whatever, these fundamental things should not have to be compromised in a relationship. It would be worthwhile, she said, to seek a partner who shared these key values, because that person would truly understand me, and I him. It was excellent advice and I sometimes use it as addendum 1 to rule #2.
As my kids move from dating, to long-term relationships, to possible marriage one day, my wish is that they find someone they can build a satisfying life with, someone who loves them for who they are, not despite who they are. So I repeat my dating advice often, encourage them to trust their instincts, and then relax and enjoy the new and interesting young people that grace our lives because some of my children are now dating.