“The single most important decision you will make in your life is who you decide to marry.”
Your grandparents did not meet on Tinder. Your parents did not think about double-texting when they first met. And your friends in their late thirties were not interpreting emojis. Think about it. Less than 5 years ago, an eggplant was just an eggplant. The game has changed, everyone.
Relationships, psychology, and dating have interested me for as long as I can remember. They probably interest you, too, because few things provide comparable highs and lows in your own life and make for as great of conversation in others’. Since we all have a tendency to look around at the status of things at the start of a new year and it’s cuffing season, I realized more of my friends will be getting engaged and/or married this year compared to any other year since college. Also, I noticed the biggest thing separating this group and our generation from all the ones before us is the impact of technology (specifically social media and apps) on dating. Since I am fascinated with the intersection of these topics and don’t want to see (m)any marriages crumble like Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve performance, a discussion like this felt timely and relevant to those our age. Given the size of these subjects, forgive your unassuming blogger for failing to provide a comprehensive assessment.
From an outside perspective, your first question should be “What makes you (a single guy in his late-twenties) credible to talk about marriage?”
I have lived through divorces and listened to enough people talk about the details of their relationships that I am arguably a designated leather sofa and medical degree away from being an official player-coach psychiatrist.
Nobody gets married planning to get divorced. But ~50% get divorced. Think about that. If Blackjack and marriage have the same odds, we better figure out how to start counting cards if we don’t want to lose half our shit and turn our kids into timeshares. So what happens?
Well, we are going to date before we get married, so let’s talk about the dating & technology landscape first, because it will probably put pressure on the statistic above.
It would be easy to surprise me with a technological development, and difficult to surprise me with a dating story. We’re looking at something that changes constantly (technology) overlaid onto something that has been essentially the same forever (mate selection).
Overall, I am optimistic. I embrace this new playing field and wouldn’t want to go backwards. However, as with all change, there are trade-offs and consequences. Connecting with someone today is theoretically easier than ever. But, just because fast-food is easier than cooking does not mean it is better. When we are talking about relationships, if something is too easy, it can have unintended negative effects. The two primary downsides I currently see to our modern interconnected dating world are:
1) The Paradox of Choice. Too many choices can be overwhelming, and afterwards you get anxiety from wondering if you made the best decision. This happens to me even when I am picking out toothpaste.
2) Apathy. Winning the contest to care less (“Peak Chill”) is a Pyrrhic victory. Emotional numbness is a real risk. For 6 months in 2014, I thought I had the emotional capacity of Patrick Bateman. We are all guilty of this whether intentionally or by accident, but the acceptability of ghosting is one of the worst parts of our culture. The long-term implications of these are uncertain but likely problematic.
This new world is efficient, in that a quick-no saves time, and terrible for the same reason in that it takes time to build a relationship. And we would gladly give up our left hand before the tool that makes this all possible.
The iPhone is our remote control for the world. We can do everything on them. Hypothetically, with Uber/Lyft, Bumble/Tinder, and Favor/Postmates, you could have a stranger use their car to drive a different stranger to you, and then have yet another stranger bring you groceries, indefinitely (for a small fee). You would never even have to leave your couch. What a time to be alive. We have two options in the context of dating: go back to flip phones with the Luddites or adapt to the new reality.
While traditional ways of connecting with people will continue to exist (nothing new to comment on here) a part of this new reality is social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) and online dating. When online dating became available to the previous generation, you would have rather been caught beating up a homeless person than admit to meeting someone on the computer. Now, with the advent of apps and attractive adopters, it is mainstream and only a matter of time before the hesitancy of saying how you met goes away. I was in a relationship, on the patio of a Dallas bar in 2013, when a friend explained Tinder to me. In three years, I have gone from laughing disbelief at a hookup app to betting that in 100 years people will think it is crazy people used to rely on chance to meet someone at a bar, college, or church. However, there will be one thing in common between the past, present, and future…
The first rule of any game is to know you are in one. I hope I’m not the first to tell you this, but dating is 100%, unequivocally, a game. Anyone who tells you they don’t play games is either in a relationship, lying, or going to get taken advantage of throughout their life. You may wish this was different, but this is not bad. Being single would become so boring. The real reason it has to be this way is because it is a form of filtering that can never go away as long as we want the best for ourselves. Suppose a girl wants to know something, such as if a guy will give her the feelings she wants (e.g. excitement, security, fulfillment). If she simply asks a guy, you know what he is going to say. Then she wastes two or three dates figuring out his favorite hobby is Pokemon, his income is dependent on local drug demand, and his biggest ambition is watching every documentary on Netflix.
So games/tests/et cetera exist to see if the person is just saying what he/she needs to to get what they want. Most of this happens subconsciously. A corollary to this is how we talk and text. We can agree we talk in code and rarely directly say what we are trying to say. If you have any doubts about this, the next time you hear a girl say “It’s fine,” let me know if “it” was “fine.”
There are levels to games and this one is no different. There are implicit and explicit rules for each medium (sometimes there are appropriate times to break the rules). Think about how texting has evolved. GIF and emoji allow for nuance that was previously unimaginable and incomprehensible to an outsider. After the most recent update, there are 1,851 different emoji, with 96 different smileys. Holy shit : )
The Rosetta Stone for Dating does not exist, and these new capabilities only amplify the potential for misinterpretation. Therefore, we are now spending time analyzing and interpreting messages, likes, and texts when there may or may not be anything to analyze or interpret. This is time not spent with the person you are trying to get to know!
While it entertains me to muse on the subjects and there obviously are pros and cons, after phases of varying duration–fun and novelty, exhaustion and boredom, and hope and despair–this will all become meaningless. Ironically, it is both necessary and irrelevant. A puzzle needs to be analyzed because it doesn’t put itself together, but the pieces don’t have to do much analyzing to know they fit together.
Although the means have changed, it looks like most people ultimately want to find someone to (try to) spend the rest of their life with—and given that we’re working out and eating healthy, that’s probably going to be a long time. If you get married when you’re 25, stay married, and live to 90; that is SIXTY-FIVE YEARS with one person. And whether you should marry at all, well, that is another topic for another day.
At first it may seem unrealistic (it probably is) or insensitive to look at something inherently emotional in such a cerebral way, but if we don’t at least try, we are walking into the casino.
In any of the relationships I have been in, as much as I would tell myself otherwise at the time, I knew I wasn’t going to marry the girl I was dating. What was clear even then was that I considered myself too young to be making decisions for my future self.
Think back to you at 18. Then think about what 21-year-old you thought about 18-year-old you. Different person. Now think about 21-year-old you compared to you today and next thing you know you’re scrambling to delete old Facebook pictures. 18-year-old me was drawing eggplants in people’s yards with grass killer. We change and mature. This will continue to happen, and as time passes and your daily decisions accumulate, you will become a closer version of who you are going to be. However, the 50-year-old you will likely be indistinguishable from the you today and I think that is what accounts for the high probability of failed marriages. This is why it is less important to judge your partner’s objective characteristics today than it is to understand how they think about situations and make decisions.
One day you will look across either the pristine landscape or smoldering ashes of your youth and determine that you have seen and done all there is to see and do in this phase of your life and you are either open or actively looking for something more serious. This simple question can change your life: Are you the person the person you’re looking for is looking for? In other words, do you deserve the person you want to be with? The flip side to this is making sure you don’t settle. You are better than that.
Inevitably, you are going to find someone that either checks the boxes and passes the tests or makes the checklists and tests irrelevant. We’ll call this person The One. You can put the iPhone down and pick up Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages. This is absolutely required reading for couples for two reasons: 1) you may think you are saying “I love you,” but it only counts if your partner feels it. This set of concepts is immensely helpful in figuring out how to communicate this to each other. 2) It has been several years since I actually read the book, but I’ll paraphrase the rules-of-thumb I remember: the first 6 months is the infatuation stage, you want to spend all your time around them, they can do no wrong and you only notice what you have in common “____ LIKES WATER TOO!” Beginning around Month 6 you can actually focus on something else besides that person, but for the next 18 months, it is still sunsets and roses. Then, approximately 2 years into the relationship, you really find out if you love someone. By then, the butterflies are dead and you are getting to see the real person. From this point on, you must be deliberate and intentional about loving them because what was natural for a couple years becomes something you have to work at.
So yeah, I generally think you should wait two years. The older you get, the more you will disagree with the two-year idea and the most common objection is, “when you know, why wait?” Because I suppose it’s as easy to say “why rush?”
- Do not get engaged for The Ring or the Fairy Tale (pause the Bachelor and re-read this sentence). Ask a divorced woman how much she loves showing off her engagement ring and talking about her wedding now.
- Actions have, do, and will always speak louder than words. If a guy is telling you one thing but showing you another…listen to his actions.
- Someone else cannot make you happy. You must be happy with yourself first.
- A trophy wife will be as meaningful to you in 30 years as the trophies in your parents’ basement.
- If you feel pressured to get married, hit the Eject button.
- That colossal douche Ryan Lochte actually had a moment of profundity when he said, “If you’re gonna be a man at night, you gotta be a man in the morning.”
- Your dating life is a part of your life. You may have to be accountable for it one day.
- Stay in shape. Your spouse didn’t marry Shrek.
- A marriage should enhance your life. There is a condition to this: not every day. It’s going to have hard parts and if our generation has a flaw, it is we have so many alternatives in every part of our life we can be quick to quit if something doesn’t go our way.
“Marriage is the number one cause of divorce.”
People can’t predict the future, but some prepare for it better than others. One of my favorite thinkers, Charlie Munger, says, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I won’t go there.” In that vein, if we can figure out what causes people the most stress in relationships and what roads people took to failed ones, then we can at least anticipate some of these pitfalls and understand our future spouse’s fundamental expectations, attitudes, and beliefs before we marry them. This way we increase our chances of ending up on the right side of the coin flip. Fortunately, we do not have to experience these first-hand to learn from them.
Nietzsche said, “When entering a marriage, one ought to ask oneself: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman up into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory, but most of the time you are together will be devoted to conversation.” Have you ever talked to someone and it felt like trying to dribble a bowling ball? Don’t marry that person.
It may be uncomfortable to explicitly talk about the hard parts. Talking money, babies, and divorce with someone when the only thing you can hear in your head is “Oh we’ll just figure it out later,” but I promise you it’s a lot more uncomfortable to have a judge figure it out for you later.
You and your partner can consider each other co-CEOs running a business, because in a way this is what you are doing. You have income, expenses, and manage employees (kids). Business partnerships have a better chance of success if the partners have the same ideas about how the business should be run.
Now for the most important question: Are you on the same team?
This question is the essence of a relationship. Everything else will fall into place. Therapy, books, seminars, church groups, retreats; none of it ultimately matters unless you are on the same team as your partner.
You and your spouse will have problems and stressful situations. The key distinction though is whether he/she is your enemy or your teammate. People would rarely say they look at their significant other as an enemy, but accumulated resentment creates this unspoken mindset. Over time, belittling comments and disrespectful tones can make dishes left in the sink become dynamite sticks in a gas tank. If they are an enemy, once the problem goes away, they are still an enemy. If they are your teammate, you will do all of the therapy, books, seminars, retreats required until it is right because you are seeking solutions and problem-solving together.
Related to this question and equally important is: Do You Care? Some people get worn out and they simply stop caring because they feel it is beyond repair. This happens in dating too, but the stakes are higher in marriage, and people may even stay in the failed relationship. This is tragic because I can guarantee that the situation will fail to improve.
We have to acknowledge the possibility: Divorce. The best analogy I have heard for it is: Divorce is like the high-dive at a pool. You look at it from the ground and think to yourself, “It’s not that high, no problem.” When you are standing at the edge of the diving board, it is a different story and you feel your heart beating uncontrollably. Divorce can mean freedom for an abused person, but more often it is the worst experience of people’s lives. It takes a chunk of you. You will be changed. It may seem like it is too obvious to talk about, but ask your partner what situations would cause them to consider divorce. If they say, “Nothing baby! I’m yours no matter what!” then give them 5 glasses of wine, and ask again.
In another post, I recommended Pebbles of Perception by Laurence Endersen, especially because of the chapter dedicated to picking a spouse. I will simply list his Four Pillars below because he summarizes what we talked about above.
- Take your time (because of the opening quote).
- Don’t settle. Be aware of the most obvious warning signals and don’t expect to change your partner (or you will most likely end up changing partners).
- Look for long-term friendship that is grounded in mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company.
- Deserve a good partner.
The one I will add is related to the tendency to keep score. In all of your relationships, give more than you expect to receive.
Or, grab your iPhone and go play Blackjack.