Dating 101: Stages of Relationships

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by Randall S. Frederick (@randall_scott)

Q: You keep talking about how you’ve dated so much and it sounds like you’ve had a lot of brief relationships but nothing that really lasted. Why should I listen to you? Kinda sounds like you failed since you never “sealed the deal” and got married. Anyone can have failed relationships, not everyone can get married.

A: Oh my gosh, yes! I have failed so many times. You are absolutely right! When it comes to dating, I have failed many, many times. But that does not mean those experiences were a failure, or that I have failed because I did not get married young.

I think this goes back to what I said in the first part of this series – your success when it comes to dating depends on your priorities, goals, and version of “success.” Does successful dating mean that you get married? Have kids? Do things together? Like each other’s friends? Those are not necessarily my goals. If I got married today and had kids immediately? That would not be “success” for me because, again, those are not goals when I date. (In fact, I don’t even think those should be dating goals at all, but I’m very loose with that. I wouldn’t want my own preferences to be the norm.) For my friends who got married young, I’m happy for them! Very happy. Those were their goals. Those might have even been your goals. But, as my married friends would be quick to tell you, marriage does not mean they “won” the dating game. Many of them are now divorced because they didn’t understand the difference. By making marriage the Final End of their dating life, they were preparing themselves to stop trying. And that’s exactly what happened.

I studied Business in college and one of the things I remember was the idea of “Going Concern.” When a business has a Going Concern, they believe they will stay open and the business will last forever. That doesn’t mean things will be easy. Quite the contrary. It means they are preparing to stay open forever and prepare accordingly. Once they begin to say, “This business will only stay open for another year, another two years,” they have already begun to close up shop and end things.

The same is true with relationships. When you see “marriage” as the end of your dating life, you are saying Marriage = Dating Death. You start preparing for that. I think that’s why people feel such anxiety on their wedding day. In addition to all of the issues that pop up (snagged dress, who has the rings?, Uncle Bill is drunk already!), existentially these two people – on the happiest day of their lives – are stressed out, scared, unsure, and feel like they’re going to have a heart attack. Is that any surprise? They feel an imminent death to their relationship.

I prefer to think of all relationships as a series of steps or stages. Notice I say “relationships” in a broad sense, as these stages can apply to friendships, working relations, family, etc. But we are discussing dating here, so let’s focus on how this idea relates to dating. First, you meet someone and then try to impress them in some way, and so on.

  • Meeting
  • Posing/Posturing
  • Flirting
  • Pairing off/Separating
  • Social reintroduction
  • Coupling/ “Getting serious”
  • Sharing/Fighting
  • Bonding/ Marriage
  • Familial Cohesion
  • Reassessment
  • Plateauing

When you are dating, your only goals should be ones of trust, intimacy, having fun, being supportive, etc. Personal growth and interpersonal growth both leading to relationship growth – those should be the only goals you set for yourself. Your goal is not to pick out wedding cake on the first date. Your goal on the second date is to name your kids. Your only goals should be figuring out how to be present with this person.

That’s it.

For me, those are realistic goals and ones that I have been pretty successful at. Sometimes, that means laughing with them. Sometimes it means having “real talk.” But – again and again, I say this – it does not mean idealizing them, dreaming of who they can become, or encouraging them to become someone else to fit my plan.

That was a hard lesson for me. I once dated a woman for a few years who, when we broke up, pointed out that I was always telling her that I loved her for the woman she could become, not the woman she was. And that sucked. When the weight of that settled on me, I could not forgive myself for years. I still think about that and remind myself of the vow I made to never treat someone like that ever again. That was a really sucky thing to do to someone – make them feel like I could love them in the future, but not in the present. When I started to look around though, I saw everyone else was doing the same thing. They were skipping the dating and planning for the wedding. They were naming their future children. They were always looking to something and someone else, instead of living in the present stage of their relationship.

I feel like that’s an important distinction. That is, I appreciate your question and want to say that, behind your question, are some assumptions about success that it seems we don’t agree on. So I’d like to uncouple this idea that successful dating = marriage.

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One of my best friends is a professor at UCLA and he says that his marriage “had to crash and burn” for it to survive the first four years. Their marriage, their relationship is not a “success” because they exchanged vows. Their marriage works for them because they are always living in the present with each other, moving up and down those stages together. All relationships change; theirs survived because they understood that. They survived because they take time to look at where they are, where they are going, and where they have been and always take a current inventory.

The best divorces I have seen do the same thing. That seems counter-intuitive to say. “A successful divorce.” But they happen! Separation can also be a “stage” of a relationship. And that happens because they look at each other and without holding onto the former nostalgia or hopeful future, say to each other, “This isn’t working. We’re not growing together and we’re not in the same place.” And so they let each other go.

Over the last decade, I have noticed all of my friends rush through the stages of a relationship or jump over them. They are genuinely confused as to what happened and why their (former) partner was so “messed up.” With time, it’s been a hard realization for them to finally see that their partner wasn’t “messed up.” The two of them just weren’t on the same page. No question, both sides were great people. That’s why they got together in the first place! They were both, individually, great! But it was when they brought that greatness together into one place that things changed. Instead of seeing their togetherness as a new environment, they still thought and behaved like they were single. Some wanted to be great on their own. Some had different ideas of greatness. Some of them changed (as we all do) as they got older and had more experiences. Some didn’t want the other person to change, but they did. But in each case, they stopped being great together.

In other words, to take something that you said and turn it around – “Everyone can get married. Not everyone can have a successful relationship.” That is, if you want to get married? You can find someone. Easily. Mail-order spouses, desperate people, ugly people, mean people – everyone wants to attain that status of “Married”. Mazel tov! But marriage and having a strong, loving relationship are not the same things.

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