|Jay and me taking our own Easter pic because kids suck|
Summer is approaching and that means it’s time for my anniversary, which obviously makes me grateful for making a really good choice 17 years ago.
And it’s wedding season for all my friends in their 20s and that makes me think about that time in my life when it seemed like every weekend from May to September we had another wedding to attend.
It’s also time for graduations and that turns my mind to the two groups of beautiful girls I got to walk with for a season of their high school years—one group is a year out of college and the other is a year out of high school at this point. They are just entering those years of wedding fever and never-ending “save the date” cards.
And then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I could help my single-girl friends in some small way with what I’ve learned from my marriage and the marriages (both successful and not-so-much) of my friends and family.
So, for all my singletons, here are my suggestions on how to keep from wasting too much of your time on a guy you won’t end up marrying.
1. Be a really good friend
You should be a really good friend to all the guys AND girls in your life, whether or not you’re thinking of dating them. When someone needs to talk, you listen. When someone needs help moving, you bring a label maker. When someone is having a hard time, you offer encouragement. Don’t talk about your friends behind their backs. Don’t judge them for whatever ridiculous (to you) problem they have going on. Don’t attempt to solve their (or your) problems with tequila. It does not ever make anything better.
Do you know what happens when you’re a good friend? You become a better person. And you’re better able to identify the people in your life (male and female) who help make you a better person. Because I married my very best friend, I have run marathons, and made paintings we hang in our house, and spent the summer in Europe. Jay spurs me on, makes me better, and encourages me to do great things. I’d never have had that kind of love in my corner if I hadn’t been a good friend first.
2. Watch how he treats other people
When you spend time with a guy pay special attention to how he talks to and about the other people in his life. Does he gripe about his mom always being on his case? Does he badmouth his roommate? Does he complain about his boss all the time? That is not going to get better with age. Even if his boss sounds like an evil minion from the Hell of Retail Inventory Night and his mom makes Martha Stewart look laid back, he has a choice. He could choose a different attitude, he could choose a different job, he could shut up about his mom because she gave him life, for Pete’s sake. If his bad mood is always someone else’s fault, don’t bother.
A corollary to this one is to pay attention to how he talks to strangers. If he is rude or dismissive to wait staff or acts annoyed by all the other people on the sidewalk, he is not a nice person inside.
3. Compare your goals and values
The goals one is kind of tricky because he (and you) may not exactly know what all your goals are. You might, but you are just as likely for those goals to shift as your life changes. So I’m not talking about things like “we both want to be attorneys.” I mean way more broad things like “I’d like to have a family one day” or “I’d like to travel with my kids” or “I want to work with a non-profit.” Even if life doesn’t exactly work out that way, these dreamy kinds of conversations reveal a lot about what is important to a person. If he says he never wants kids (and you do), believe him and move on—there is no middle ground on children. If he says he wants to spend his 20s really focusing on his career, but you want to get married, trust that he means it and check back when he’s 30. If he says his current goal is to buy the newest Xbox whatever, he is not yet a grownup and does not understand the concept of a goal. Back away slowly so as not to startle him.
His values should be ones you value. He should be loyal and faithful to his family. He should be loyal and faithful to his friends and controlled substances should have no effect on that. He should finish what he starts. He should work hard and save money and not waste what he has. (Side note: if you are having a hard time valuing these things you should not be in a serious relationship. You are not yet a grownup and it is his turn to back away slowly.)
You should share the same faith and not because one of you requires it of the other. Although I certainly know couples who have different beliefs and live happy lives, it is much easier if you don’t have to navigate that particular landmine. At some point in life, you and your husband are not going to feel in love. If you both love the same God, then at least your hearts are still pointing in the same direction. This is a much easier reason to walk away before a deep relationship starts than it is after.
4. Look for his commitment level (and not to his fantasy football league)
Marriages only succeed if divorce is not an option to both parties. If one of you is just “hoping for the best,” I have news: No one’s marriage ever involves only “the best.” At some point, the worst or the not-so-great or the horrifyingly mundane are going to occur and you need someone who understands commitment. So if he flits from job to job without giving reasonable notice or his friends make jokes about how he never shows up on time, he is not ready for a serious relationship.
5. Do something you both hate
Jay and I once volunteered to help build a Habitat for Humanity house and we had a terrible time. It was 147 degrees, it was an all day commitment on a Saturday, and we are apparently very bad manual laborers. We were tired and cranky and really disappointed to discover that we are, in fact, incredibly selfish jerks. But we also made each other laugh (when we passed briefly on our way to another mind-numbing task) and encouraged each other and have joked about how miserably we failed to be altruistic for years. So fold laundry or do your taxes or babysit some horrible children. A lot of life is doing tasks you don’t want to do and someone who can make the experience better, even if neither of you is having fun, is a person worth keeping.
6. Talk about something controversial
Pick a topic—abortion, police brutality, marriage equality, war, famine, the mess that is the Big Ten (it does NOT have 10 teams)—and ask what he thinks.
You’re not actually looking for the two of you to agree—you’re looking for how he talks about topics with emotional responses. If a person can’t see the other side of a situation or if their own feelings bring out severe language or anger, that person is probably not going to fight fair when he’s upset. And you need to be able to fight fair in a grown-up relationship. You have to be able to look past your own feelings and try to see what your partner is saying. If a guy can’t talk about a political topic without cursing and derogatory language, then be prepared to be cursed at and insulted when you get into a fight.
7. Meet his family. All of it.
You are, too, marrying his family. I don’t know why people say “you’re not marrying his MOM” or whatever, because you totally now belong to another family and all their crazy once you are married. And every family has crazy. I’m not going to offer examples because my family might read this—just know that I have wonderful in-laws whom I love very much and yet, the crazy stories are there. They always are. Clearly, you are not likely to hang out with some dude’s family before you have a relationship of some sort, but before you decide to get hitched forever you should see how he interacts with his family and whether or not you’d be willing to have your kids call that woman Grandma. They certainly don’t have to be perfect, but he should be able to be kind and loving to them while still acknowledging that they are (at least a little bit) crazy.
8. Want to have sex with him (later)
Notice that I did not list one this first. Our culture tends to make this “spark” the first checkmark on the dating possibility list and then tries to wade through the other qualities in a person later. But the reality is that finding someone attractive is really not that hard. I can think of several people I wouldn’t mind having sex with and not all of them are Ryan Gosling. Although I’m not sure I trust anyone with abs like that so maybe Chris Pratt… or Indiana Jones (not Harrison Ford, the actual treasure-hunting professor)… I have a thing for swashbuckling goofballs…o.k. I’m losing the thread here…
The point is that the “spark” is possible with lots of people in your life so, yes, it should be there, but it shouldn’t be given as much weight as our society tends to give it. All sparks have their ups and downs and a lot of people equate that feeling with love. When their spark is on a downturn for days or weeks or even months, they say they’ve “fallen out of love” or “grown apart” and notice that spark in a coworker or old friend and over time a marriage ends. So, yeah, want to have sex with him, but make sure you’re paying attention to all the other points before you do anything about it.
9. Discount his willingness to have sex with you
For some reason women tend to read extra meaning into a guy’s desire. It makes us feel beautiful or sexy or wanted and that has value to us. Just like it is not all that special for you to be attracted to a guy, it is not all that special for him to be attracted to you. Clearly, he should be into you. And if he asks you out, he is. But all that means is that sex is fun and you seem willing, not that he is the one true love of your life. Don’t confuse the point.
Right before my wedding I was sitting in the bridal room in the narthex of a little church listening to guests enter and be seated and I had a near panic attack. I sat there thinking, “what I am doing, this is ridiculous, marriage is forever, oh no, oh no, oh no. Alright, this is your last chance to back out—do you want to leave?” So I prayed and asked God, “is this right?” And then I remembered that I was promising myself to Jay, my best friend, the person with whom I wanted to do all the tasks of my life—silly, adventurous, mundane—and I smiled. Marriage is scary. Marriage to Jay just sounded fun. Prayer lets you take a breath and listen. Prayer lets you find focus. Prayer keeps you in love when you don’t want to be and keeps you married when you’re mad and keeps you sane when your family grows. Start before you are a couple by yourself and continue it together when you get serious.
So there you go. Ten ways to help weed out the guys who could suck you in and waste years of your life before you finally go, “wait, why am I still here?” and then have to move all of your stuff. And if you’re not in a place where you want an actual adult dating relationship, just tuck these thoughts away and practice the non-sex related ones on your friends. Good, kind people who make you better and lift your spirits are always the best ones to be around anyway.