My patient was in a tizzy about a relationship:
“I don’t know if I can do this. I mean – he’s talking about going on a vacation together. What if we break up before then?”
I tried to calm her down.
“You guys have been dating for a month. No one’s bought tickets. He’s just talking. And you two seemed to be having fun together.”
“But I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Maybe I should break up with him now, before he gets too into me.”
“You barely know each other. Give it a chance.”
“But what if I want to date someone else? Wouldn’t that be cheating?”
“After a month? It’s too soon for commitment. Try to relax and have some fun.”
I encounter this type of anxiety in my patients all the time. Relationships are scary because people make them scary. Even during the first few weeks, they build up the pressure until they’re going nuts, then complain that they feel smothered, walled-in, overwhelmed, suffocated – it doesn’t make any sense.
When you climb a ladder, you shouldn’t look down because you’ll get scared. The trick is to ignore how high you’re getting, and keep climbing. At some point it doesn’t really matter how high you are – you’re high enough that if you fell, it would be bad. So why bother looking and get freaked out – just keep climbing.
It’s the same with relationships. Don’t look too far ahead or you’ll panic. Try to relax, keep going, and have fun. If you pay too much attention to how many weeks, or months, or even years have gone by, it will only spook you. Take it day by day, moment by moment. How long a relationship has been running doesn’t tell you anything about its quality in the moment, where it’s actually playing out. Maybe you’ve been together 60 days or 60 years. They both probably seem like a long time, depending on where you are in your life. The more important question is are you happy together right now?
The past is behind you and the future is unknown. The present is where you live. That’s where relationships take place. The key question each day is: am I having fun? Do I want to continue to share experience with this person?
If the answer is yes, keep going. If not, maybe wait a little while longer, and if the answer is still no – it might be time to move on.
I’m amazed at how quickly my patients begin to feel overwhelmed by relationships. That happens because they rush things – stare out at the distant horizon instead of staying in the moment and concentrating on today, the time you’re sharing right now with another person.
Remember, it’s easy to break up. It takes about two minutes. Say “this isn’t working for me” and walk away. Done. You can end a relationship in the time it takes to brush your teeth. No one is “trapped” in a relationship.
Starting a relationship is the time-consuming part: meeting someone, connecting, finding out about one another and keeping it going.
The road ahead in every relationship is unknown. And it doesn’t really matter all that much because you can’t control the future.
I’ve developed a few general time guidelines for relationships, just from watching my clients and seeing what works. I think four months of dating is a symbolic milestone. That’s the first time it would be remotely sensible to consider whatever you two have more than casual dating, and maybe even contemplate the idea of becoming exclusive. I don’t know why I chose four months – maybe the idea of sharing an entire season of the year is symbolic. You’ve gone one quarter of the way around the sun in one another’s company, from equinox to solstice (or vice versa.)
Six or eight months seems like a reasonable time before you consider yourselves a couple and present yourselves as such. A year or 18 months seems like a reasonable amount of time before you think about moving in together.
These are not hard figures – everyone has their own way of doing things. But if you’re going much faster than that, you’re probably rushing things – trying to get to the end of the road instead of letting things unfold organically, and stopping to enjoy the ride.
There’s no rush to get “established” in a relationship. A relationship never has to be anything other than a choice you’re making because you’re enjoying it – something you want to do, today, for yourself.
Anyone who’s in a really good long-term relationship will tell you: it’s best when every day feels like the first day, when you first met someone interesting and thought – hey, this is fun.