The Lost State of Dating, Part II

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Though I believed that last month’s Hot Topic was complete, more and more thoughts on dating kept bubbling up–enough, in fact, to warrant another article.

Time after time, couples lament the failure of their relationships and endure months or more of hard-time grief when those around them wonder only how they stayed together as long as they did. From the outside, those unions are obviously flawed and doomed. Why can’t we see this from the inside?

A major reason for this lack of insight is our expectations of how the process works. Steeped as we are in the myth that “someday my prince will come,” it is amazing that we spend so little time defining the attributes of princes. If we make a list of the qualities we require in a mate (and refer to that list at the appropriate moment!), we save ourselves and others much grief.

What are you looking for in a mate? How does that differ from what you seek in a date? You may not care how your date gets along with her family or his employees, but those interactions will surely impact a long-term relationship. How we get along on Saturday night is important in dating, but how we live together as roommates looms large in marriage. How do you both manage money? What political and philosophical values do you share? What about lifestyle questions? If your idea of a perfect holiday is planting a new garden and your lover’s is a Caribbean cruise, you are heading for conflict or separate vacations!

None of these attributes matter much if you are ‘just dating,’ a fact we tend to forget. We can enjoy enormous fun playing with others whose differences preclude them from being our mates, but only if we stay clear about our agenda. In a society that equates kisses with contracts, becoming sexual with someone can elevate them to mate status inappropriately. This is culturally ingrained, especially for women. “But,” you argue, “I just can’t sleep with someone for the fun of it! That makes sex UNspecial!” Bollocks. Sex is special if the chemistry is there. Have we not learned that using sex as currency (I’ll give you sex if you’ll give me love) doesn’t work?

Of course each of us must decide what elements we require to agree to sex with another person, and we get to make that decision with each person and each encounter. Sex, however, does not promise love. Never has. We must remember not to get hooked emotionally when the hook is actually the intensity and fusion inspired by new sex. Is sex a part of love? Surely, but making sexual intimacy the only requirement for mate status is wrong-headed thinking.

The trick is to evaluate each relationship critically, regardless of whether it is sexual. If you are seeing someone with whom the sex is memorable but his/her housekeeping, or work, or drinking habits drive you nuts, do NOT try to shove this person into your Prince box. Disaster is guaranteed.

That is why we have dating, a system in which we can try people on for fit. Real compatibility is rare, and requires ‘kissing a lot of frogs’. We are foolish to ignore signs that we are poorly suited with a new lover, and we risk this if we must continue with them exclusively because we have had sex. It is not the best measure of compatibility. We are wise to hold out for the whole package.

If we consider sex as only one of the many ways we learn another person, and if we believe that sex is healthy, natural, and good, then we are free to judge our compatibility on more rational bases. We get into trouble when we pretend a relationship is what it is not, which we can easily do if we define it sexually. We all know (hopefully) about safer sex practices, so sex no longer need be the defining factor in our relationships. We will all be happier when dating replaces the madness of serial monogamy.

We can now have sex early when we are mutually attracted, yet we still think that that sex requires an exclusive commitment. When we stop defining our perfect match as the person with whom we are having sex, we allow each relationship to be realistically whatever it is, and not unrealistically more. When we locate someone who is actually primary partner material, we can negotiate an exclusive contract if that is what we both want. How much more honest this method is! How much more honouring of individual differences it is!

I am aware that this philosophy is uncommon. Some of you may be lamenting the time when a woman did not agree to sex until she was guaranteed a wedding ring. Those days are over…it’s time our attitudes more closely matched our behaviours. It is time we wait for a (near) perfect fit in our relationships and stop expecting sex to answer the question of whether a union is worth pursuing.

Dating can be fun. Sex can be fun. Love can be fun. They are not necessarily overlapping. Let’s do ourselves the honour of keeping them separate and waiting for our real Princes to appear before limiting ourselves to only one choice.