Is it possible to figure it out?
January 2, 2014 6:16 PM   Subscribe

I was sitting around today thinking about my sort of unsuccessful dating/relationship history and feeling kind of discouraged and was all geared up to write one of those "I'm almost 30 and have never been in a long term relationship, why isn't it happening?" questions. But then I thought about it and I feel like I am making inroads into understanding why I have been single for so long. So my revised question: have you experienced (or know someone who has experienced) growing clarity about this subject that has allowed you to finally meet the right person? What does it take to be "ready" for a relationship?

For me, I have come to a number of realizations over the past year or so about myself and relationships, and possible explanations for why I have never had anything long term (nothing past a couple of months), which have to do with low self-esteem, not having a clear idea of what I need and deserve out of a relationship, not being great at getting over people, maybe not being willing enough to put myself out there to people who I am interested in, etc. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances that are unrelated to my mental "preparedness" for a relationship in general that probably play into why I haven't met the right person for something long term as well (was super overweight and super shy in high school, went to an all-girls undergrad, lived in the middle of nowhere in a developing country for volunteer work for two years in the middle of my twenties, have moved around a fair amount in general and tend to move in female-dominated professional and social circles). But I am feeling lately like I have successfully identified and am addressing some of my personal issues around relationships. I was just wondering what the experience of others has been where being "ready" to be in a long-term relationship is concerned, particularly for people who have consistently wanted a long-term relationship but had a hard time making anything last. What kinds of factors do you think played into your being in a good place for something to finally work out? Thanks in advance!
posted by thesnowyslaps to Human Relations (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Many people don´t like to face this fact, but luck plays a huge role in finding/not finding the person with whom you might be able to build something stable and pleasant.
Looks, cultural and socio-economic status, family history, positive role models you were/were not exposed to, correspondence between the kind of person you desire and the kind of person you might realistically attract...those are some of the things life deals you, for better or worse, without asking for your consent.
By all means, improve yourself in every possible way (spiritual, intellectual, financial, psychological, aesthetical) as much as you can, that makes you a better human being and potentially more desirable. But remember that when seeking enriching relationships with others, although important, you are only one factor in a long and complex equation.
posted by kayrosianian at 9:38 PM on January 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

I don't know if I fit your criteria exactly, but until I was 22, I didn't have any sort of relationship. At all. I never dated. This wasn't because of cultural or religious issues; my parents largely didn't care who I dated or went out with. I'm very independent and also a huge introvert. I value my "me" time like nothing else. I'm also a very private person and don't (still don't) tend to share much of myself with people (uh, MeFi notwithstanding, evidently). I couldn't imagine letting another person into my world, let alone taking up my valuable free time. I also saw my older sister get pregnant at 15, married and widowed at 16, and then married/divorced another four times before she was out of her twenties. (FWIW: there's something to be said for being almost-30 and having not done those things.) My parents had an emotionally and often times mutually physically abusive relationship. So, I had trepidation, to say the least, about the worth/point of getting involved with someone, because I'd never seen it work out well.

I avoided men at college. I would talk to them and joke around in before/during class, and I didn't have problems at all with doing group projects or one-on-one projects, but once we were out of the classroom, I zipped away before any of them could approach me on a semi-private, non-school-related basis. It was the same thing at work: I was fine with men in a work-related, professional setting but wanted nothing to do with them outside of work. The thing is: there were a lot of times when I was terrified of never having sex and never getting married. I watched a ton of my high school friends start families, while I was still living with my parents, single and alone. And I still couldn't get over my knee-jerk reaction to avoid getting into a situation where I might be asked out.

And then...he just happened. A lot like kayrosianian said: it just happened. He was a co-worker. I knew him for three years, and I was better friends with his then-girlfriend than I was with him. (Okay, that sounds awful, but there was no impropiety!) About a year after they broke up and the ex-girlfriend got a different job, he and I went to breaks together. We took lunches together and watched bad shows on our store's crappy TV. Somehow, he didn't ping my "get away now! don't give him the chance!" response, like my other colleagues and peers did. After six months of being work buddies, a manager made him ask me out. I was terrified, but I knew he was a person I wanted to know better. I said "what the hell" and made time for him. We dated, then moved in together. He became part of my "me" time; he was no longer an intruder in my life. He was part of my life, before I even knew what was happening or could make a conscious decision. It just...was. We've been together for five years, married for one.

I didn't really prepare myself for that relationship to happen. I guess if I did anything, it was learning to recognize the difference between a real gut feeling of "no, you don't want this, this is bad" vs. my knee-jerk "you want to take the easy way out and say 'no,' even though you do want to see where this goes. Stop living this way." My advice is to trust yourself to be ready for the right long-term relationship at the right time. I really believe in the concept of "once you stop caring so much and trying so hard to make something happen, that's when it happens." But you've got to be around potential partners to form relationships and to see where you are emotionally and mentally: take a class, join a group, get to know the potential partners in your workplace (if there are any), etc. And then, trust your instincts and trust yourself. It all sounds so trite, but I've seen it work.
posted by coast99 at 10:15 PM on January 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

What kinds of factors do you think played into your being in a good place for something to finally work out?

Being okay with taking things, including relationships, one day at a time. Letting friends be friends unless/until there was more, and enjoying each stage of that progression.

Try to stay in the now. Enjoy the company of friends and/or romantic partners as they are currently. Some relationships evolve; some evolve then devolve; all have ups and downs. Foster relationships you enjoy and deem healthy, but don't project futures onto them; cultivate and enjoy one day at a time.

Doing this, you just may find you've spent several hundred days, one at a time, with someone special (voila--a long-term relationship).

I think it's fantastic that you're self-aware and introspective enough to see what didn't work in the past. I'm afraid you set yourself up for disappointment if you try to plan a relationship. It's much more likely something will unfold if you release all sense of urgency.

(Edit to add: I'm married, sometimes happily sometimes less happily, for 11+ years, and I didn't feel ready, but since you were asking about long-term stuff I figure that qualifies on some level.)
posted by whoiam at 10:34 PM on January 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Everyone has different issues they need to get over before they are "ready." But here are a few generalities:

Stay in the now, what whoiam said. Enjoy things moment to moment. That means noticing when you are dwelling on the past or fretting about the future, and coming back to see what's around you in the present.

Like yourself. Another person can magnify the things you don't like about yourself, and that can be scary; you can look for a reason to get out of a relationship because you don't want to be reminded of those things.

Be open to experimentation. Be open to people who are not your type. Don't worry about messing up--that's the only way to find out what works. You get to choose what's right for you, but you need experience to know what that is. Experience is what all of this has been for.

Life is longer than you think it is. You have time. You'll get there.

Good luck.
posted by laconic titan at 12:09 AM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think part of being "ready" is about not internalizing the belief that you are desperate. The people you want to date will be able to sense if you are interested in them as a person or if you just feel that you must "take what you can get".
posted by capricorn at 6:52 AM on January 3, 2014

I've been almost exclusively in long term relationships. My shortest one was a year and a half or so, then 11 years, 15 years, and am currently in another one showing good signs of lasting long.

On the other hand, my partner was never really in a long term relationship until she met me. She's well suited to the kind I do. There's lots of adult communication, lots of raising issues when awkward, ability to stop doing something if I articulate that it's irritating me, lots of support and kindness, equal parts also of giving each other space to be who we are and supporting each other where we can. Because we're in our 40's, we've also committed to helping each other care for our parents. She likes my dotty demented dad (who's in a dementia home) and she likes my Mom. And I recently traveled to Wisconsin to meet her Mom and family.

The relationship itself is sort of easy, easy-going but founded on solid commitment to each other and to the process of keeping the relationship we have solid and built on open and honest communication.

So what I'm saying is that I think she's always had the skills to participate in a long term relationship but was waiting for the right partner. Note I'm not saying anything about True Love. We are both romantics and we enjoy stories like Princess Bride and Love Actually and all the sappy silly true love romances, but I think by this time we are both pretty pragmatic and in discussion about it we both agree that there's never just one True Love partner, that if everyone's got the chops and everyone's interested, then you can build a solid long term relationship on companionability, love, friendship, silliness, kindness, intent, communication and the willingness to commit to those things.

Also luck. We met by both sort of cluelessly using OK Cupid without realizing that it's also used for hookup-matching. And we made a connection based on a very random common interest: kale. So yeah. Find love and physical joy where you can, I say, and be ready for more if the circumstances are right.

Finally a reality check: You're in your 30s and my sweetie and I are in our 40s. I just wanted to talk to you about "baggage". We all have baggage, even in our 20s. We bring with us expectations, assumptions and a little bit of crazy (or a lot) and it entangles with whatever our partners or potential partners have and we figure out if we can make it happen anyway. You haven't used the term but you might be thinking about it and it'll undoubtedly come up as you romance (friends or loved ones or your date might mention it) or you'll read about it or whatever. In my view of the world, everyone has "baggage" it's derived out of living and you acquire it as a kid and maybe therapy helps you shake some of it, but there are so few people in the world I've met who've ever seemed almost devoid of baggage that I think what we sometimes get better at is not simply not having baggage but getting better at keeping it hidden away. But it comes out when you're angry or afraid or sad or alone anyway. For me, occasional therapy helps a lot with burgeoning baggage issues. But in talking with my sweetie about the early days of getting to know each other, we both saw some baggage here and there but it was okay because we only focused on it when we delighted in it. And I recommend taking it on like that. You'll see it by G-d. And be ready for it, and I hope your sweeties will also be ready to see it in you, but don't let it freak you out. It's part of life, derived from living. Revel in yours, try not to splash anyone with it who doesn't want to be splashed and do your best to be sane about it as you get to know someone new.

posted by kalessin at 7:51 AM on January 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

You might also find this thread helpful.
posted by amusebuche at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2014

I don't buy the whole idea that you have to get ready for someone to love you. Someone who loves you will find you whenever you do, and there isn't much you can do make it happen. The craziest people who have not dealt with their shit at all are in couples and some of the most amazing people are single. These things are completely unrelated.

I spent a lot of time single and agonizing over whether or not I was "ready". When I finally found my better half, none of that stuff made any difference.

So, I just think you should try to become a better human (a better communicator, a more thoughtful and worldly person, a more interesting and accomplished person, etc.). When the right person comes along, they'll like you either way, but those things will just make your life better in general.
posted by 3491again at 9:55 AM on January 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with 3491again. The idea that you have to be "ready" and that it's impossible to get into a relationship until you're ready is just a way for people who aren't in a relationship to feel like they must have something wrong with them, and need to change until they're "good enough" to be in one. Which is total crap
Serial killers get into relationships. You don't need to be "good enough".

Something that you miss when you're looking at other peoples' relationships is all the behind-the-scenes stuff. You have no idea how many people are staying together for the kids they had by accident/ just putting up with the other until something better comes along/ cheating on their spouse/ feels to guilty to leave/ just don't want to be alone/ can't afford to move out/ too afraid to leave/ fight all the time/ barely speak/ always feel lonely/ just can't be bothered to leave/ have been together so long, they might as well stay together/ are keeping up appearances/ know that the other is cheating but afraid to rock the boat/ just don't know what else to do/ etc etc etc. You don't see compromises and problems that lie beneath a lot of relationships that look great on the surface. So don't beat yourself up over not having been in an LTR.

In terms of having a happy LTR, well, that's partly luck, just like any friendship. You don't go into a friendship knowing that it will be a lifelong friendship or that you'll always be aquaintences or that in six months they'll do something really shitty and you'll never speak to them again. You have to find out when it happens. You have an element of control- you can decide what invitations you accept, who you invite, how much of yourself you share, how much you contact someone- but ultimately, the course of the relationship is something you can't totally decide, largely because life and people change. The part of it that isn't luck is work, and both people have to be willing to do that work- and sometimes it involves comprimises that you never would have anticipated, just as any friendship.

There's also the question of whether your expectations are realistic. I know a woman who is almost 40. Somewhat overweight and decent looking but not a supermodel. Works in finance admin so probably makes an average but not stellar income. Very religious. Very sweet and fun, but a bit intense. So, a regular average person. She only goes after hotttt guys with expensive cars and fancy jobs, and she isn't smooth when she gets a date with one of them, she's awkward. Which is fine. But then she insists that she's single because she's "not a size two". And she has this huge list of personality qualifications that she wants a guy to meet. But she herself doesn't meet a lot of them. Which is also fine. But the guy she's looking for doesn't exist and if he did, he would be dating someone like him. Not because she isn't good enough. But because she wouldn't be a match for him.

You have to find someone who is a match for you. That means that even though you don't need to be exactly alike, you have to be in sort of the same "place", qnd be able to be happy in the same kind of relationship, or it won't work out. Which is why a lot of relationships fall apart when one person changes and the other doesn't keep up. You can be overweight and poor and date someone who is rich and skinny. But you need something to bind you together.

The more different you are, the more sympathetic you both need to be in your core to who the other person really IS. Which I don't know how to describe except that it's like when you read two books and you love them both because there's a connection, a sameness to them, that isn't apparent to most people and that is difficult to describe. And if you only want to date someone because of the externals- looks, money, fancy car, title- that's fine. But you need to have the right stuff to bring to the table to make that happen. And the relationship, though it might last, will probably be unsayisfying because you'll only connect on that surface level.
posted by windykites at 10:43 AM on January 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Differing from 3491again and windykites, I do think readiness is a huge factor in entering a relationship, but readiness and "good enough" are two very different things. We are already good enough. Not being ready is due to not being willing or able to invest the mental and emotional energy needed for a relationship. Why? There could be many factors. Maybe a person isn't over an ex, or recovering from abuse. Maybe they're in bad straits financially, or they just started a business. Maybe they have triggers that they want to work on first. Maybe they are about to leave the country for a few months. And the list goes on, varying from person to person. The reasons you listed are totally valid. Having low self-esteem can definitely get in the way, and deciding to focus on working on that can also, for some, be a factor in where they want to focus their energies.

Serial killers get into relationships. You don't need to be "good enough".

Yeah, but they don't get into healthy relationships. I know this was meant as hyperbole, but that's not the kind you want!

IMHO, the idea that readiness is irrelevant is kind of like the belief that someone telling you they're not ready is a rejection OF YOU. This is not always the case. What if they're really not ready and they really like you? Yes, that can happen! I am living proof as someone who has feelings for someone else, but does not want to pursue a relationship until I work out some of my own issues. I'm actually motivated to try to get ready sooner because of him, but it's not going to be overnight no matter how much I want to be ready ASAP.

I don't believe long-term relationships are about luck. Meeting someone compatible can seem lucky, but making it work long-term requires commitment to working through problems, assertive communication, and knowing/accepting your partner warts and all--just like having a healthy relationship with any family member requires those things. The limerence fades, conflicts arise, and how you handle it determines whether a deeper love and understanding can emerge. I think that being ready involves the awareness of whether you are capable of investing a deep level of commitment into someone else. The person I am interested in would accept no less from me, so if I'm distracted by my baggage I'm not going to be able to offer that to him. And after too many FWBs, that's all I want as well.

That is what readiness means to me--the wherewithal to go deep and for the long haul. I think anyone can be ready for a casual relationship pretty much anytime, but if you're looking for something on the level of marriage, yes, you had better have your shit together.
posted by Rainflower at 3:41 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll keep this simple. Realizations I made about myself, changes I made in my life, and a different approach to dating led directly to my current, lovely marriage.

In my twenties I had relationships, but they were all wrong for me. Without going into all the gory details, I'll just say that in my late twenties I did a lot of thinking about my life, what I wanted to do for a career, what type of relationship I actually wanted to be in, what type of people I needed to avoid, how I wanted to approach dating, etc. I matured, I became more introspective, I avoided mistakes I'd previously made, I became more confident. One of the really specific changes that I made was to A) start online dating (which I'd always been scared of doing previously) and B) convince myself to actually approach men, rather than simply waiting for them to approach me. So I got online, I read a lot of profiles, and I finally got up the nerve to email (and later ask out) the guy I was most interested in. We fell in love; now we're married. So yes, I really think that being ready can lead you to a relationship.

Please remember that everyone who's now in a good relationship was once where you are (I could have written your post a few years ago). Wishing you the best of luck.
posted by leitmotif at 6:04 PM on January 3, 2014

Here's my story: I'm female, 35. I grew up in a pretty dysfunctionaI household, and in particular, with a lot of shame about sex and relationships (and myself). I didn't even know it was shame that I was experiencing, or that I had an incredible fear of intimacy. I absorbed a lot of dysfunctional messages about sex, relationships, dating, men. I had a lot of fear and it was pretty painful, more so than I realized.

So how did I deal? I read books, did therapy, journalled, read advice columns including ask mefi… Learned about myself, relationships, dating. I got honest with myself: I had been trying, for so long, in this angst-y way, to have a relationship, because it was social convention, it was what you were "supposed" to do, and how you would prove that nothing was wrong with you (these are some examples of the dysfunctional messaging in my head). And finally I let go of that - I said to a friend, I don't think I'm ready for a relationship. It felt good to say that. It was honest. And lo and behold, the next day, I met a dude. I was sitting in the park with my camera, and he had his camera, and he started talking to me. Now, this didn't turn out to be the love of my life, but it was a relationship for me to experience and learn from. It wasn't a great relationship either - it didn't meet my needs, but I didn't know what they were, so it kept going until I figured out what I wanted. So eventually I went looking for it after breaking up. I chose to go online because, I don't get out much so the chances of randomly meeting people to date were slim, and I feel like I'm good at getting a read on people from what they write and present online. It's also clear what everyone is there for; when you meet people IRL, unless it's really obvious, you won't know if they're partnered or not right off the bat. No awkward questions like, "So, are you seeing anyone?" At that point, I knew what I was looking for: a good person, and someone I was attracted to. That's it. (Pro tip for you: Find someone with similar values as you!) You would think that "a good person" was a given, but keep in mind all the negative messages I had had in my head - e.g. that I had to have a relationship, and that all men are selfish, predatory, etc. By that point I had learned that there were lots of good guys around (e.g. in my workplace) and believed it, but I wasn't attracted to them.

And so I worked on my profile a lot, put it up on OKCupid. I was 31 at this point. A couple of weeks in, my current partner contacted me and he was a good guy and my attraction grew for him - it wasn't there right at the start. By that point I was confident that I could do this - have a healthy relationship. And so we did. The months went on and we spent time together, and about a year later I moved in. A few months later I got pregnant (we did have the kids discussion), had the kid and now it's the joys of parenting and living together… forever. And that is a journey in itself in which you are always learning. Getting a partner is one thing. Maintaining the relationship for the rest of your life is another!

Anyway, this is so long and yet I could say so much more. I totally agree with Rainflower - I never liked that "I haven't met the right person yet" stuff. That just wasn't true for me - I really had to take control of my own situation - i.e. deal with my shit. And when I did, it was only a matter of weeks before my partner contacted me.

So that is my story of how I got "ready." Your story is going to be different. It's from here: But I am feeling lately like I have successfully identified and am addressing some of my personal issues around relationships. that you need to continue your story. So then what did you do? What happened? What was your thought process? What did you learn? etc. Feel free to memail if you want to chat more.
posted by foxjacket at 7:45 PM on January 3, 2014

The most important "lesson" was being able to trust myself.

When I was growing up I was deeply afraid of ending up in a bad/abusive relationship. So I had relationships but I was always suspicious of the guy, looking for signs that he was concealing a bad temper or the like, and always had one finger on the kill switch. I wanted to make sure mentally that I could walk away from the relationship at any time. What if he flips out and hits me tomorrow? What if, what if. Thus, I couldn't fully commit and be vulnerable and my relationships were more play-acting than real thing.

I thought I didn't trust men, but really I had no faith in my own judgement to pick a good match. I didn't trust the guys to know that I was good girlfriend material. I had no faith in my gut instinct. I did not trust myself to take care of myself if things got tough. So I dated guys where my gut said "bleh" and second guessed myself and kept to the safe side, emotionally.

These days, it's not that I am confident I can pick a guy who will never hurt me or leave me, or I won't make a relationship mistake. I am confident that if the hurt were to happen, that I trust I can pick myself up and move on and continue to have an open heart. It gives me a certain sense of fearlessness and I am more willing to be honest (with myself and the fellow) and take risks. Because I really want something that is true - with real vulnerability and connection - not an imitation. It is true that you only accept the love you think you are worthy of receiving, and man, it hurts to get more love than you think you deserve. I am just not scared of that pain anymore. And I am not scared of the absence.

You're never going to be "ready" and you're never going to be "safe". But trust yourself to take good care of you in whatever circumstances arise, and you'll be all right.
posted by griselda at 5:57 AM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thanks for all your thoughts. It is really interesting to see the range of answers and opinions on this question. You all gave me some things to think about. Funnily, even though I have had my moments of discouragement like the other day, I am feeling much more recently like I am an independent, worthy person who will be fine whether or not I find someone. I think that is probably a good place to be in, whether it means that I am "ready" and therefore will have more success in this department or whether it is all just luck anyway.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 7:07 AM on January 4, 2014

That is a really great place to be in. It makes you much more discerning of who might be a healthy and compatible partner when you aren't willing to pick "just anyone."
posted by Rainflower at 7:48 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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