I am confused. A lot of my peers say that you should stay single in your twenties but yet they are all preoccupied with finding “the one.” How can you tell if the love relationship you are in is the one that is meant for you? Are there signs to look for? What should I keep in mind as I move through different relationships? It seems like things have changed so much but also still are the same in many ways – what do you think has changed for the better or worse since you were in your twenties?
You have good reason to be confused. Love relationships for young people are more challenging than ever, in part because so many young people have witnessed the dissolution of intimate relationships in their family at a rate which has far outpaced the majority of preceding generations… Watching older generations go through painful separations and experiencing instability during important developmental phases while growing up can make you doubt the viability and meaning of committed relationships.
Consequently, many young people are reinventing how they connect and interact both romantically and sexually. It has become relatively uncommon to formally date on college campuses now that hook-ups and “friends with benefits” arrangements dominate and offer socially acceptable mechanisms to avoid emotional commitments in relationships. This combination of forces makes it hard to even get to know potential partners well enough to consider a long-term relationship. Reversing the order of emotional and sexual intimacy has become more routine and makes the “getting to know you” phase more challenging and, in many cases, non-existent.
Yet, the preoccupation of finding “the one” remains in tact because it is one of the most deeply entrenched fairy tales we grow up with and is, in fact, a central part of our human code to pair and reproduce. Our deepest longing in life is to be witnessed and loved as we are. It is easy to become jaded about these deep internal drives which have probably never been less supported culturally than they are now.
Good and strong relationships grow over time. They are a critical and primary mechanism of human development. Most of us are not well trained in the basic skills of relating, like: developing a positive thinking mechanism about self and relationship; learning to listen and express clearly; and defining what each partner needs to feel secure. All of these elements work to enable people to understand and explore their erotic selves with another. All relationships start out weak in one or more of these areas.
A bad sign is when one or both partners is not interested in working at the relationship in these ways. For instance, someone who uses sarcasm as a way to shut you down more often than not, might not be a good bet if s/he is not willing to listen to how that behavior is hurtful or embarrassing. You usually know, if you listen to yourself, what isn’t working for you in a relationship. Being able to listen, trust yourself and ask for what you need or don’t need is the mechanism of learning to love someone. This process can be messy, but conflict of these kinds are essential to holding onto yourself while loving someone else.
Many people, regardless of age, confuse the biologically driven experience of falling in love with the deep heart-growing work of learning to love someone over time. The latter doesn’t have the passionate fire of the beginning, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have incredibly powerful intimacy here. Rather, it comes as a product of all the other work you put into your relationship, not just the urge to mate.
Learning to love someone else or be loved by someone else can never take the place of developing the skills of loving yourself. No one can love you enough if you are empty of yourself. Two halves do not make a whole when it comes to love. Functional and healthy relating is a product of two whole people who are willing to invest their time and energy into building a positive container for them both.
Thinking about a relationship in terms of being a container that is spacious enough to allow you to be yourself, even if it is a dramatically changing one in your twenties and that of your partner is something that can become “the one” through your effort. I am not convinced that there is one right person out there for everyone… Rather, I think that finding someone who values your unique perspective and honors your needs is a rare and special gem that deserves the effort and sacrifice that long term relationships require. When you find this, no matter how old you are, consider yourself blessed and on a course for a love filled life.