I’ve Been Thinking … Life is a Feast. Take Your Place at the Table.
“We must love one another, or die,” urged the poet W. H. Auden in a line that has stuck with me since high school. And I like the poignancy of love lost in the Rascal Flatts song: “I should have stolen every moment / Now there’s a page with not enough on it.”
And let me add a final nod to Michael Pollan. Don’t date someone your grandmother wouldn’t want for you. Date someone who is kind and reliable. Who loves you for who you are. Who will treat you with respect? Who will love you, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health? Someone who makes you feel excited, happy, gorgeous, smart, and someone who you trust.
But don’t go into a relationship already worried about “till death do us part.” Thinking that this person will be the one and only is too much pressure. It’s like starting as an intern and already worrying about making partner. Maybe that is why so many women have a hard time finding the One. We assume that when he comes along he will solve all our problems. It’s the Cinderella complex. The Mr. Right terminology makes me wince. It suggests that there is only one solution.
But the truth is, there isn’t. We ignore opportunities that could blossom into something worthwhile because we live in a Western culture that teaches us that there is one big love. I prefer Helen Fisher’s idea of “slow love.” Like the slow food movement, where the best food is grown locally and eaten in season, slow love is an organic and healthy process that involves three pillars: lust, romance, and attachment. The first two can happen either first or second. In other words, you can fall in love with someone before you have sex, or you can have sex first and then fall in love. But the attachment stage, that third piece, is what you need for a long-term partner. That takes time, and as much as you would like to, you can’t speed it up.
Along those lines, there is also no such thing as perfect when it comes to love—in you or your partner. Embrace imperfection and find a mate who loves you for yours. And know when you start dating that this person may not be the person you are with for the rest of your life. People change. You will change.
“People used to marry and have sex for the first time that night, and then stop having sex with other people,” Esther Perel says. “They used to marry or choose someone for life; they didn’t really have any exit option. Today, you can start the whole thing from scratch at sixty and even do it for the first time. That is a whole set of options that never existed before. Monogamy used to be one person for life, and today monogamy is one person at a time.”
Today, 40 to 50 percent of US marriages end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. The Pew Research Center has found that marriage rates have declined in the US—one in ten adults ages twenty-five and older was not married in 1960; in 2012, it was one in five. Yet most people who are looking for a partner say that they want to find the one person they will spend the rest of their life with, according to Fisher’s Match.com study. I wonder if that is simply unrealistic. What if you found someone who makes great sense right now? And for this next stage of your life?
“Our expectations have only risen,” Perel says. “We still want everything we wanted from traditional relationships— companionship, economic support, family life, children, and legacy. But on top of it, we want our partner to be our best friend, trusted confidant, passionate lover, and intellectual equal, as well as the best parent.” We live twice as long today as we did a hundred years ago, which puts that much more pressure on this one person. “The dominant romantic model of the day is that we are asking of one person what once an entire village used to provide,” Perel adds. “And this belief that marriage will give you access to all these other things that are going to make you happy. Marriage isn’t meant to be the source of happiness.”
The happiness bit is up to you.
And you need to live the biggest life you can.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett conducted a study, called “Women Want Five Things,” among successful working women and found that even more than marrying or having a child, women wanted to feel “exhilarated by their lives.” Hewlett calls it “flourishing,” and whether you want to find a partner to marry and have a child with or simply to find someone to share your life with, who doesn’t want to flourish?
What makes you happy? If it’s bird-watching or bowling, do it. Or if you don’t know, try it. Yoga or tango. The local shooting range, a demolition derby, or Russian literature. Do all of it while you continue to search for love. And make that search a conscious one. It is too important to simply hope that something will happen.
When I was at Cosmo, alongside raises and orgasms, “How do you get him to commit?” was another frequently asked how-to question from readers. For those women who are dating the guy who won’t say “I love you” or move in, move on already. Nothing is more depressing than having to persuade someone of your charms when they’re not convinced. Any fear of having that conversation signifies that it is not an equal relationship.
If it is clearly not working, be brave and end it.
“We have this extension of what I call the pre-commitment,or commitment lite,” Fisher says. “Marriage used to be the be- ginning of a relationship with someone, and now it is the finale. As a result, you have plenty of time to try people out before you commit. Do it. If it does not work after three months, don’t do it anymore. It’s not hard to break up with people.”
Look at it this way: If you were working on a deal, and the client was refusing to sign the papers or not returning your calls, you would know there was something wrong. You would not invent
ridiculous reasons as to why. You would understand the silence and refusal means they have lost interest, gotten cold feet, and you would move on and look elsewhere for a new business lead. Likewise, do yourself a favor and be honest if you are wait- ing for the text or call and it has not yet arrived and it should have. Yes, it’s annoying, disappointing, humiliating when some- one doesn’t return the ball you have thrown at them, but do not overinvest in someone who is not reciprocating.
Matthew Hussey, Cosmo’s relationship expert, has an excellent rule: “Only invest in someone who is equally investing in you.” You want to create forward momentum so your love life does not stand or fall on him or her. You want equality here. This is the great benefit of dating apps. You can find someone else. So suck it up and move on if what seems like a promising lead dries up. Yes, I know, it takes courage to talk to the person in the distant cube or in front of you in the coffee line. If the thought of switching off your phone is too panic-inducing, then you can use it as an introducing tool, but in this real-life scenario: Turn to the guy behind you and reference the news flash that just ran across your screen. Or simply ask, “Do you know the Wi-Fi password?” Any excuse to actually look him in the eye and make a real connection, rather than disappearing into your phone and preventing him, and anyone else in that coffee shop or taxi line or whatever real-life line, from approaching you and starting a conversation.
These casual interactions are disappearing because of our focus on the phone. This means that we are missing the little entrées to meeting people. Plus, we get less practice at them and so find these first conversations—a necessary start to any relationship—intimidating when they don’t need to be. So start practicing.
The added benefit of a genuine encounter is you can tell immediately if he is worth pursuing, whereas if you met him online, you would have no idea. It might take 250 texts to make a coffee date, and then you realize there’s no way. But if you are standing opposite each other, filling up at the gas station, or you regularly pass each other while you’re walking your dog, you can already suss out whether there might be a connection. Think of the time you will save just by hearing his voice.
And don’t forget to take a few risks.
It’s easy to box yourself in with a set of rules about what your future partner should or shouldn’t be.
Joanna Louise Coles is the first person to hold the position of Chief Content Officer for Hearst Magazines. She previously held the position of editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, the world’s largest women’s media brand, from 2012 to September 2016, and was named an editorial director of Hearst in 2014.