Q: I’m a 23-year-old law student with a boyfriend who attends grad school 16 hours away. We’re both swamped at school, so we visit once a month. I've only been with one other guy, but I hate the dating scene. Still, maybe I need to date around to make sure he’s the right person. Then again, since you date to find someone you love, why would you leave someone you love so you can date? I’m pretty sure he’ll propose when we both graduate, and he’s theoretically everything I want, but it frustrates me that he has grand plans and never follows through. Also, he’s willing to move thousands of miles to be with me; I can't say I’d do the same. I do love him, but I once read that once you doubt the love, you've stopped loving that person forever.
A: Doubt gets a bad rap. Doubting love doesn’t mean you’ve stopped loving, but that you’ve started thinking. Sheep doubt nothing. Chances are you’ll get further in life by questioning things than by living like something that ends up dinner and a sweater.
You say this guy’s “theoretically” everything you want, which is super if you’re looking to live theoretically ever after. Of course, theoretically is pretty much how you’ve been living. You’re both swamped at school and see each other once a month. If you’ve been in school throughout your three years together, you’ve had, what, 36 dates? If so, more than anything, what you have together is a lack of information.
Because most people change a great deal between 20 and 30, pledging to spend the rest of your life with somebody at 23 is like asking a 6-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up, and holding her to it. (You try finding tooth fairy jobs in the classifieds.) Your 20s should be your “Who am I?” years. Until you get that answered reasonably well, you shouldn’t be moving ahead in any serious way to “Who am I with?” — not even if you find dating only somewhat more enjoyable than having all your toes pulled off with white-hot pliers.
Dating to find somebody you love is what you do after you’ve dated enough to get a handle on all the stuff you hate. Falling in love is easy; staying in love takes some doing, especially the 320,000th time you find yourself hearing those “grand plans.” Only when you take stock of somebody’s worst qualities, and decide you can live with them, are you ready to commit. Get married without doing that, and maybe you aren’t really saying “I do,” but “You’ll do.”
At this point, a wiser approach would be a more Amish one — and no, I don’t mean tossing all your lightbulbs, donning a bonnet and churning butter. They have this practice called “Rumspringa” — a “running around” period for Amish teens to dabble in modern culture: smoke, drink, date, and wear zippers. Experiencing what’s out there helps them make an informed decision — whether to stay modern or go back and live Amish. You, likewise, might propose a period of time where you both date around so you can get a better sense of whether you’re with him because you’ve been with him or whether you’re actually choosing him over a bunch of others. If you keep seeing him, avoid pledging to be together forever until you’re reasonably sure you’ll still want to be together at 27 — tempting as it is to respond to “Will you marry me?” with something a little more romantic than “Um, uhhh…look! A UFO!”
Q: I need about three nights a week to myself or I feel smothered. Last night, my sweet new boyfriend wanted to hang out for the fifth night in a row. I told him I needed some down-time, and he said okay, but sounded hurt.
A: For many people, love is finding somebody, then doing whatever they can to see that they never leave that person’s side. That did work for Romeo and Juliet. Then again, they were fictional. And dead. Explain to your boyfriend that you need down-time because you need down-time; you’ve always been that way, and it has nothing to do with him. Set aside certain nights as date nights so he won’t be standing there staring up at the tower wondering when you’ll let down your hair. We all know that endless togetherness can start to feel rather, well, endless; we just hate to admit it. Help him see that what’s truly romantic is having the chance to miss each other, and he just might be the guy who inspires you to blurt out, “You had me at ‘Goodbye, see ya in a coupla days.’”