“I usually know if a relationship is wrong for me, but how can I tell if the relationship is right?”
While writing my book, and fielding love-related questions for well over a year, this one query came up far more than any other.
It’s a question asked by anyone in that vast gray area between one relationship milestone and the next. It’s a question pondered by anyone in a “pretty good” partnership. A question chewed over by those who answer, “It’s okay!” or “Things are going fine” when asked about their relationship or significant other. It’s a question for young people; for old people; for anyone who isn’t sure they’re ready to commit; for anyone who feels rocky about the next step. It’s a question for the person who feels like something in the relationship is off but they can’t put their finger on what. “How can I tell if the relationship is right?”
This generation is empowered, and plagued, by a phenomenon that has touched no other generation in the same way: Choice. Most people can find a date at the drop of a hat; all you need to do is download a dating app and swipe for a couple of hours. That says nothing of all the ways you can potentially meet a new flame in person.
It’s not necessarily just the endless choice of a potential partner that can be simultaneously enticing and stunting, but of all the experiences you could have while single and waiting for “the one” to come along — grad school, travel, living abroad, living alone, taking career risks. As psychology professor Art Markman, PhD, once told me; millennials are encouraged to “play the field” in a way no other generation has before them.
With all that in mind, there is simply no reason to commit to the wrong person. But how do you know if the person you’re seeing is right? There is actually a pretty easy way to answer that.
Not too long ago, I was sitting at a bar with a friend, nursing a glass of red wine while she unpacked her relationship woes. She’d been dealing with the infamous question of right vs wrong. The “pretty good” relationship. The angst of “fine.” The guy she was seeing wanted her to take herself off the market and take the next step with him. He wanted commitment; she just wasn’t sure.
I asked a lot of reflective questions. Eventually she breathed a huge sigh, and finally summarized it all: “I can’t shake the feeling that, by committing to him, I’ll be missing out on something.” FOMO is not a good headspace in which to start a commitment, and whether or not you feel FOMO is actually a good litmus test as to whether this next step is one that you really want to take. If you ever feel, like my friend, caught between a relationship rock and a hard place (you’re happy, but are you happy enough?) ask yourself: “Does this relationship seem to open more doors than it closes?” Essentially, does it broaden my life?
Every relationship is different, but the best relationships are oriented toward continuous growth. That doesn’t just mean deepening your bond as a couple, social science shows that good relationships cause people to also grow and become better on their own. Psychologist Arthur Aron, PhD, concocted the “self-expansion model” to explain key motivations for forming romantic relationships, which has since provided a framework for understanding many things that relate to partnerships.
Expounding upon Aron’s research, social psychologist Benjamin Le, PhD, says that the self-expansion model can help explain, “why we might be attracted to certain people over others.” The answer he provides is that it’s because “one person offers abundant opportunities for growth compared to others.” The self-expansion model can also explain, “why certain relationships are more fulfilling than others.” The answer there being because they give us “greater opportunities for self-expansion.”
The long and short of it is, with certain compatible people, we just grow more. We see the world through eyes that give us new perspectives. Those partners bring valuable knowledge and experiences to the table; experiences that we have not had, and knowledge that we did not know. Humans are incredible, dynamic, evolving beings; and sometimes, in relationships that aren’t right, the possibilities do not seem endless. We feel stagnant, like something is missing, or there’s someone else out there for us.
For millennials especially, but really just modern-day daters, timing plays a critically important role in forming relationships and committing long-term. Last year, I wrote a story about how millennials are marrying their exes, and I think we’ll see more of this in the future. Sometimes, if you haven’t done enough “playing the field” in all aspects of life (to use Markman’s words), commitments will make you feel extremely hesitant. In that case, it is natural and normal to want to test the dating market, see what’s out there, and figure out what feels right to you. Options do exist.
Which is why it’s possible you might meet the right person early on, and still feel like you’re missing out on something. That’s okay. The reality is, you can’t see how right a person is for you until you’ve done some personal exploration. Until you know who you are, what’s out there, and what you bring to the table as a partner, it is nearly impossible to find the right person with whom to be in a relationship.
However, there’s a larger subset of daters who have done plenty of personal exploration. They are actively open to a long-term relationship, and still feel wary about deeper commitment to a partner. In this case especially, it’s important to ask yourself: Does this relationship seem to open more doors than it closes? Does this person seem to expand me? Do I feel like I’m growing?
The beauty of the self-expansion model is that growth is just one step away, especially for couples who are celebrating 10, 20, 30 or more years together. Yes, life is not a-thrill-a-minute. Life will have it’s exciting moments and boring ones. There will be times when you hit plateaus. And in those seasons, you can focus on participating in novel experiences together to promote growth — like traveling to an exotic location neither of you has been, or testing out a cuisine neither of you has tried.
Early relationship phases are different, though. These are the times where you naturally have milestones to look forward to and you’re learning new information rapidly — both about your partner, and through your partner. It should all feel exciting. Spending time with that person should feel exciting, even if you’re not 100% sure why that is.
With enough amassed experiences while single, and a great concoction of compatibility, the “right” relationship seems to offer endless opportunities for growth — so much so that the next stage of commitment thrills you. You’ll happily take yourself off the market for that one person you’re seeing, because when shutting yourself off to other suitors, doors of growth and expansion open in front of you. Sharing experiences and building history with him or her seems much more rewarding than it would be alone.
Growth. Always seek growth. Discovering a well of new opportunities with someone is the foundation of a great modern relationship. Anything less should give you pause.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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