The spike of the week from my clients and readers who struggle with relationship anxiety comes in at: “What if I’m too young? What if I haven’t met my match yet and I’m just deluding myself to think I could have met my person at a young age? What if there’s someone better out there for me and I just need to be patient?” As one reader expressed in a comment on this post:
I felt like I was making so much progress while reading your posts until I realized that my fear-based self was telling me that I’m an exception towards all your blogs because I’m still young (currently in my first year of college) and because I’m still with my first boyfriend (I will have been with him for two years in November). I always see people saying that people as young as me should date around before knowing what we want, and it’s starting to make me feel as though I really should do it. However, my boyfriend means so much to me. He helped me get out of my out of depression and encourages me to better myself, he understands me and never lets me go to sleep mad. He’s my best friend and I don’t want to leave him just because my fear-based self is telling me that I absolutely HAVE to leave him because I’m still so young.
Deep breath, dear ones. If you have found a loving, attentive, honest partner with whom you share values and vision, then you are truly blessed. We live on a vast planet with billions of people, and I consider it a gift and a stroke of luck when, among the multitudes, you find someone that you like, love, and with whom you can envision spending a life.
We’ve just spent the week with our niece and her boyfriend, who were visiting us from the East coast. My niece is one of the most intelligent, insightful, loving, inquisitive, thoughtful people I know. And yes, like her aunt, she’s on the anxious-sensitive-creative spectrum. When she shares her thought-paths with me, they’re as familiar as the backroads of my own mind. We travel in the same terrain, share many of the same gifts, and battle the same inner battles when anxiety takes hold. When I look at her, I see myself at twenty-five in so many ways.
She’s been dating her boyfriend, who is level-headed, intelligent, interesting and interested in life, for a couple of years and, after witnessing them here for a week, I can definitely say they are a loving, well-matched couple. There’s a sweet friendship between them and a tender, affectionate ease and respect that underlies their relationship. I see no reason why, should the relationship continue on it current trajectory, they shouldn’t get married one day. There’s no rush of course; they’re both in the midst of the decade of 20s, which is fraught with the challenge of figuring out what it means to be an adult. But, as they have everything it takes to forge a loving shared life together, I can’t see why the relationship won’t move toward marriage.
The mainstream culture shouts otherwise: “You’re too young! You don’t know yourself enough to make this decision! You need to play the field! You need to find yourself!”
Bah, I say. My niece and her boyfriend, like the highly intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful women and men who find their way to my site, know themselves plenty well. They can continue to “find themselves” while in union with each other. They can explore the world, both together and separately, if that’s what they desire. As far as “playing the field”, what I primarily see from multiple early relationships is multiple heartbreaks, often from broken trust, which then leads to difficulty opening the heart, which then leads to relationship anxiety. In my worldview, “playing the field” is highly, highly overrated.
I’m thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the wildly popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, in which she tells the story of leaving her first husband, traveling the world, then finding her true soulmate at the end of the book. The story, understandably, has been a major spike source for my relationship anxiety sufferers. The basic message seemed to be (at least through the lens of a certain personality type): You don’t know yourself well enough to choose a partner in your 20s. You must travel the world, find yourself, then you’ll meet your true soulmate. We obviously don’t know the inner, subtle details of her story, but I find it very interesting that she’s just announced that she and her husband are parting ways. What we must take from this is that we can’t compare our life to anyone else’s life. She made the choices she needed to make that pushed her forward on her learning journey, and we each must tune into that place of self-trust to make the choices that are most loving for us. Nobody can tell us what those choices are.
Yet the culture always tells us what to do, and the “right” path is constantly shifting. It wasn’t until very recently that we expected people to wait until their 30s to get married. In my grandparents’ generation, for example, my grandmother was considered an “old maid” because she wasn’t married at the age of 20 (she married my grandfather at age 21). But now, perhaps because we tend to live longer, we expect people to be single and free for as long as possible, and then pin them with the societal fear of not being able to conceive. What a fear-based, double-message we jam down the throats of young people: Wait to get married but don’t wait too long otherwise your eggs will start to dry up. But that’s a topic for another post.
The point is that we force young people to try to contort themselves to fit into an impossible mold. The underlying message, of course, is that if you follow the rules and “get it right”, you will be happy and ding ding ding win the guarantee for success. In other words, if you marry at just the right time, then buy a house at just the right time, and then start trying to conceive at just the right time (in that order, of course), you will be happy. There’s no such perfect timing and order of life, and there are no such guarantees.
We are not robots or cookie-cutters. Every human on the planet has his or her own timing, needs, and path. For some people, meeting their partner at a young age is a gift and a blessing. For others, meeting their partner in their 30s, 40s, or 50s is exactly what they need in order to learn and grow in a loving relationship. Just like we need to toss off the perennial “shoulds” that leak into the subtext of our running commentary, so we need to shuck the concept of a timeline that permeates our consciousness and creates untold amounts of self-doubt, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. The work, ultimately, is about knowing yourself well enough to trust yourself, which means trusting the path that is loving for you.