Q: I’m dating someone who I find very interesting, but I’m worried we have a limited future because they are at a different stage in their life. I’m stressed that I need to make a decision on our fate soon—How can optimism help me navigate matters of the head and heart?
Dear May or December:
How nice it is that there is a person in your life whom you enjoy enough to contemplate a long-term relationship. Age differences can certainly create complications, though, and it’s good that you’re considering what’s possible for the future.
You mention that you feel the need to decide about this soon. It’s worth considering first whether deciding anything now is really necessary. There are certainly aspects of relationships that are “time-sensitive,” of course, most of which involve having and raising children. But if those considerations are not on the table, it may not be necessary at this point to make a decision about a long-term commitment.
Many people who are looking for a life partner feel the need to assess every dating partner’s long-term potential right from the start, with a mindset that everyone to whom they are initially attracted is “the one,” until they’re not. Because relationships inevitably change over time and because people tend to grow into lasting relationships, it seems worth considering holding off a decision about long-term commitment, choosing to enjoy the relationship as it is without having to decide (yet) what it will or won’t become in the future.
In nearly all aspects of our lives—and particularly in romantic relationships—we are engaged in the pursuit of multiple goals, some of which are rather immediate, like satisfying hunger or thirst, and others that require more time to accomplish, like building a successful career or having satisfying, committed relationships with others. In your current relationship, your goals may include warm companionship, great conversation, gratifying sex, stimulating romance, adventure, children, stability, or even something we didn’t mention here. Your partner’s goals are probably not identical to yours—they almost never are—but given that you’re even considering a long-term relationship, there is perhaps a great deal of compatibility in your outlooks.
Short-term goals often dominate in the early stages of relationship building. Couples expect to enjoy fun dates, romantic evenings, and powerful physical experiences. Over time, though, long-term goals become more important. And that is where complications arise. In every relationship, both partners have goals that are important to them, many of which will wax and wane in importance with the passage of time.
The “head-and-heart” you mention in your letter reflects this distinction between types of goals. The “heart” typically reflects these short-term goals that are mostly hedonic, meaning they are focused on enjoyment and pleasure. The “head” usually refers to the longer-term, more abstract goals that are related to major life tasks like raising a family or taking care of aging parents.
There is a reason why most good romantic comedies fade to black after the couple gets together. Those movies focus mostly on heart. There may be some discussions of long-term goals sprinkled in, but they generally serve to provide a few plot twists on the way to the big kiss and the closing credits. Only after the movie ends and you’ve left the theater does the screen couple need to confront the weighty long-term goals like finances and family and the mundane but inescapable goals like doing laundry, taking out the trash, and walking the dog at 6am.
You have recognized that you and your new love are compatible in various short-term ways, but may have some incompatible long-term goals. Wanting to have conversations about the future is a sign that a relationship is maturing, as long-term goals become more prominent.
But we notice in your question that you have framed the decision in terms of “I.” If you’re truly entering a partnership, then it isn’t up to you (singular) to make this decision for you (plural). Instead, this is an invitation to start a conversation about the future. Remember that our goals change over time, and it’s important that you and your partner engage in a real conversation about what can and can’t happen. It sounds like you have taken some time to think about what’s possible. You should give your partner the time to do the same.
Then, schedule real time for an unhurried discussion. Go for a drive somewhere that you won’t bump into people you know. If you can find a serene and beautiful place, all the better. Park your cell phones at a safe distance. Talk about your hopes, your dreams, your desires. Focus on the big-picture positive things you want in your life.
The best way to engage optimism here is to focus on ideals. What is the best life you could hope for? Let your new love do the same. Give yourselves a chance to figure out whether you can see yourselves as a part of each others’ ideal lives.
At the same time, you can begin to think about which of these values are open to compromise. Is there a life that differs from your ideal, but is still wonderful and similar to the one your love has sketched out? Can you find a basis for building something that lasts?
There are two sources of optimism here. One is that you’re focused on building something positive and beautiful, without assuming your partner will object to key goals of yours (and beginning the discussion in a defensive mindset). Second, you’re having a conversation in the context of a relationship with someone you’re interested in, which is pretty wonderful. Even if it turns out that your long-term goals just aren’t compatible enough to justify staying together, you will have become close to a new person in a way that you can cherish and celebrate.
We should add that being optimistic does not mean that you should give up on the goals that are most important to you just to make the relationship work. Those long-term goals matter, and you’re likely to resent a relationship that keeps you from realizing them. You should be open to compromise, but also true to yourself, holding on to the goals that you value most.
Remember also that many of our goals change over time, so treat your conversation as the first of many.
—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke
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