Clearly we humans have some major problems selecting a mate. For one thing, since about 1800 (before that many marriages were arranged) romantic love has been idolized more and more. We expect to “fall in love:” our hearts should instantly throb, our thoughts constantly dwell on the lover, and our sexual organs continuously moisten.
Many of us hunger for this kind of intense, consuming love, even if it isn’t our nature to be wildly romantic. We believe that some magical day it will happen: we’ll “meet and instantly recognize the right person” and “live happily ever after” until “death do us part!” How do these notions from movies and novels fit with reality? Poorly! It takes weeks or months, maybe years, to get to know another person and to find out how the two of you will get along. We can hardly do both-be madly in love and objectively assess our future with the partner at the same time. So, this is another paradox. Is there a solution? Maybe not.
Few of us would want a marriage arranged by relatives, a dating service, or a computer, although these approaches are worth researching. Perhaps, in some situations, some of us can be cautious, rational, and able to avoid getting prematurely infatuated. But half of us or more are “head-over-heals” before we know much about the person; our heart and or genitals has overwhelmed our brain.
Tragically, this highly romantic person often lacks the will or self-confidence to withdraw from the relationship if problems appear. In this case, this wonderful phenomenon called love, maybe mixed with fear, shame, and dependency has lead us into serious trouble. This is the basis for the often repeated advice to lovers: “date for a while,” “get to know each other,” “don’t jump into anything,” “live together for a while,” etc.
Another important point: the belief that intense romance is necessary for a marriage causes many people to overlook or discount the romantic possibilities with good friends for whom they do not have a wild sexual craving. With a close friend, you know you have common interests and similar views, you trust and understand each other, and you care about and like each other. These are good characteristics for a lover too. The sexual attraction may have been suppressed or isn’t there, much like with a brother or sister, in order to preserve the friendship. It is possible that a good friend is an excellent choice for a lover.
In 75-80% of good marriages the spouse is the best friend. But it is also possible that a friend is a bad choice, primarily because getting romantic and sexual with a good friend could end a valued friendship. So, do not try to convert a friend into a lover without careful consideration: Are both of you interested?
Explore why you have been just friends-there may be good, continuing reasons for remaining just good friends. Explore the reasons for considering romanticizing the friendship now: is one of you temporarily feeling lonely or rejected or vulnerable or low in self-esteem? Don’t act rashly. If you decide to try becoming more romantic, go slow to protect the friendship this is hard to do if one person becomes deeply involved and is rejected.
Mate selection is a difficult task for many reasons: each person may pretend to be something he/she isn’t, each may honestly describe him/herself but change later on, each may change his/her mind about what he/she wants and on and on. Let’s consider the selection process further. It might seem, from what has been said thus far, that being a slow starter a friend long before becoming a romantic lover would be an advantage. The friends could objectively get to know each other.
That sounds reasonable but recent research has suggested that persons who have stronger needs for emotional intimacy and who have already been in love with someone else are more likely to be warm, caring, sincere, appreciative, loving, and happy. Perhaps such people would fall in love rather quickly and become very desirable partners.
Conventional wisdom has it, however, that marriages based on romantic “love at first sight” don’t last, but there is no clear data for or against this dire prediction. There are many couples who fell in love instantly and it lasted forever. On the other hand, most of us have known immature people who impulsively become infatuated, getting into trouble repeatedly. And we all know the opposite: wonderful people who avoid fast intimacy. In short, the advantages and disadvantages of quickly getting emotionally involved are complex and not yet well researched.
Perhaps, the pros and cons of instant infatuation don’t matter much because you may not be able to change that basic part of your personality anyway. You can learn to rationally control it to some extent, however. Regardless of whether we get into love quickly or slowly, once we are intensely involved with the other person, from that point on, while we may continue to experience ups and downs in this relationship, the issue becomes condensed into a simple question of staying or leaving:
Will I stick with this person and make the best of it or leave and lose him/her forever? Thus, we often stay with a person even though we are unhappy and fear there will be serious problems. We have limited experience with other partners and, thus, cannot be assured of a better option. We become stifled by our own indecision and dependency or fears or possessiveness.
Love is powerful, especially when threatened; it isn’t something we can turn on and off while we try out another relationship. Maybe some of us can’t make objective decisions while in love, but I don’t believe that is entirely true. We can’t eliminate all the craziness of love, but we can learn to be much more realistic by recognizing our denial and our needs and by listening to others’ opinions.
Sternberg and Barnes in 1988 illustrated some misconceptions common among persons looking for a mate: “We’ve lived together so, no problems,” “Other couples have different religions, it won’t be an issue with us,” “We both come from close families, so we’ll get along well,” “He or she really enjoys sex, so it will be great,” “I’ll build his or her self-esteem by always praising him or her,” “If we love each other that’s all that matters,” “I wish he or she loved me more, but that is the way men or women are,” “I’m sure he or she will stop drinking, smoking, gambling, loafing, driving dangerously after we are married,” etc., etc. The human capacity to deny and self-deceive is truly amazing. Be on guard. We need to use our brain a lot more without taking our heart or genitals out of the loop; we need to know a lot more about love, the different kinds of love, what kind of lovers we are, and many other things because familiarity breeds contempt.
Written by Nyarko Acheampong Michael
Author of “Before you say yes I do!”