College Advice: Are Relationships Worthwhile?
I’m a recent graduate from college, and I’ve tried out long term relationships, casual hookups, and the gamut in between. I absolutely prefer a committed and loving relationship to more casual ones. However whenever I’ve gotten myself involved in a really intimate and meaningful relationship it has inevitably ended, leaving me (as well as my partner) with so much fallout and bad feelings that the duration of the relationship can feel almost not worth it.
The casual relationships don’t mean that much, and they aren’t as exciting, but on the other hand nobody gets hurt.
My question is at this point in my life, where I know that I will not be marrying, and will not be spending the rest of my life with anyone, is it worth it to invest completely in another person?
Love is wonderful, but it’s also can lead to pain and confusion. Should I just wait it out until I get to a “marrying age,” or should I allow myself to continue to invest in relationships that will, when they end, totally destroy the happiness of myself and the person I’m with?
Thanks so much,
I’m glad you asked that, because it’s a subject that I feel is often discussed by rarely addressed. Most conversations I’ve had about these matters tend to end with the conclusion that you can’t mix love and logic — a conclusion which strikes me as vaguely anti-intellectual and deeply unsatisfactory. For me, love is defined by its amenability to reason; love should be the place where you’re (finally!) no longer forced to choose between being happy and thinking too clearly, an intellectual resource that can’t be exhausted and which bears endless scrutiny. But then, I’m a philosophy major, and my ideas about love are probably not like most people’s.
The short answer to your question is “No.” You should not “continue to invest in relationships that will, when they end, totally destroy the happiness of [you] and the person [you're] with.” Partly because it wouldn’t do you any good, but also because the people you’re with, if they were aware of the ending you considered “inevitable,” probably wouldn’t accept those terms, either.
If I may submit a guess, I suspect that part of the reason the ends of your relationships are so painful may be your partners’ discovery that from day one you believed the end of your relationship was “inevitable.” That’s probably a surprise to your partners, because most people in your age group don’t begin relationships thinking about “when they end,” or “know” in advance that they “will not be marrying, and will not be spending the rest of [their] life[-s] with anyone.” You say you’ve been “invest[ing] completely” in these relationships, but it sounds to me like, as much as you’ve been investing, you’ve also been holding back. You write that “love is wonderful,” but the approach you describe doesn’t sound like love to me. Love is, of course, difficult to define, but I think most people would agree that love means wanting it to last forever, and it doesn’t sound like you’ve been feeling that way lately.
It’s okay not to be in love. I don’t mean to make you feel bad about that. Even the most romantic-minded people aren’t in love most of the time; like you, they’re often just searching for something they can’t describe, something they’re not fully sure exists. But it’s a real shame, to my mind, to give up that search, to infer that because you’re not in love now, you won’t be in the future — that because you haven’t yet met someone you could earnestly commit to, you’ll have to settle for whoever is around when you hit “marrying age.”
At the very least, in the future, I think you have an obligation to let the people you’re dating know that you’ve determined that you don’t want to with them forever — particularly because, at your age, if you don’t say anything, they’re likely to make the opposite assumption. The average American man marries at 27, and the average woman marries at 25. If you don’t say anything, I think your dates will infer that you haven’t outruled the possibility of marriage or an equivalent level of commitment.
Honestly, though? I think you should rethink your approach. I’m not sure why you believe that you “will not be marrying” until a certain time — especially since you claim to prefer “committed and loving relationships” and don’t seem to be making the classic argument that you need to do a certain amount of sexual adventuring before settling down — but I think you’re selling yourself short by committing the Humean fallacy (assuming that the future will be like the past). Nobody’s forcing your hand, W — there’s no risk here. You’re not going to get married until you decide to. It makes sense not to get your folks’ hopes up, of course; but it doesn’t make sense not to allow for the possibility that a person and an experience could change your mind and change your plans. If you keep dating people whom you know you don’t want to be with in the long-term, you’re depriving yourself of that opportunity.
Not all loving couples (or threesomes or whatever) share a mutual belief that they’re going to be together forever, but I would venture to assert that they share a lack of belief that they aren’t. That’s what it means, I think, to “invest” in a relationship — to make yourself open to the possibility of its success. (For more on letting others change your mind, see my “vintage” column about dating with deadlines and my more recent column about whether atheists can date the religious.)
I’m not telling you to get used to the idea of getting married younger than you’d hoped to; I’m telling you that you’ll be happier if you don’t exclude it just yet. There is no “marrying age,” and there are no rules; all there is are people and experiences, some of which may inspire us, or even change our lives irrevocably. If I were you, I would stop fooling around with people you know you’re not serious about, and try to stay open-minded, to retain the ability to make yourself vulnerable, no matter how many bad experiences you have — so that if someone shows up whom you could really commit to, you’ll recognize him or her and be ready. Even if it never happens, I think it’s worthwhile to refuse to settle, to keep looking for the real thing — because in the end, even if you fail, you’ll be happier knowing that you did what you could to find love, than if you give up before you give yourself a chance.
You’re going to be fine, W. I just know it. Hang in there!
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