I sat down with a buddy of mine the other day confused. “How does this work?” I was asking. He was divorced earlier on in his life and has often provided me advice though the process. However, he was in a much different place then (still young, no kids) and has now been with his partner for the past 17 years. So when asking him about navigating the waters of dating I got the same shoulder shrug I see in the mirror so often.
So we sat under the hot Florida sun, pondering the concept of dating. The different aspects, changes, and expectations and how drink eventually turn into moving in together or marriage. I was wondering how people handle the strains of day-to-day life with the desire to spend ever increasing amounts of time together. And how some of the simple choices became incredibly more complex with kids and shared custody arrangements involved.
Transitioning to the dating has not been easy, not that I was really expecting it to be. I never had the self-confidence growing up needed to “make a move”, thus had low expectations as I re-entered the “single life”. Yet as I sat there sipping my beer I knew that wasn’t what was troubling me. Since I moved out two years ago I have been in several different relationships, some short, some just fun, and some more serious in nature. While never perfect, they all had several good times though eventually we decided it wasn’t going to work.
It wasn’t the individual relationships that were bothering
me that day, it was the relationship itself.
What had me confused was the growth of a relationship, and how we weaved them into our daily lives as grown adults. This came to the forefront with my most recent relationship as we tried to grow the relationship while trying to meet our individual needs, all while I still maintained my well-structured role as Dad and my obligations as a provider. I quickly saw how my experience through a 14-year marriage had impacted the expectations I had for any serious relationship I was looking to be engaged in.
Life has changed since I was last dating. Before marriage I was young, energetic, and had few obligations. I was just launching into my career, had no kids, and the world was open for me to explore. The dating life was simple. When we were young, dating was a matter of meeting at school or work and following with time spent together in the evening. This would grow into more time spent together going on dates, to special events, and taking adventures. You just gradually spent more time together as you slowly got to know each other.
I really only had two relationships that lasted beyond a few months, and the only one to last longer than a year – and that lasted over 14. Truth be told, the year before I was married we lived in two different cities, two different countries and saw each other only on weekends or vacations. We did well and enjoyed those times, but our interactions where pretty focused and scheduled.
Once married, our day-to-day lives were joined. Activities were almost expected to be done together. Decisions were made together. Responsibilities were shared, roles were defined, and we moved on and grew. The transition wasn’t easy, there was lots to learn. Overall life was good as learned work together, over the years the balance of this got all messed up as I got addicted to my job and my career (I honestly felt I didn’t have much choice), but that is for another story…
The point is, I feel my personal experience in relationships is very limited. Even looking back at how my friends and family handled it, scheduling issues and busy lives seemed to be resolved by simply moving in together. They didn’t have kids or any of shared custody drama. Though I am sure that there were issues, I didn’t experience it.
Stages of a Relationship
I am finding four stages to a relationship. I describe them as:
Stage 1: Introductions
Sometimes called the honeymoon stage, this is that surface connection. With it comes the infatuation and the seeds of passion. During this stage you are almost completely focused on your partner often putting off obligations and adjusting schedules just to spend time together.
Stage 2: Growing Together
This is the actual test of compatibility for your life together. Here you figure out how to make it work. You merge your schedules and start and start building out join goals and aspirations. This is where truths become known, the subtle details of your inner self are exposed. I would place the first year or two of marriage in this stage as the changes and challenges involved in those first couple years are all about growing together.
Stage 3: The Long Haul
You have now accepted the quirks of your partner and you have settled in. You no longer view your life as separate. You have committed, and hopefully you are happy.
Stage 4: The Break
This is the stage that no one talks about, but it is there hiding in the shadows … and not the topic of today.
The Transitional Challenge
Early on I had made the choice that I would not introduce the boys to any new interest of mine until we had decided to go long-term. At the time I really didn’t know what that meant, but I did know that it was my job to provide protection. That protection included the emotional pains that result from a broken heart. What resulted was me living two separate lives; one a father and one a single man. These two worlds were not to touch.
This presented a challenge as my relationship with one girl started to enter the first transition point. She, not having kids, was in a different mental state. Fully engaged in moving on and growing together. I, having exposed her to only one side of my life, was now fully entrenched in a full-scale battle with myself. I had only casually introduced her to a select group of my friends, and while she knew of my kids she had only met them once before we started dating. I had not utilized the time of those first few months to conduct proper introductions. The result was that we ended up on a different page and at the time I did not recognize what was going on.
These first months are a critical time where you both need to introduce yourselves and your lives … completely. This should include your family, friends, and your ambitions. The things that make up your life. Sure the first few weeks can be all about the two of you, but you can’t keep your worlds separate.
So this is where I was recently, in another relationship with another wonderful lady. I had decided that living two lives wasn’t going to work so had introduce her as we started spending more regular time together. After a few times together I informed the boys about the relationship, I was hoping honesty would help their transition. The boys knew and liked her, and they knew we were dating … and did not seem concerned by the show of affection that became more comfortable as the weeks passed (This was very encouraging). It made a lot of things easier, but we still seemed to live two lives.
My life is busy. With the boys’ events and homework combined with my own activities and obligations, almost every day is full. She also has a life, with her own events, obligations and commitments. This required us both to make sacrifices as we let the relationship grow, but over time it became hard to continue sacrificing different areas of lives. The “honeymoon” stage was over and real life had started settling in … the transition had begun and we were not ready for it. We had avoided introducing some of our internal fears, our ambitions, and our expectations. I had introduced my family but we hadn’t done a lot to introduce our friends and activities. We had attempted to keep things at the surface and avoid some of the pains of the past.
So there I swing, wondering how anyone makes it work? How does one handle that second, post-dating/pre-marriage, stage? How do the lives merge without completely merging? I think the answers to these questions are what you are looking for during those first few months of the relationship. I am left hoping that with the right person the answers to these questions are clear.
What I did find was that the kids are resilient, and I need not be so worried about that. They are accepting and desire me to be happy, so as long as they still have my main attention and are treated with respect I feel they will be fine.