You get married and have kids. You go to a few soccer games on Friday afternoon and come back to your large house and attractive spouse. That’s how it’s supposed to go, right? A few short years of being single, no arguments with your spouse and a perfect, no-problem family.
Martin Erickson, licensed marriage and family therapist, said that college millennials have far too rosy views of marriage.
“That’s a frustration,” he said, “and an impediment to having a good healthy marriage over the long run.”
“Marriage has the potential to be really refining and call out your best sense of character, values and love, but it’s not going to automatically do something to make you good or special,” he said.
When you have a more realistic vision of what marriage is going to be like, you can better prepare for that time in your life as well as be okay with where you are in your life right now. Life is a journey. Marriage is a wonderful goal to work towards, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all of life. Understanding that things don’t always work out the way you want them to is a great first step to learning how to be content amidst any circumstance.
Understanding the phases of dating
Erickson said that dating relationships have three different phases, that can be very helpful in understanding personal development in dating.
“Seeing these three stages in a developmental frame can really help students,” said Erickson. When you understand that each stage serves a different purpose and each stage can help you prepare for your future marriage, it might help you be more patient when searching for future spouse.
Phase one usually begins in high school. This stage consists of group dates, hanging out and spending time with members of the opposite sex.
“That first stage of dating is all about understanding the opposite sex, getting a sense of who they are,” said Erickson. “It’s about coming to understand the individual’s identity, having fun and feeling more independent.” Erickson also said that phase one is not the time to be thinking about marriage.
Erickson said that phase two usually starts when the individual is in college. He said, “depending on your needs and life experiences, this phase could last a while.”
This phase is all about learning how to be in adult romantic relationships, figuring out the type of person you want to be with and learning how to become the type of partner you want to be. Exclusive dating is key to figuring out these things.
“Phase two isn’t really about getting married, either,” said Erickson. “But at some point in phase two, an individual can be think ‘I know what I want from a partner, I know what I want to be as a partner,’ and then they move on to phase three.”
Phase three is when individuals really are ready to begin dating for marriage. “This is where individuals start to find people they want to commit their lives to,” said Erickson. He said this is the most mature phase when you are ready to make an important adult decision.
Erickson said when people understand that relationships tend to follow these three stages, they can focus more on improving themselves and being patient with the timing of their romantic relationships.
Switching your mindset
Sometimes, even when you are ready for marriage, the opportunity doesn’t present itself. In these instances, it is even more important that you have a healthy view of what marriage is like.
Many students are used to having their lives set out for them. Things are supposed to follow a particular script. If or when that doesn’t happen, they get discouraged or think something is wrong with them.
When Erickson talks with students who feel this way, he tries to normalize this feeling and help them realize that there isn’t anything wrong with them.
“If it follows this script mentality, it isn’t really your story. You’re not the agent,” he said. “You’re not the one who is living and growing and deciding. You’re just kind of following along in a passive way that won’t be healthy because that’s not what life is about.”
Erickson continued, “It’s not good to think of marriage as a reward for righteous behavior. I don’t think most good things in life, like having a child or getting a really good job, are rewards for righteous behavior in a reward/punishment scheme. It’s not helpful to think of life that way.”
“Thinking in the longer picture, can be helpful in not being so destination- or outcome-focused.”
Practice thinking long-term. It’s okay for you to want to date a lot, form relationships and have great experiences at college. It’s normal to hope to get married during or shortly after college. But it is equally important to think about what you are going to do if that doesn’t happen.
Individuals can practice this by thinking of their goals, accomplishments and failures as part of a grand journey. When someone’s mindset is switched from outcome-oriented to journey-oriented, the result is greater happiness and contentment with the way their lives are going at that moment.
Creating realistic expectations
Relationships of all kinds take effort, work and dedication. Marriage doesn’t instantly transform you into a perfect individual. Mark Ogletree, a licensed family counselor, said, “When couples first get married, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling marriage is a destination. They made it through the engagement, through all these obstacles, and now they are there. What they don’t realize is that they haven’t even started yet.”
“Couples often want things to be perfect very fast, and they also want to be financially where their parents are. They want to have ‘arrived’.”
Ogletree said that these couples need to understand that good marriages result from hard work, dedication and overcoming failures. Healthy relationships come because two individual people are walking a path of wholeness together.
Young couples and those beginning to look for potential spouses can create realistic expectations for marriage by talking with their parents or other couples who have been where they are or will be. While single, people can learn to see marriage as a journey and realize that having a family or being married isn’t going to solve all of their problems.
Living for the value
If you really do desire a healthy relationship in marriage, then you have to be living in a way that can help you develop that bond.
Explore what you really want. What are you desires, hopes and dreams? What things do you value and what do you want your life to be about? What role do you want problems, setbacks and heartbreak to play in your life? Determining these things for yourself can help you set goals and keep you motivated on your path to creating the life that you really want.
After you’ve explored your desires, it is equally important to live in a way that allows you to accomplish those things.
Erickson said, “If they really value and desire a future family, and aren’t really involved with people, or dating or finding people that are interesting to them or connecting or developing socially then they won’t really be moving towards that.”
For some, putting in the work to find and date people they might want to marry can be really intimidating. They want the romance and the love, but the work that it takes to get to that point is overwhelming.
“If a healthy relationship is something that you desire, then you will have to work for it,” said Erickson. “But then be open to the fact that the journey might be different for you.”
Happiness isn’t determined by how quickly you get married or how perfect your marriage is. Happiness comes from working hard to accomplish the things that you desire, and being open to new avenues and opportunities that cross your path. Life is full of disappointments, heartbreaks and plans that don’t work out. While single, dating or married, you should continue to improve yourself and work to switch your mindset from outcome-based to journey-based. Doing so will help you build a life of fulfillment and contentment.
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