Question: In your book Love Must Be Tough, you suggested some ways unmarried people can build healthy relationships and not smother each other.
Would you share those again and apply the “tough love” principle to those of us who are not married? How does the issue of respect relate to our romantic relationships, and how can we build and preserve it?
Answer: The principles of loving toughness are the same for those who are single as for those who have been married for decades. There are circumstances, however, that are specific to the courtship period. Let me cite some suggestions that will help you avoid the common pitfalls among those who are trying to win the heart of another.
• Don’t let a relationship move too fast in its infancy. The phrase “too hot not to cool down” has validity. Romantic affairs that begin in a frenzy frequently burn themselves out. Take it one step at a time.
• Don’t discuss your personal inadequacies and flaws in great detail when the relationship is new. No matter how warm and accepting your friend may be, any great revelation of low self-esteem or embarrassing weaknesses can be fatal when interpersonal “valleys” occur. And they will occur.
• Remember that respect precedes love. Build it stone upon stone.
• Don’t call too often on the phone or give the other person an opportunity to get tired of you.
• Don’t be too quick to reveal your desire to get married — or that you think you’ve just found Mr. Wonderful or Miss Marvelous. If your partner has not arrived at the same conclusion, you’ll throw him or her into panic.
• Most important: Relationships are constantly being tested by cautious lovers who like to nibble at the bait before swallowing the hook. This testing procedure takes many forms, but it usually involves pulling backward from the other person to see what will happen. Perhaps a foolish fight is initiated. Maybe two weeks will pass without a phone call. Or sometimes flirtation occurs with a rival. In each instance, the question being asked is “How important am I to you, and what would you do if you lost me?” An even more basic issue lies below that one. It wants to know, “How free am I to leave if I want to?” It is incredibly important in these instances to appear poised, secure and equally independent. Do not grasp the other person and beg for mercy. Some people remain single throughout life because they cannot resist the temptation to grovel .
• Extending the same concept, keep in mind that virtually every dating relationship that continues for a year or more and seems to be moving toward marriage will be given the ultimate test. A breakup will occur, motivated by only one of the lovers. The rejected individual should know that their future together depends on the skill with which he or she handles that crisis. If the hurting individual can remain calm, the next two steps may be reconciliation and marriage. It often happens that way. If not, then no amount of pleading will change anything.
James Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the non-profit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org)