When I was younger, it seemed like none of my friends were ever going to actually get married. I even developed an elaborate theory as to why things were being set up in a way that were inconducive to happy marriage down the road. The thinking was that we start looking for a partner in our late teens. The thing about our late teens is that there is frequently a buffer between us and the consequences of our actions. Other than schooling, we have no particular reason to be forward-looking. We’re not looking for a life partner so much as we’re looking for someone short term. Except that we fool ourselves into thinking that the relationships we enter are about something Really Serious and we trick ourselves into thinking that these relatively unserious things are what serious things are made of. These perverse incentives lead us to often match up with the wrong people. Then these priorities become reinforced by our actions and the frivolous desires of teenagers become our priorities as adults.

I do think that there’s something to the theory. I think that the desires that exist in the void that is high school (and slightly before and after) carry on a lot longer than they should. I could possibly even write the novel that I had built around the entire concept. The thing is, though, that the characters would have to be in their mid-twenties, younger, or only a little older. Much to my astonishment, reality did not unravel the way that my theory would have predicted it would. Something, and it’s hard to say what exactly, changes in late twenties and thirties.

Most of my friends and former lady-friends, even the ones that I had my doubts would ever get married, are either married now or are in a relationship that appears to be leading up to marriage. In fact, there seems to be little difference in the fates of those that were serious about relationships during the Usually Lost Years of post-adolescence and those that spent that time making one extremely stupid decision after another. Serious-minded Julie is still single, but erratic Evangeline is not. Serious-minded Dave and Hubert married, but so did more adventurous Kyle and Neverlander Clint may as well be married.

Though I was ostensibly serious during my younger dating days, I was extremely unwise in a lot of my romantic choices. I wasted time with relationships that obviously weren’t going anywhere and ran away from some with grand possibilities. Though I did want to find something serious and sustaining, you could only tell that from my actions about half of the time.

I briefly dated a girl several years ago named Carla Brooks. It was apparent from pretty early on that Carla was more in to me than I was in to her. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her, but she didn’t really jump out at me and I had a lot else going on in my life at the time. So I cut her loose and that was that. The funny thing, looking back at all that, is how similar Carla was to the woman that I eventually married. And in the ways that they differed, it was Carla that I had more in common with. So why did I cut loose from one and marry the other? Some of it may be chemical reaction that’s always so hard to pin down. Some of it, though, simply has to do with age. Had Clancy and I met when Carla and I did, it’s far less likely that things would have worked out. If Carla had met me when Clancy did, we probably would have lasted longer than we did whether we would have ended up together or not.

Evangeline went haplessly from one guy to another in rapid succession for nearly a decade. Her relationships weren’t short, necessarily, but they were almost never peaceful. It was all about emotional and intensity. But she ended up marrying a quite unexciting fellow. Julie, on the other hand, was very serious with the guy before me, with me, and with the guy after me (Tony), but hasn’t been in a serious relationship for a couple of years now and doesn’t appear to be really interested in getting into one.

Some of this makes me wonder if there really isn’t something to the whole “sewing wild oats” theory. I think that one of the changes that Evangeline and I went through was simply being tired of the struggle as we entered out mid-to-late twenties. We wanted something that actually made us happy. We didn’t need to feel some sort of grand intensity to know that we were alive and we didn’t need to feel the intensity directed towards us to know that we were valuable. The signs of love, outgoing and incoming, were somewhat revealed for the illusions that they were. Things like the ability to get through an argument and to trust one another became much more important than how much they viscerally excite us. And in a way everything turns on its head: With stability comes the ability to love more freely without fear.

Clint was in a relationship inside which he had sex with more women than he’d had prior to the relationship’s formation. That could be a stunning warning sign to a woman not to get involved with him, but since then he’s not come close to cheating on any of his girlfriend’s since. Some of his previous exploits can be explained by his dissatisfaction with the girl, but some of it can be described as “Been there, done that” and knowing the trouble that such behavior brings and the peace that finding something that works does.

I think everybody’s story is different. The overarching point, though, is that when people are ready to grow up, they seem to know exactly what to do. They know what qualities to look for and what qualities that attract them that they should be suspicious of. They stop trying to look for “the best that they can do” based on some criteria (that usually involves the bad traits from The Usually Lost Years) and find the person that they are the happiest with. They learn not to create unmanageable tension where there is none. To focus on making a relationship work. And being happy.

That’s not to say that everybody makes this transition. Some people never do grow up. Some have been grown up all their lives but have not successfully found a partner. Or they do everything right and then fate hands them the wrong person to do everything right with. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see how exactly it is that people with such bad relationship habits actually grow up to get married. It’s been an interesting sight.

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6 Responses to Escaping The Usually Lost Years

  1. PD says:

    How do you explain that in spite of all the dating, living together, finding the perfect person fifty percent of marriages breakup?

  2. trumwill says:

    I believe that most marriages that end in divorce didn’t have to end that way. A bigger cause of divorce rates is what happens after marriage (marital conduct) rather than before it (partner selection). Most divorces I am familiar with where that was not the case involved people marrying young. While not all pairings can succeed, any pairing can fail. Some are more likely to do so than others.

    I can elaborate if you like.

    I suspect that you have your own answer to the question, though. Want to share?

  3. PD says:

    It is always the conduct after marriage that causes the breakup. No amount of living together or getting to know a person before marriage will solve this problem. Most people want to get married. Many when they reach a certain age they get desperate.
    People look for a certain trait in a partner if they don’t find it they compromise and settle for someone not suitable. While dating they are oblivious of this until after marriage it becomes too late. Then of course there are people with ulterior motives, they might be looking for someone rich or it could also be someone who is old and desperately wants to get married(many times this is a woman), many even do it for sex. Getting to know a person as mush as possible will not revel if they have ulterior motives. It is just not young people, so many marriages with people in their 30s, with three or four children breakup.

  4. trumwill says:

    I’m by-and-large against pre-marital cohabitation, by-the-by. And I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. My brother dated his ex-wife for four years and the marriage crumbled within a year. I dated an ex for over four and a half years and while we didn’t get married, we got to know one another pretty well before I determined that my potential future with her was not what I wanted. On the other hand, I strongly suspected within a month of meeting my wife that I would marry her. There are a couple of areas of disagreement that I think we have. I’ll try to be short so as not to make this an entire post:

    1. People of all ages get divorced, but not at the same rate. Sure, some of that is because of the types of people that choose to get married young and that don’t, but not all of it. I am who I am, demographically speaking, but had I married the types of people I was interested in when I was 23, it’s much more likely that I would enter a marriage that wouldn’t work out eventually. Or that would work out miserably. The same is true for the friends I discuss here, male and female both.

    2. I don’t agree with the supposed dynamic that women date the kinds of guys that they really want (“alpha males”) in their early twenties and then settle for something they don’t want (“betas”) in their late twenties and thirties out of utter desperation. Not sure if that’s what you’re suggesting specifically, but what you say does assume that at least in part. It’s not simply a matter of becoming more desperate and less picky. In some ways we became more picky. The criteria changed more than diminished. Away from what makes us excited at the moment and towards what makes us excited about the future.

    3. While I do agree that a long courting period is not a case of past success guaranteeing future results, people with bad, short-term motives are less likely to stick around and more likely to reveal themselves over time. A gold-digger with the intention of cutting-and-running with half the loot will get impatient more quickly (not always, but on average) than someone in it to build a life together. This is only if they are aware of their motives, of course, and as you point out they sometimes are not. I think my ex-sister-in-law fell into the latter category. This is a minor point in what’s largely an area of agreement, though. Going slow is not always the best way to go.

    4. The ages I’m talking about are late-twenties. The age where people realize that they don’t have forever any longer but prior to the point where there is the need to find someone immediately or risk spending forever alone. Like I said in Point #2… it’s not about desperation.

  5. Peter says:

    The overarching point, though, is that when people are ready to grow up, they seem to know exactly what to do. They know what qualities to look for and what qualities that attract them that they should be suspicious of.

    One complicating factor is our old pal the Tracks Theory. Even if a man does get more mature about relationships when he in his late 20’s, or whenever, it may be very difficult for him to find a satisfactory relationship what with all the burden of the past. If, for instance, he has spent years fruitlessly hanging around with women who have LJBF’ed him (as you might guess, I’m speaking in partly autobiographical terms), he will have a hard time relating to women. He’ll likely be way too needy and will develop a crush on any woman who as much as smiles at him. And nothing drives away women faster than a needy man.

  6. trumwill says:

    The tracks theory completely derails only a select few. The rest of the time it just makes things more difficult, makes it take longer to find a partner, makes the partner they do find perhaps less desirable, and so on. But in the end, it only takes one.

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