With over a decade of dating under my belt, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about relationships. Friends often flock to me for advice and appreciate my candid commentary. However, after a potential love interest left me crushed, I started questioning if I’m indeed as wise as my friends make me out to be. How could I have fallen for someone who ended up being such a jerk?
I cried to a friend, “I’m going to be single forever.” While she empathetically listened and wiped my tears, she also proclaimed “You know that’s not true.”
Despite my major disappointment, I had to agree with her. I know I am closer than ever to finding a meaningful and healthy romantic relationship even though I’ve been single for years.
How do I know?
Years ago, I was introduced to the work of therapist Dr. John Van Epp who studies and promotes intentional romantic relationships. In his book How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, I learned how our non-romantic relationships eventually influence our romantic ones.
Our interactions with strangers, co-workers, friends, family, and even our previous romantic partners usually fall into specific patterns. Van Epp likens these relationship scripts to a river. As he writes in his book,
The constant flow of new experiences followed within the banks of those scripts, reinforcing their already formed paths. Over time, subtle changes modified the patterns of these scripts by simply exaggerating or diminishing certain features, while still keeping their basic form … major changes in your scripts require extensive reconstruction. Patterns will replicate unless a new course is charted.
Van Epp writes that our relationship scripts that ultimately impact our marriage can be divided into three categories: peripheral others, meaningful others, and romantic others.
01. Peripheral Others
Whenever I talk about my lack of a love life to my mother, she almost always says, “Well, isn’t there a nice doctor at work you can date?” My mother is right in that as an ER nurse at a teaching hospital, I am surrounded by young, attractive doctors, medical students, and a variety of medical professionals. Unfortunately, I find many of them undateable because of how they treat who Van Epp calls “peripheral others.”
Peripheral others are strangers, acquaintances, employees under our command, and anyone else that we share a minimal degree of closeness with. We feel emotionally distant from our peripheral others because we don’t know them intimately and usually feel superior to them.
But this distant feeling is very similar to how we feel in an argument with our significant other. Van Epp writes that we can expect to treat our significant other and be treated by our significant other like peripheral others are treated when we’re emotionally distant.
Some of my colleagues can be extremely impolite and impatient with patients and even co-workers. I’m used to seemingly rude exchanges in emergency situations where short and direct communication is vital. That’s one thing. But a number of seemingly eligible “Dr. McDreamy” types at work show a persistent pattern of disrespectful behavior, and I know that this behavior would eventually be directed towards me in a long-term relationship.
As Van Epp writes, “Look very closely at the ways your partner treats all other people. It may be just a matter of time before you are treated the same.”
Some of the doctors I work with are astoundingly compassionate, even when they are stressed or working with particularly difficult patients. The empathy shown these small interactions gives me a glimpse into how I could be expected to be treated in a romantic relationship, even in emotionally distant and difficult times. A consistently compassionate person is the only kind of person I could date.
02. Meaningful Others
I probably should have known my crush would probably not end well when the guy’s close friends consistently agreed when I said he was one of the worst communicators I had ever met. “That’s him,” one of his best buddies said, laughing.
As Van Epp writes, “If peripheral relationships crack open a window to peer into the values and character of a partner, then significant relationships bust down the door.” These significant relationships are what he calls our “meaningful others,” our friends, family, and anyone else we have a substantial relationship with.
I admired how my crush consistently made time for his family despite his hectic work schedule. I too can be a horrible texter, so I forgave his forgetfulness which I chalked up to being busy. Yet, I found it odd that he rarely went out of his way to make time for his friends.
Family is almost always a meaningful relationship and sometimes a complicated one, but we have a lot of freedom when it comes to friends. We tend to be friends with people that resemble us in some way. Van Epp suggests looking closely at a potential significant other’s friends, since as the cliché goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Our friends reveal our character and uncover how we can expect to be treated when the initial excitement of a new relationship fades.
I truly liked my crush’s friends and family. They were kind, fun, and had similar beliefs to my own. However, his tendency to put work ahead of his friends and forgetfulness in responding would have become a major issue long term.
03. Romantic Others
Something about a romantic one liner in a movie makes me swoon. A line like, “You complete me” sounds great in a Hollywood movie but can spell disaster in a real-life relationship. Though Hollywood teaches us that true love can make someone change, evidence shows otherwise. Van Epp cites various research to conclude, “The dramatic changes that occur with a new relationship usually revert back to the prerelationship state by the end of the first year of marriage.”
However, Van Epp cautions against judging your significant other solely on their dating past. I’m not alone in the fact that discussing past relationships makes me cringe. Despite being a strong, confident woman, I’ve historically been a bit of a doormat in relationships. A lot of that behavior was tied to some unhealthy non-romantic relationships, and I’ve had to work through those insecurities. I would hate for my future significant other to base dating me just on my past romantic relationships!
Also, some of us just haven’t had a relationship yet. I have good friends in their mid and late twenties who are absolute catches who have never had an “official” boyfriend. Things just always fell apart before they defined their relationship or the guy had commitment issues. Judging a person based on their past relationships or lack thereof can be counterproductive and can give us an incomplete mental image of our partner. Yes, our past romantic relationships can provide insight into how we act in a potential new one, but it’s not the only way we act.
So back to my disappointment and my uncertainty I will ever find love. As I pouted to my friend, she cited my amazing relationships with my friends and family as proof of a bright romantic future ahead. Van Epp and his commentary on relationship scripts has taught me just how right she is. It’s easier to swipe right on a dating app or flirt with a cute guy at a bar than to treat a disrespectful patient with kindness or engage a bubbly cashier when I just don’t want to talk to people. But consistently doing the latter will be infinitely more helpful years after I meet my special someone.
Correction: This article was previously misattributed to Verily Magazine. The article was written by Marissa Mullins. The byline has been updated and we regret the error.
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