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Dating is a Maze: A Story About Re-Evaluating Relationship Expectations

I teach a "Communication in Romantic Relationships" class at one of the best places on earth, James Madison University. I created this class about 4 years ago and teach it every fall semester to about 30 undergraduates. It is one of my all-time favorite classes. Not just because I love the content, but mostly because of the constant "ah-ha moments" i see in my students on a weekly basis. At the end of each semester, my students are required to write a creative entertainment speech about what they've learned and present it to the class as their final exam. It's a fun time for all of us to reflect over the last 16 weeks. As usual, the speeches this semester were amazing. But for me, one seriously stood out among the rest. After everyone presented, I asked the student who delivered the best speech of the day (Melanie Farrell) if she would allow me to publish her speech here. She agreed. Enjoy her words below.

Dating is a Maze
By: Melanie Farrell

I used to imagine the act of dating as a maze. To the eye, the maze appears extensive and intimidating. Towering shrubs of leaves widen to a vast pasture that is both unfamiliar and alarming. Just as dating, entering the maze is a choice. And once you decide to enter, you don’t know how long it will take you to finish.

Unfortunately, I had no strategy when I decided to enter the maze of dating.

I paced around corners, I deflected any obstacles by turning and heading in the opposite direction, and I even tried to outperform any competition I had. But, ultimately, I always wound up getting lost.

In this maze, the corners that I endlessly paced around were my inner thoughts. The obstacles I deflected were any potential points of concern that I fictionalized in my brain. And the other individuals in the maze were all on the same mission as me -- to find the perfect significant other.  

But, here was my problem-- I saw my maze as an obstacle. In my reality, I have always seen dating as a competition--a journey in which I had to reach the end first. If I wasn’t there first, then I lost. And it feels lousy to lose. It feels lousy seeing other people make all the correct turns, while you’re still 10 paces behind trying to decide whether or not you should turn left or right.

I thought dating was all about the correct turns, when in actuality, it’s about having someone by your side to make all the right and wrong turns with.

Dating, relationships, and love are all hair-raising words to someone who is single. But, what I had to learn, especially as a single person, is that these words carry so much weight because I’m placing too much expectation on them.

This class taught me that in order to wade off the fear of dating and relationships, I have to create my own definitions. I can’t look at someone who appears 10 paces ahead of me in the dating game, and simply assume that I need to adjust my definitions as a result.

For example, I have a friend who has been dating her boyfriend for three years. This may not sound like a long time to some of you, but to me, three years is a big chunk of time. My friend and her boyfriend met freshman year, and despite some small, infrequent difficulties, they are still holding strong.

In my dating maze, this friend is so far ahead of me that I can’t even see her footprints anymore. Based on this analogy, my perception of her dating success is high, thus making my expectation for dating high. As I saw her relationship bloom, I began to judge men more critically. The more I saw her grow in happiness, the less desire I had to date. I had such an immense expectation of what my future relationship should be like, that it discouraged me from dating.

Now, while I still believe that having standards is important, this class shined a light on something that I never considered. I learned that my maze was derived from substantial expectation. I normalized the idea that it’s bad to make wrong turns, and that I should aspire to be like those who are ahead of me.

Every relationship is unique, and is shaped by distinctive communication styles, love languages, and conflict. Making wrong turns in the search for my perfect significant other isn’t a bad thing because it’s teaching me what I value in a relationship. What my friend values in a partner may not be something that I value in a partner. Comparison is in my nature, but I cannot let it deter me from discovering what is important to me in a relationship.

Furthermore, this class taught me that dating and relationship building is not meant to be a competitive, individualized struggle. Rather, it is about finding someone to journey the maze with me. Dating isn’t about comparison and dodging obstacles, it’s about enjoying the search and finding good company along the way.


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