“Young love is a flame; very pretty, very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. The love of the older and disciplined heart is as coals, deepburning, unquenchable.”
~ Henry Ward Beecher (from RQ Relationship Intelligence by Richard A. Panzer)
In my late twenties, I found myself in a two-year relationship, despite feeling marginally loved and never more insecure. “He must love me if we’re a couple and sleeping together,” I told myself. I wasn’t happy, wasn’t being honest with myself, but it was so easy to let sex cover the lie. That relationship was doomed to fail and it did.
About to turn 30, single again and searching for love, I asked myself, what could I do differently this time? How could I avoid becoming emotionally invested in the wrong relationship? I’d done it once. What would prevent me from doing it again?
I asked my mother for her advice, and to my surprise, she had a dating story to tell. She had been a free spirit back in the ‘70’s, and a single mom. On a late-summer afternoon, we talked over iced teas in her garden.
“It was after your dad and I divorced,” she began, “and you were only five. My friend Annie asked if I wanted to meet a friend of hers, a grad student at Binghamton University named Tim. He lived in a tent at a remote campground around a lake, which was owned by the university at the time. Students often went nude there in the ‘70’s. Annie said he was working on his math dissertation. I was interested.”
“When you met him, was he nude?” I asked and laughed. Just the thought of meeting someone for the first time stark naked made me blush.
“It’s an image that will be with me forever,” she replied. “He had long blond hair that fell in ringlets around his shoulders, a full reddish-blond beard and a beautiful smile . . . and yes, he was thin, quite pale, and naked. I wasn’t shocked. It seemed very natural. The next weekend you stayed with your grandma, and Tim and I went camping at a folk festival called Fox Hollow. It was our first date.”
Mom described the “Fabulous!” time they had together, listening to music and learning about folk instruments. “I still have the penny whistles!” she said, springing from her seat and running into the house to get them.
She returned with two old tin whistles, her eyes bright and lively, as if first holding them, shiny and new. “Did you share a tent on your first date?” I asked, curious to know how that all worked out. Did they jump into bed, or sleeping bag, right away?
“We shared a tent, yes. I longed to feel loved, and felt very attracted to Tim. I let him know that sex would be all right.”
Proud of my mom’s independent ways, I now saw another picture. She had been a single mother, vulnerable, searching for affection and healing. Of course, she didn’t wait. Who would?
“That night I found out he was a Christian,” she said, “and had made a vow of chastity. I was a Christian too, but more in theory than in practice. He had been in relationships that had moved too fast and didn’t work out. He didn’t want to repeat the same mistake.”
“How did it end?” I asked, imagining the awkward conversation.
“We had a wonderful time, reading Dracula by flashlight.”
Innocent. Sweet. Accepting. These words came to my mind, and I understood why their date, that time in my mom’s life was so meaningful to her. Discipline made their feelings real.
After two years of close friendship with Tim, my mom realized how much she treasured their relationship, platonic as it was. “I wanted to be married to him forever,” she said, “except I couldn’t understand why he would commit to me. I hadn’t exactly been what people considered a ‘good’ Christian.”
Tim’s absolute faith in God inspired my mom to open her heart to a deeper faith. They’ve been happily married 36 years now. Mom always said that second-chances are miracles. “Keeping a promise, demonstrating discipline and sacrifice, can serve love at any time of life,” she told me. “The only way to know is to trust yourself and try.”
So I decided to take sex out of dating, too. My end goal was love, marriage and family, not appeasing my immediate physical and emotional needs. No more making concessions for superficial perks: looks, lifestyle, his friends and family. No more wasting time. My focus was on finding someone who shared my values and interests, who wanted a relationship based on compassion, trust and friendship. Someone I could grow old with, knowing our love would continue to grow stronger, brighter.
At first, I felt I’d relegated myself to the pre-primary class of dating. I consider myself a modern woman and in control of my body, no shame. But sex carries a powerful emotional punch, making it much harder to remain neutral and friendship-focused. I was ready for this new leap of faith, this new plan. Some of my standard lines were, Let’s take things slow. I really like you, but would prefer to wait. I place a lot of value on sex and don’t want to rush it. Not now. No.
Shortly thereafter, I met the man who would become my husband. Our first six months of dating were about building trust and having fun, as friends. He was dating other women in the beginning, but I kept my focus, resisted jealous feelings, and simply enjoyed our time together, often with other friends. In turn, he respected me for being independent and emotionally centered, and he craved my company. We were married the following summer and our friendship is still our foundation, 17 years later.[i]
Sara Goff is the author of I Always Cry at Weddings (WhiteFire Publishing, 2015.) She is currently living in Connecticut with her husband and two boys and is at work on her second novel. http://www.saragoff.com/
*First photo: Sara’s mother playing the fiddle
[i] Since the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, when less than 30% of men and 40% of women said they had one lifetime sexual partner, the numbers have been steadily rising as more men and women choose to limit their number of sexual partners. See Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness? for statistics on how the number of lifetime sexual partners affects marital happiness for both men and women from the early 1900’s to present day. Past and current relationship trends can encourage us to look ahead, as opposed to living in the moment, for the sake of attaining our longterm goals: a lasting love, a family of our own, and a sense of self-worth.
What a unique and engaging article. You might be interested to read one of mine from this site, sort of a “companion piece” to yours — https://divorcereform.us/she-was-my-first/
You’re absolutely right, Jason. Your article “She Was My First” is an excellent companion piece to mine. I appreciate your point that there are “more ways than one to give yourself to someone.” Thank you for commenting!
Sara, indeed you offer a refreshing and hopeful alternative to the insanity of hooking up and one night stands, disappointment, tears, pretending. From where we are, working with hundreds of couples, we agree that friendship, building trust and connecting with someone through more than just a physical connection, will likely lead to a more satisfying and enduring marriage. We agree with Beverly that this is a “brave” sharing–but certainly one worth reading and appreciating. Thank you for writing it.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope the message of friendship first will reach teenagers, especially. My heart goes out to so many who are hurt and confused when their first sexual experience does not meet their expectations. There might be more disappointments, until they feel numb and, sadly, apathetic about sex. How wonderful it would be to start a new trend that allowed those teens to start fresh and develop meaningful friendships, instead.
Thank you, Sara.
You’re a thoughtful writer with much to share. I hope you will continue to share in this forum.
Many years ago, likely around the time your mother and Tim were reading Dracula, psychiatrist Daniel Casriel developed an early version of a “pleasure scale” to help couples capture a moment-in-time relationship snapshot and identify opportunities for growth.
The scale invites romantic partners/couples, individually, to rate the level of satisfaction they derive from their relationship in six specific areas:
* Shared Interests
* What’s Been Built Together
Scoring provides an indicator, validated by a significant university study years later (http://participant.pairs.com/rps), of dyadic cohesion, which can impact feelings of happiness and relationship resilience.
Readers will likely hear waiting for sex in various ways. Adding encouragement to develop skills to discover what’s possible for emotional and intellectual connection with a focus on shared interests, passions and ambitions has been helpful to many at every stage of relationship.
If you’re ever interested in learning more, you’ll find the Relationship Pleasure Scale on our website here: http://participant.pairs.com/rps.
All good wishes, always.
Thank you for your added information. Wow, when you look at all the different components of a relationship like this and prioritize them, thinking of both your day to day happiness and the longterm resilience of your commitment, it becomes clear that sex isn’t everything. Exploring new interests together, dating or within marriage, and taking the emphasis off sex, can certainly deepen a relationship. When it’s the right time for physical intimacy, the experience will be that much better.
Thank you, again, for reading and responding to my article. The best blog involves sharing ideas and information!