Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “If it feels so right, how on earth can it be wrong?”
Most survivors of divorce, somewhere around 90%, would like to find a new, committed relationship. This time around we hope it will be one that actually works and survives. Accepted wisdom tells us to just start dating, trust your feelings, and when you find Mr./Ms. Right, “you will know it.” So then you get remarried and live happily ever after. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were all that simple! Spoiler alert! It ain’t.
(This is the 10th article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
Five steps are required to build a long-term relationship. Each step in the process builds on the previous step. Done right, it is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Five Required Steps to a Long-Term Relationship
The relationship path from initial introduction to old married couple goes through five separate stages of relationship: (1) Step 1: The Transition Relationship, (2) Step 2: The Recreational Relationship, (3) Step 3: The Pre-Committed Relationship, (4) Step 4: The Committed Relationship, and (5) Step 5: The Marital Relationship. (For a discussion of recreational, pre-committed, and committed relationships, see David Steele Conscious Dating, (Campbell, CA, RCN Press, 2008). The discussion of the pre-committed relationship is particularly good.)
This article addresses the second step in the relationship-building process, Step 2: The Recreational Relationship.
The Recreational Relationship is a Time to Play
A recreational relationship is one you enter into for the sole purpose of enjoying being single again. An added benefit is the re-establishing of confidence and validation that are almost always bruised in the divorce process.
Goal and motivation. The goal of a recreational relationship is to have fun. The source of motivation that drives a recreational relationship is the question, “Do I enjoy myself when I am with him/her? Is he/she fun to be with?”
The roles you and your partner play. Your partner is expected to be a friend, buddy, pal, playmate – whether it is sexual or not. Likewise, your role is to also be a friend, buddy, pal, playmate.
The nature of a recreational relationship. A recreational relationship is meant to be light, exciting, superficial, and fun. You go out and do things together. You simply enjoy spending time with each other. No-attachment sex can be a part of the fun if both of you agree. Life is good. You enjoy being alive.
Hooked on Hormones
The recreational relationship is the time for hormones and hope to run rampant. Unfortunately, our culture gives us well-intentioned, but poor advice about how to handle the euphoria.
But It Feels So “Right.” You’ve heard it a thousand times in a thousand ways. Your friends say it, your parents say it, the TV says it, music lyrics say it. It is everywhere. It is non-stop. “Follow your heart,” “You will know when you’ve met Mr./Ms. Right by the way you feel.” “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.”
What you are feeling is just chemistry doing what chemistry does. Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and relationship researcher, conducted a series of illuminating studies on the brain chemistry of love. Specifically, she found that the chemicals triggered during the initial phase of “falling in love” (that is, massive amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine ) are the same chemicals that make us feel euphoric when on a cocaine high. (Helen Fisher, “Lust, Attraction, Attachment: Biology and Evolution of the Three Primary Emotion Systems for Mating, Reproduction, and Parenting.” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25,2000, 96-104).
Statistics Tell a Different Story. While, no one would advise anyone to make major life-altering decisions when high on cocaine, that is exactly what our culture (in the form of our friends, relatives, music, and TV) does when it tells us, “If it feels good, it must be love!” Of course, disaster ensues in the form of 42% of first marriages, 67% of second and 75% of third marriages failing.
This is not the fault of chemistry. In fact, physical attraction is one necessary requirements of a good relationship. And, during a recreational relationship we determine if chemistry exists between you and your partner. What is misleading is our culture’s obsession with dopamine-infused, romantic love as the only predictor of long-term relationship compatibility and happiness. It isn’t.
Three Rules for Handling the Intoxication of a Recreational Relationship
Your recreational relationship will feel like the real thing. So, why shouldn’t you go ahead and “lock in” the partner of your dreams before someone else does? Why? Because it’s a ticket back to divorce court.
The following three rules are designed to prevent you from acting impulsively, to “hit the brakes” as it were, even though you may think you do not need to.
My Hands Are Broken Rule. The My Hands Are Broken Rule says do not sign any legal documents with your partner for at least twelve months, and preferably eighteen months. Just don’t.
The 6/7 Rule. This rule says for the first 6 months, do not plan to do anything with your partner over 7 days in advance. This rule also says, for the first 6 months, do not discuss any future you might have with your partner that exceeds 7 calendar days.
The 6/30 Rule. This rule says after the first six months of dating your partner, do not plan to do anything together more than 30 days in advance and do not talk about your life together that is more than 30 days in the future.
The joy of the recreational relationship lies in its focus on the present, not the future. For now, enjoy the freedom that comes with ending a problematic marriage and allow yourself to bask in the pleasures of the present as an uncoupled, single person. As your relationship progresses through the remaining three steps, you will have plenty of time and opportunity to decide if this relationship has a future.