Domestic Diva wrote in the other day, mentioning that she had had a number of dating relationships that ended up costing more than she could give. And although it it is common to talk about relationships this way, I was momentarily taken aback by the language of "give" and "cost". People also talk about relationships being "work." Now, call me cold-blooded, but the only romantic relationship I can think of that demands "give" and "work" is marriage.
Maybe I should write a book called Zen and the Art of Dating. What prevents this is that I don't exactly know what Zen is, other than that it implies a certain detachment, tranquility and che sera, sera.
"Relationships aren't supposed to be work," said a good friend to me one day. "They're supposed to be easy."
She said this in an art gallery in Montreal. At the time we were talking about a chap I was dating, who enjoyed all the hanging out, but didn't seem to be in love with me. He never held my hand in public, for example. If He's Just Not That Into You had been published, I would have understood exactly what the trouble was. But, anyway, there I was with my happily married friend, and she gave me this great revelation: dating relationships are supposed to be fun. If they're not fun, why bother? I mean, really, why bother? If it's not fun before you're married, if marriage is even in the cards, what makes you think it will be fun afterwards?
Friendship is different, but friendship takes time. In general, when we make friends, it is an easy if lengthy process. In short, birds of a feather flock together. I don't know how men go about this, but a woman sizes up a new woman and often just knows that she is a potential friend. A certain sympathy just springs up between them, based on some shared trait or trait, belief or beliefs. And, in general, adult women take these new relationships calmly. We all know our friends can't meet up daily or sometimes even weekly. We have family and work commitments; they have family and work commitments. We manage a comfortable detachment about our friends. If a good friend doesn't call, we don't lurk by the phone. We call them up ourselves when we think about it and say, "You swine. You never call. What gives?" And then she says, "Swine yourself. You never call me." Et cetera.
This easy banter does not seem to extend to the greater part of dating relationships, and perhaps it shouldn't, really. When it comes to romance, we're hoping this acquaintance or friend will become "more than friends." We're disappointed by offers of continued friendship. We're devastated by the idea that the Beloved might want to be "just friends."
I don't like devastation, which is why I counsel detachment again and again. Detachment keeps us sane. Detachment keeps us from demanding more than someone wants to give. Detachment keeps us from giving more than we ought to give. Which brings me again to this whole question of giving. Women are addicted to giving. It turns into a freaking disease.
A young woman asked my advice about a plain young man who's shown interest in her for years. She finally consented to going out for dinner with him, but wondered if she should cancel. Because she couldn't think of anything wrong with his character, I said "No." It's rude to cancel dates; you should only do so if you realize that the man is evil. But other than that, my attitude is that you should do what you want, as long as it is moral, and don't do what you don't want to do, as long as that is moral, too.
If someone asks you out for dinner, and you want to go, go. Don't assume this is a tacit understanding you're getting married one day. Detach. If he doesn't call you afterwards, don't call him.
If someone asks you to a film, and you want to see it, go. Don't assume this is a tacit understanding you're getting married one day. Detach. If he doesn't call you afterwards, don't call him.
But this is about meeting up. Obviously if someone makes some sort of move that, if you go along with it, frankly discourages other suitors, then you have to start asking questions. The most obvious one is when a suitor takes your hand in public, and you wonder what that means, or if he kisses you on the lips, and you wonder what that means. It shouldn't mean squat. Make sure it doesn't.
Meanwhile, your lives are too precious to waste on dating relationships that go on for years and then peter out from boredom. The longest an exclusive, post-school, situation should last before a marriage proposal is one year. I know various people think it should be much longer, for how can you know a person's whole character in just one year, etc. but I've known my husband for two years, and whole parts of his character are still a mystery. And I don't mind the mystery, for without it, I would probably be bored. A year is plenty of time to know if you're the One or not.
IMHO the answer to how much should you give a man you're not related, engaged or married to is practically nothing. Give him only as much of your precious time as you wish AND can afford to give. Send him a birthday card. If you give him a present, make sure it is just a book or an inexpensive trinket. Give him advice if he asks for it. Above all, do not make a martyr of yourself. There is no call to make sacrifices for attractive adult men to whom you are neither related nor married. Doing so is the primordial female sin. When we give until it hurts to some man who never gave a damn in first place, we have only ourselves to blame.
Update: I anticipate a dozen comments demanding "But what if he's sick? Can't I bring him chicken soup?" Well, obviously, we are called to perform works of mercy. So perform works of mercy, but don't expect anything back. Detach.