"I just emerged from a two-month relationship that ended very unkindly. The guy suddenly went missing in action for days, appeared later with some very dodgy-sounding excuses, and then proceeded to break up with me via e-mail, after insinuating that my behavior prompted such a reaction from him.
"All too often, married and coupled-up friends have told me when you are with the right person, you will KNOW. I thought I did with this guy (and I have dated a ton -- I'm 31). But clearly I didn't. It was only a two-month relationship, but it started off superbly -- daily contact from him, he introduced me to his friends, he asked me for my views on marriage/kids, was there at the airport when I returned from a two-week trip overseas. Then, just as suddenly, it went downhill and he told me he wasn't sure if he was 'ready' for a relationship and needed 'time to think.'
"I'm now wondering if I missed any signs, if I glossed over certain things I should have noticed before, if it was just all too good to be true. On the really bad days, I wonder if I was just plain stupid. Like you said in your book, I don't believe in acting like a bitch to be liked by men. But it also appears to me that we should be careful in not letting our guards down too early.
"How do you maintain that delicate balance between optimism and caution in the beginning stages of a relationship?"
First let's address the question of you being "stupid" whereas your coupled friends are relationship geniuses who "knew." I also "knew" that my husband was the one; the trouble is that I had "known" that about several other guys in the past and was dead wrong.
So I wouldn't put too much stock in your friends' self-congratulatory Monday-morning quarterbacking. I don't think they're trying to deceive you, but I suspect that many have conveniently forgotten all the times they were sure a relationship was going to work out and were completely blindsided by a breakup.
Now to your question about balancing optimism and caution: It's a juicy one because we all want to fall madly, passionately in love. And we also don't want to get hurt. These are both very normal and reasonable desires, but they're also completely at odds.
In our culture we have an idea that you have to do one thing or the other: You're either a romantic moron who dives headfirst and gets a concussion or a soulless cynic who wraps her heart in barbed wire and never learns to love.
That's why I find the Buddhist concept of the "middle path" so useful. The essential instruction is "not too tight, not too loose." For example, if you find yourself daydreaming about what kind of house you'll buy together, then you're being a little too loose, because that's not real -- yet. On the other hand, if you're guarding your heart so fiercely that you refuse to tell him he looks nice or even admit that you want a boyfriend, maybe you're being too tight.
This is not an invitation to criticize yourself: "Ugh, look at me being too loose again!" It is to train yourself to notice when you sway too far in one direction or another and make an adjustment -- sort of like tuning a violin.
This is really key: Be gentle with yourself. If you go into the next relationship worried about being wrong, all you're going to do is stress yourself out. But if you can relax and accept that you really have no idea what's going to happen, then it makes everything a little lighter.
No one can ever really know what's in another person's heart or brain, and everyone, single or married, is at risk of being devastated by love. It can happen to anyone at any time.
If you can remove the self-blame, then you can start to be curious about what's developing between the two of you rather than be worried about it.
Granted, that's not easy. When you really like someone, you're not an impartial observer. You feel all sorts of things: hope, fear, lust, anxiety, joy. The trick is to understand that these emotions aren't anything to freak out about, because all of them pass, even heartbreak. The only thing you really need to know about your relationship's future is that whatever happens, you'll be OK.
One place where I would advise caution: talking about it with others. If you have long-coupled friends living in the cozy delusion that they have always known what they were doing, you might want to wait a bit before mentioning a newish boyfriend. Instead, tell whomever you'd call first should things go south -- in other words, the one who can see, even when you can't, that getting your heart broken doesn't make you an idiot, just a person.
Do you have a question for Sara? Go to saraeckel.com/contact and ask.
This post first appeared on eHarmony.com.