Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm 22 years old, still in college, and am now dating the first guy I've ever been serious about. I really like him and feel that we share values, can connect with each other, are open and honest with each other, and our personalities mesh. Through the course of our dating we've had fun times as well as some difficult situations that we helped each other through. I do have reservations, so I'm not ready for any commitment yet, but I'm seriously considering marrying him (he's ready to get engaged).

My parents, however, are wary, even scared. They feel that I'm too easy-going a personality – add to the fact that I'm excited because this is the first guy I've dated seriously (and he really likes me). They met him and though they didn't have any major objections, they feel that I'd be settling big-time, because I don't know any better.

They are now suggesting that I put him on hold and date other guys in order to gain experience and a broader perspective. I think that's just playing around. I value my parents' opinions and usually take their advice seriously, but in this case I really am at a loss. Is dating for experience's sake a valid plan of action? How do I know if he's really for me or if it's just that both of us are personable and easy to get along with? And how do I ease my parents into this new stage of my life without turning it into a source of stress and anxiety for them?

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

You are fortunate to be having such a positive experience with the first young man you’ve dated. But especially since he is “the first,” it's important to take things slowly and to listen to your parents' concerns.

We've often been asked if a person needs to date a number of people before they can tell if somebody is right for them to marry. We've found that for most people, this is not the case. The purpose of dating is to find the right person to marry, not to gain experience so that you can figure out what you're looking for in marriage partner. When dating for the purpose of marriage, you need to know what you are looking for before going on your first date! Although these criteria can change as time goes on, the change doesn't necessarily come from dating experience. It comes from experience in all aspects of life.

Before beginning to date for marriage, a person needs a clear idea of who they are, their value system, their goals in life over the next several years, the lifestyle they hope to have, and a general and realistic plan for how to accomplish this. In addition to knowing oneself, it's important to identify three or four key qualities they are looking for in a partner. Someone who isn't clear about any of these areas isn't ready to begin dating for marriage.

If you have clarity about who you are, and what you are looking for, then you are in a good position to evaluate when you've met the person with whom you can build a lifetime relationship. It may be the first person you go out with. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, because we haven't discussed the key elements that must be present in any healthy and stable marriage:

First, the couple has to share core values, and their expectations and life goals must be compatible. Some people decide to go out first and then figure out if their values and goals mesh. Experience has shown that this is not the optimal way to do things. When values and goals clash, it invariably puts a big strain on a developing relationship, and each person can end up angry and disappointed.

It's better for two people to find out some basic information about each other even before beginning to date! They'll learn more about each other while they are dating, as they get to know each other, see each other in different situations – whether having fun, or dealing with challenges and frustrations. As the couple becomes more involved, it's important to discuss how they view married life and each partner's roles and responsibilities. You also want to see how each of them relates to families and friends.

Chana Levitan's book, I Only Want to Get Married Once (Geffen Publishers, 2010) can help daters identify what they might be overlooking and pinpoint what important qualities they and their dating partner should develop before they decide to marry.

It sounds to us that this is what concerns your parents – that you may be overlooking certain points they believe may be problematic because of your easygoing personality. Such a personality can be a big advantage in life, because you're able to take a lot in stride and have an easy time accepting other people for who they are. The downside is that you might overlook an issue now, without realizing that it could become problematic in the future. Because your parents understand your personality and have more life experience than you, they may be justifiably concerned.

We suggest that you discuss your parents' specific concerns in detail. Are they worried that you don't really know who you are or what you're looking for, or not realistic about your goals? Do they believe you're too focused on getting married rather than getting married to the right person? Are they concerned that you're not mature enough for marriage, or are that the man you're dating lacks this maturity? Perhaps they have friends whose children married early and then had problems. All of these are legitimate issues for parents to worry about.

Whatever your parents identify as an issue, you should listen carefully to what they have to say and then examine whether you feel it applies to your relationship. If you feel that your parents have a valid point, evaluate whether it is something that you and this man can resolve, and/or whether he really is right for you. You may want to enlist the help of a trusted third party, such as a dating mentor, who can help you see the bigger picture through another perspective.

You've asked us an excellent question – how you can help ease your parents into this new stage of parenthood. If your parents see that you have listened to their concerns and have considered them, chances are they will have an easier time accepting any decision you eventually make. Furthermore, if you decide to continue to date this young man, your parents may feel more positive about it if you assure them that you aren't rushing into things and simply want to continue dating him in order to see if you truly are right for each other.

In order to facilitate this process, we suggest that your upcoming dates include different venues and interactive activities, so that you'll see different aspects of each other's personalities and how each of you reacts to different situations. We also recommend giving each date a purpose by planning one or two things you'd like to learn about each other during the course of the date. It's important to go on at least one or two long dates, to see how each of you acts at different points during the day and when you are tired, hungry, etc. The two of you should also be talking frankly about where you see your lives going and about questions you have about each other or your relationship. As things get more serious, you also should see each other with friends and family.

If, after you've considered your parents' concerns, and you and this man have dated long enough to know each other well, you may come to the realization that he is the one for you. Hopefully, your parents will be able to recognize the maturity of your decision, and will support you wholeheartedly.

Rosie & Sherry