Part of getting a handle on the dude you’re seeing—and whether a long-lasting relationship is in the cards—-depends on where he is in life. We used to think a man’s age dictated his dateability, but it’s actually his life stage that matters most. You see, there are four distinct phases of emotional development a guy can go through that have nada to do with his birthday. “Milestone activities can be as important as biology in determining a man’s psychological state—his experiences shape him,” says Michael Gurian, author of What Could He Be Thinking? and founder of the Gurian Institute, a research center studying the differences between the male and female brains.
And the most influential experiences tend to center around success. “Men define themselves based on their careers and financial status,” explains Manhattan psychologist and relationship expert Mari Terzaghi, PhD.
So you can comprehend where your guy is coming from and where your relationship might be going, we got the lowdown on the main boyfriend phases. Find out where your man fits in.
- Adventurous and into trying new things?
- Rarely, if ever, stressed out?
- Spontaneous—never makes plans in advance?
“Let’s eat Lebanese, catch some live jazz, and see where the night takes us from there.”
THEN HE’S IN... The All-About-Fun Phase
A man in this stage has usually just finished a big chapter in his life—graduated from school, left a stressful job, or ended a long-term relationship. “Now he’s doing what he wants, when he wants, as a way of asserting his independence,” says Terzaghi.
Okay, so hanging with this guy is a guaranteed good time. But if you’re not careful, you could fall into step with his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants style and let things slide in your own life. Oh and if you’re in marriage mode, “you’ll have to be patient,” says Atlanta psychologist Erik Fisher, PhD. This guy isn’t plotting to surprise you with a ring next month.
How to date him: Live it up with this guy, but don’t kid yourself about his commitment capacity. “Because a man in this stage lives for the moment, he can’t wrap his head around anything beyond the present,” explains Fisher. “This is someone who may have a hard time building a life with you. He’s simply not there yet.” That’s not to say he won’t get there eventually, like when he enters the next stage in life, but you need to ask yourself how long you’re willing to ride it out.
In the meantime, “don’t pressure him to ‘grow up,’” says Fisher. “He’s likely to move into a more serious phase, and you don’t want him to resent you for pushing him into it prematurely.”
IN A NUTSHELL: He’s a blast, but if you’re looking for long-term commitment, you’ll have to be patient.
- Trying to decide what he wants to do with his life?
- Likely to voice strong opinions about his interests?
- Deliberately hunting for things that turn him on?
“Fine, I admit it. Yes, I own a shirt that reads: ‘I think, therefore I am.'”
THEN HE’S IN... The Feeling-Out-Who-He-Is Chapter
A guy may enter this self-scrutiny period after an event or issue has convinced him he needs to take stock of his life. It could be something big, like a parent getting sick, or something minor, like his drinking buddy moving away. However, it’s often work-related. “If his career feels unstable, he’ll enter a zone of self-reflection,” says Kevin Leman, PhD, author of Sheet Music.
During this inside-his-own-head era, he’ll consciously develop and narrow his interests. He’s not aimlessly racking up experiences for the hell of it. He’s focused on learning new things to define himself.
Good news for you: “Men in this stage are likely to love intensely,” says licensed clinical therapist Jed Diamond, author of The Irritable Male Syndrome. But you may call his love into question when his moods roller-coaster as his confidence waxes and wanes.
How to date him: “He needs a caring, supportive partner who is a source of encouragement,” says Diamond. So be his sounding board. Help him define his goals by letting him bounce ideas off you.
Keep in mind that he’s vulnerable, so an ego boost may be in order. “You can tell what areas are key to his self-esteem by paying attention to topics he speaks about with authority or gives advice on,” says Fisher. Take heed and pat him on the back accordingly.
IN A NUTSHELL: Although he’s figuring out where his life is going, he’s certain about his devotion to you.
- Tenacious about going after what he wants?
- Likely to get excited when talking about success?
- Always on the move and has trouble chilling out?
“The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.”
THEN HE’S IN...The Out-To-Prove-Himself Period
“Something has happened to boost his confidence and inspire his ambition,” says Fisher. He’s self-assured and not tentatively defining what he wants—he knows what it is and is pouring all his energy into getting it.
Although a guy in this phase is probably invested in your connection, his tunnel vision may “make it difficult for him to put your relationship first,” says Matthew Paradise, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Sure, he probably thinks of his quest for success as prep for your future together, but it might not feel that way.
How to date him: He craves a “copilot” who’s on board with his ambitions. “Since he’s single-minded about his goals, it’s important for you to understand them,” says Leman. Take time to learn about the career or hobby he’s so passionate about. “He needs you to help him achieve, both by listening to him and by doing things like chatting up his boss’s wife at the company cocktail party,” says Paradise.
Of course, being supportive doesn’t mean subordinating your needs. “If you’re feeling neglected, tell him—but frame the discussion in terms of goals and schedules, so he’ll relate,” says Fisher. Instead of “I need more of your time,” try “Let’s have dinner every Tuesday so we can stay connected during the week.”
IN A NUTSHELL: He’s on the fast track, but all work and no play could make for a dull boyfriend.
- Financially sound and prospering in his career?
- Curious about your plans for the future?
- Somewhat stubborn about his routine?
“So, I’m thinking a house in a subdivision. Maybe a chocolate lab...”
THEN HE’S IN...The Finally-Secure-And-Stable Segment
Now that he’s reached a high point in his career, this guy is into planning his future—where he’ll live, how he’ll spend his time, and who he’ll spend it with.
This means he’s probably thinking about marriage right now, and he’ll want to know everything about you, especially your vision of the future. “A man in this stage is less interested in superficial things like a woman’s looks. He wants to assess her intelligence and morals and find out what her family is like,” says Leman.
On the downside, he may be stuck in his ways. “He has some set ideas in terms of values, home life, and how he wants things to be,” says Fisher.
How to date him: Because he’s stable and mature, you can’t count on personal crises or wild-and-crazy experiences to bond you. You need to create intimacy by establishing relationship rituals. Try a new restaurant every Friday night or have a standing date to watch 24 on his sofa. “A guy in this stage likes routine, so he’ll take to a new ‘love habit’ easily,” says Diamond.
Just because you’re catching him in a dedication-prone phase doesn’t mean you can push fast-forward. “He’s coming to commitment of his own volition, but if you try to speed up the process, you could ruin it,” says Leman. Sit tight and savor the knowledge that something big is on the horizon.
IN A NUTSHELL: He’s thinking forever, but don’t let that keep you from doing the relationship legwork.