The early days of seeing someone you fancy are always a blur. Drunk on lust, afternoon dates morph seamlessly into nights. You wake up tired because lying next to somebody new, getting used to the way the curves of their body bend to match yours, and vice versa, is more intimate than sex. You’re exhausted but never resentful. No, you’re giddy over the chance to familiarize yourself with this person, to attempt to build your own language together, a mystery to everyone but the two of you.
I smugly consider myself to have an excellent memory. Still, I would never pretend I could describe this early period of my current relationship with any degree of accuracy. I can conjure up the feeling of a leg brushing against mine, or hands pressed on my upper thigh, constant laughter in between making out in bars and bedrooms, on street corners and at bus stops. Fully formed conversations, however, remain murkier territory.
But there is one sound bite I’ve picked apart a lot lately. My own, on the phone to my now-boyfriend a year ago, a week into dating. A throwaway remark and maybe the three most depressing words.
“Everything ends anyway.”
Some context: We were discussing fears around long-term relationships. Romantic failure. Getting hurt. Hurting others. In a bizarre bid to be somewhat reassuring—to him? Myself?—that line came out, so arrogant, definitive, almost defensive. It makes me wince a bit now. Everything ends…
A few months previously, I had a conversation with a well-known screenwriter, and she joked about tricking her life partner into a relationship by acting like she, too, wasn’t looking for anything serious to begin with. The sentiment of my “everything ends anyway” was not unlike this in retrospect. It was me trying to delude myself, and him, into thinking I cared less than I did. Odd though, isn’t it? If you tell yourself something enough times, you will eventually start to believe it.
All my previous relationships had ended quickly. I had been both the breaker and the broken up with, both roles bruising in their own ways. As much as I have always loved love, and will defend romance to the death, for a long while there was something terrifying about the “forever love” concept, let alone broaching the topic in any real way. In all my years of dating, I asked for very little from the other person—keeping our lives unmerged, families unmet, never bothering to bring up the idea of us hypothetically living together one day, or even a drawer for my underwear, and so on. To commit to someone, to build and share a life with another, seemed an almost impossible feat. It’s not through lack of role models. My parents will soon celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. I love yous were exchanged as frequently as hellos at home.
Fearing commitment, though, isn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. It presents itself and feels different for everyone, shaped by memories that have long faded. In some cases, people run away from things precisely because they want them. Because the stakes are higher, the imagined loss far greater. For them, to pretend to be unconcerned about the future is an emotional insurance policy.
It’s easier to place blame elsewhere, too, without looking too much at yourself and patterns of self-sabotage. In fact, a session during the pandemic with love coach Persia Lawson helped me see this. “With love [you’re] like, I really want [it] but I’m terrified of commitment,” she told me. “That’s why you keep going for people who may live somewhere else, or someone who maybe is unsure of what they want or settling down.” Her words echo Zadie Smith in Intimations, that “love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through—that must be why it frightens so many of us.”
Are you anti-marriage? I found myself compelled to ask my boyfriend in bed one morning, less than two months into dating—pre the L-word, meeting of friends, introducing the other person as “girlfriend,” “boyfriend.”
“I think it’s actually important to gauge that kind of stuff in the first few months to see if you’re on a similar wavelength,” my friend Flora tells me, “but if someone says they want to marry you after six weeks, I’m sorry, they’re a psychopath!” This wasn’t that, I laughed, more so a way of verbalizing, for the first time, that commitment was something I did, in fact, want. Perhaps I always did? Or I just changed my mind? Either way, there was something liberating in the admission.
I refer you, here, to Gloria Steinem’s statement, after exchanging vows with David Bale in 2000: “I’m happy, surprised and one day will write about it, but for now, I hope this proves what feminists have always said—that feminism is about the ability to choose what’s right at each time of our lives.”
These days I pay more attention to my own evolving idea of what it means to choose to be with someone with no expiration date. That enduring love is an art, a practice, sometimes messy. Something that requires both a leap of faith and mutual effort. Patience. Courage. And contrary to 1970s cinematic opinion (see Love Story), saying sorry and meaning it.
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I know my tears at my best friend’s wedding, when the groom promised to “care and comfort” the bride, were not nothing. I found the pragmatism of the vow moving. To care and comfort, to be cared for and comforted. This, this, is romantic! Which is not to suggest I view long-term relationships now through a stress-free, non-confronting, comfortable lens. People are mostly good, yes, but transformation is a natural and necessary part of growth, both as an individual and partnership. Fucking up occasionally is necessary, too.
When I’m bored and tipsy on a night bus home, I’ll go on a YouTube binge. During one of these I became fixated on Neil Patrick Harris’s rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” It’s a slightly obscure love song in that it oscillates between hopefulness and curious questioning around the merits of love in the slow lane. These lines are exquisite:
Someone you have to let in
Someone whose feelings you spare
Someone who, like it or not
Will want you to share
A little a lot…
Someone to crowd you with love
Someone to force you to care
Someone to make you come through
Who’ll always be there
As frightened as you
Of being alive
It doesn’t deny us the unknowns that exist over the course of any relationship—be it six months, a year, or 50. It takes the pressure away from thinking you need to be absolutely “ready,” know thyself implicitly, squeeze out every ounce of neuroses, to want to share a little, a lot, with someone else for an indefinite period.
Sometimes I think it’s as simple as this: I love you, you love me, I can’t imagine not loving you.