Let me ask you something: how often does your relationship fall apart as soon as you get out of the honeymoon period? It’s an incredibly common issue; things are going wonderfully for the first few weeks and then bam, it all falls apart like Tokyo after a kaiju stops by.
When we first start seeing somebody, we’re usually not thinking much further than our next date. We don’t think about shared values so much as how amazing they smell or what their skin feels like. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the excitement of the new and the rush of the endorphins, especially if you don’t have much relationship experience. So it’s understandable that you might not be thinking about issues of fundamental compatibility; how well you two actually sync up outside of the bedroom. If you want to know if this relationship is going to go the distance, you should ask yourself these questions:
“Do I Like Her, Or Do I Like Having A Girlfriend?”
This question comes up more than you might think. There are times in everyone’s life where we feel lost and lonely. The fact that somebody, anyone is showing interest in us can be intoxicating. We want to cling to that feeling – and the validation it gives us – with both hands.
Other times it’s simply a matter of being in love with love. We love that feeling of limerence and all the excitement of falling for somebody new and find ourselves losing interest once that initial rush fades away. Still other times, it’s a matter of identity; we desperately want to be someone who dates and has a hot girlfriend and enjoy the transitive property of cool.
However, in these cases, we’d often be shocked to realize that we don’t actually like that person that much. Not that she’s bad or undesirable, just that, well, we like what she represents more than we like her. Like owning an expensive sports car,1 we tend to like the idea of it more than the reality. Being a Guy Who Can Have Luxury Cars is appealing in the abstract, because we don’t really think much about the little things that come with it. There are questions of practicality, maintenance, even just how much more gas may cost that never factor into that fantasy.
Like the idea of a dating a Geek Girl, having A Girlfriend is great… but you’re not dating an idea, you’re dating a person. And people come with quirks and personalities and flaws and everything else that makes them, well, people. Slotting somebody into a hole and role marked “girlfriend” is not only insulting to the person you’re trying to cast, it’s a good way to saddle yourself with a relationship that’s going to self-destruct. Frequently messily and all over the place.
That actually brings us to the next question you need to ask:
“Would I Still Like Her If Sex Wasn’t On The Table?”
Trying to sort out whether or not you like this person in particular can be tricky when you’re still in those early days of the relationship because getting laid on the regular can cover up any number of sins. Several of my earliest relationships lasted as long as they did only because, well, I was fuckstruck. Before I lost my virginity, the mere possibility of sex was enough to keep me involved. I mean, women had boobs and some of them would let me touch them and maybe there’d be more and if you thought I was going to throw away my shot then you were out of your goddamn mind.
Later on, I stayed in a relationship far, far longer than I should have because the fact that I was having sex was amazing. However, if you’d sat me down and asked me if I actually liked these women… I don’t think I could honestly say “yes”. I liked the fact that someone was willing to touch my penis or that I could touch them in interesting places. But could I have a conversation with them? Did I ever feel relaxed with them? Was there ever a point where we were hanging out where I wasn’t angling for sex?
Not really. And that should have been a warning. I was trying to build a relationship out of lust and then getting surprised when it all fell apart on me.
This is an issue that comes up frequently amongst folks who don’t have much dating experience: mistaking lust for long-term potential. Or even just basic compatibility. When your junk gets set on a person, it’s very easy to start ignoring obvious flaws and making up positive qualities out of whole cloth – a lustful version of the halo-effect.
Of course, sometimes that desire to bang someone can coincide with other issues. If you’ve spent a lot of time trying to get somebody into bed, you may well find yourself hanging on longer than you should. Why? Because you’ve invested all that time and you don’t want it to have “gone to waste”. No, it doesn’t make logical sense… but when your reptile brain gets involved, logic doesn’t count for much.
Don’t get me wrong: sexual compatibility is an incredibly important part of a relationship. Just as critically, there’s nothing wrong with a relationship that’s just about sex. However, sexual attraction by itself is a lousy foundation for a long-term relationship. If you want your relationship to last, you need more than “really like seeing them naked.”
“How Much Do We Actually Get Along?”
There’re more things that can distract you from serious incompatibilities besides sex and lust. As I’ve said before: humans are bad at understanding why we feel the way we do. We tend to feel the physical sensations that come with our emotions first and determine the reasons for them afterwards. The physical sensations of fear – a pounding heartbeat, sweaty palms, a dry mouth – are identical to the physical sensations of being attracted to somebody. This is known as misattribution of arousal, and it can confound even experienced daters. The circumstances under which you meet or the dates you go on can completely change how you feel about someone. Anything that arouses your central nervous system is going to arouse other parts of you as well.
Take dancing for example, especially social or club dancing. These tend to be intense environments, full of noise and distractions. Your cardiovascular system’s getting a workout, your brain’s on overload and there’s this person in front of you who does all the right things to your squishy bits. As far as you’re concerned they’re amazing.
At least… until things settle down. Maybe the initial rush of sexual attraction and the desire to get them in bed has kept them at the forefront of your mind. Maybe, when you meet them outside of that specialized environment, they’re not quite as appealing. Your relationship doesn’t actually have the same level of intensity as it did at the start. Now those little details start to become more significant. The political views you have that you could ignore at first are starting to get in the way. You’re finding that you’re just not as interested in spending time with them as you were in the immediate rush of the beginning.
Why? Because you don’t actually get along with one another. The intensity of the experiences that threw you together in the first place conned your brain (and other bits) into thinking that you had a connection that was more meaningful than “let’s get naked as soon as we can.” You see this happen all the time – in cross-country hikes, at anime and comic conventions, on trips, on movie sets… really, any intense environment that throws people together for long periods at a time. The thing that brings the hero and heroine of an action movie together is going to be the same thing that splits them apart: once that initial stimulus is gone, there’s really not anything to keep the two of them together.
“How Much Do We Actually Have In Common?”
Commonalities are an important part of attraction. After all, we tend to like people who are similar to us; it triggers the “same tribe” feeling that makes us feel as though we know them already.
This is part of why one of the best way to meet people is to get involved in your passions; after all, it brings you in contact with people that you already have interests in common with. So what’s the problem?
Well… there are commonalities and there are commonalities. One of the mistakes people – geeks especially – tend to make when it comes to dating is that they focus on surface commonalities. They tend to look for partners who are clones of them – they’re both gamers, they love the same movies and TV shows. After all, what could be better than mad, passionate sex followed by mad, passionate sessions of Overwatch?
However, focusing on those surface commonalities not only filters out people you might otherwise be compatible with, but they can blind you to the more important commonalities. After all, it’s great that you both may love bingeing Luke Cage, but where do your religious values fit in? It can be incredibly hard for, say, a devout Baptist and an atheist to make things work in the long term. What about social values? Or how you like to spend your downtime? You can make adjustments for a partner who may like different TV shows than you or doesn’t dig video games; it doesn’t matter that they may not be a gamer as long as they can respect your interest in it. But those core differences? Those are a lot harder to make allowances for.
The less you have in common at that deeper level, the harder it’s going to be to make that relationship work when the oxytocin tapers off.
“Where Do I See This Relationship Going?”
This is a big one. This is the question that tends to sink a lot of couples because someone didn’t think to ask themselves this in the beginning. Before you start getting serious with someone, you should have at least a general idea of where you want this relationship to go… and if it can even get there.
Now I don’t mean that you have to go into every relationship with a map and destination in mind. There’s nothing saying that you can’t enter into something committed with somebody just because you really like them. There’s a lot to be said for taking a “let’s see where this goes” mentality when you date. But if you have an end-goal that you’re striving toward – whether it’s marriage, kids or just someone to grow old with – you’d better make sure you and your partner are on the same page early on. The last thing you want is to stumble upon a critical disagreement when you’re several years in. After all: you can compromise on, say, moving in together or getting a pet. You can’t compromise on having a child; it’s pretty damn binary. And if you’re determined to be child-free for life… well, your partner better know that. Like, now.
Similarly, if your goal is to get married and settle down, you may well need to put “wife material” first in your “must-haves”. It’s something you need to be clear on well before you get serious.
It’s one thing to date casually. It’s another to have a long-term relationship with someone that you know you can’t or won’t marry. That’s unbelievably unfair to your partner, and cruel besides. Staying with someone in a relationship that you know ultimately can’t work is not only leading them on, but steals time from them. Time that they could be spending with someone who’s on the same track they are.
Of course, the other thing to keep in mind is sometimes it’s not the nature of the relationship you need to question… it’s the person. The little things you may be able to ignore while you’re in the honeymoon period aren’t going to go away. The behavior that you hope might get better – with time, if you get engaged, if you get married – isn’t going to change. It may be signs of a toxic relationship. It may be signs that there’s just something you won’t be able to get past. So you have to ask yourself: are you ok with that? How long are you willing to put up with those quirks and personality traits, knowing they may never go away? A week? Six weeks? Six months? A year? A lifetime?
It can seem a little presumptuous to be asking questions like this before you’ve even had the defining the relationship talk. But taking the time to be sure – about yourself, about your relationship and about your partner – can save your relationship… before it even begins.
- We will pause now to acknowledge that this an awkward metaphor [↩]