Like approximately 41% of America, my parents were divorced. In fact, most kids I knew growing up were from one-parent (or weekend-parent) families. The older I got, the number of friends whose parents were still married shrank correspondingly. By college, they were a rarity, almost to the point of being an attraction worthy of any circus side-show. Honestly, I could count their number on the fingers of one hand and still have a couple digits left over for spares.
After graduation, I had been hanging out with a friend and his rather astonishingly cool parents. They were shockingly funny and easy to talk to… and they had rather excellent taste in beer. I fully expect them to be played by Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney in the film of their life. Since my friend and I were newly single – one of us more bitter about it than other – the four of us were chatting about relationships. My friend’s father just began to grin like a shark, listening to the two of us gripe about our now-nonexistent love lives, and shared the sort of knowing look with his wife that indicates a well-worn inside joke. “I know I’m supposed to be all nostalgic about the ‘good ol’ days’ back when I was a big swinging dick…” he said
“When was that, exactly?” interrupted his wife.
“…but Christ almighty,” he said with a suitably dramatic sigh. “You have no idea how glad I am to not have to worry about that crap. Me and her,” he said, jerking his head over at his wife, “have been together for about… how long was it?”
“30 years,” she said, rolling her eyes at him.
“30 years,” he agreed. He took a sip of Guinness and continued. “Some of ’em actually happy.”
Then his wife smacked him with a throw pillow.
As staged as that little performance had been, that phrase actually set a few thoughts in motion for me. Despite having had a couple of relatively long term relationships (for me, anyway) under my belt, I still had very little idea of what made them work. As little as I knew about actually meeting, dating, or successfully seducing women, I knew even less about keeping them. It was only years later that I started to understand a few things about relationship maintenance that I wish I’d known back then.
The problem that a lot of guys face is that we can get too caught up in the thrill of the chase; the racing pulse and quickness of breath that stems from an early crush, the anxiousness, the anticipation… All of it leading up to the moment when everything comes together, love blooms on the battlefield, the credits roll and the couple lives happily ever after.
Unfortunately, ever after can be pretty damned short if you don’t know how to take care of your relationship in the first place. Relationships – whether they’re for one year or thirty – take work. They require maintenance and care, and if you aren’t providing it, they can break down faster than you’d believe.
Don’t Settle Down Too Far
The courtship phase of a relationship requires you to be on your toes. You know that you need to sweep her off her feet, so it’s your job to be awesome 24/7.
You need to be at your best at all times because you know damned good and well that if you slip up, there’s another guy just drooling over the opportunity to swoop in and snatch her out from under you. So you’re keeping the simple carbs low, loading up on chicken and broccoli, maybe looking into some weight training to tone up a little because you know you want the first time she sees you naked to be nothing short of magical. Your clothes are clean and neat, your bachelor pad is clean and organized. You’re ready for a date to turn magical at a moment’s notice.
But once you’ve passed the courtship phase into the couple phase? Well…
Let’s be honest. It can take a lot of effort to maintain that constant state of awesome. And with relationships comes familiarity and familiarity means… well, you can let yourself relax a little. You both are going to have seen each other’s flaws. You know she snores when she sleeps. She knows that under normal circumstances, your bathroom looks like Sherman marched through it on the way to Atlanta. You’ve burped, farted and scratched yourselves in front of each other and you’re both ok with that.
The problem is, familiarity breeds comfort, and comfort can mean letting the standards slip. A little slippage is to be expected; after all, you’re not having to prove yourself now.
So maybe instead of getting the grilled skinless chicken you get the pasta carbonara. Or maybe a couple of extra sodas during the day. Maybe you skip a workout or two; it’s ok, you’re busy, it happens. You don’t necessarily dress as sharp as you did before. Little things. Little changes to your routine.
But those little changes add up quickly if you aren’t paying attention to them. And before too long, well… lots of little changes turns into 20 lbs.
Look, time and age make fools of us all; everything’s inevitably going to swell and sag as time and gravity have their way with us. But making an effort at keeping yourself in fighting trim is a mark in your favor. It tells her that you still care whether or not she still thinks you’re sexy and that you want to make the effort to make sure that she does.
Plus: let’s face it, sex is so much better when you’re in shape.
But while we’re talking about getting too comfortable…
… And The Only Place You Take Her Is For Granted.
When you’re single and dating, it’s all about going out. Movies, dinner, romantic walks in the park, spontaneous little outings just because you like the way that her eyes crinkle when she’s happy and surprised. The thrill of new love gives you stamina like you had never known and you’re wanting to spend it all on her. Even when you’re an official couple, that rush that comes over you will have you giggling like a schoolboy as the two of you frolic in the gauzy haze of a romantic montage.
But even the most rollicking couple is going to slow down over time. There will be more nights on the couch, catching up on episodes of Supernatural or Community. There will be weekends where all you will want to do is just decompress after a long and stressful week of the exams, crazy bosses and looming deadlines. Sometimes you’ll be so wrapped up in the mundane activities that make up day to day life that you’ll realize you just don’t have the time or inclination to take an unplanned road trip out to the hill country just because you think it might be fun. As time goes by, you settle into into a routine; Monday through Thursday finds the two of you in front of the TV. Maybe Friday night you go out with your friends, or she takes a girl’s night out. Saturdays mean going through the Netflix cue, Sundays are paying bills and housecleaning. Then, before you know it, a routine has become a rut and as you flip through the suggestions based on your love of wacky action comedies, you’re wondering where all the excitement in your life has gone. Meanwhile, your lovely significant other will be remembering the days she was single and every night meant something new.
Ruts feel like they can be inescapable and you might feel as though you need to resort to extreme measures to break out of them. While making big plans – exotic vacations, expensive candle-lit dinners at romantic restaurants, moving in/out/into a new place can shake things up, these aren’t long-term solutions. You don’t want to play an ace when a deuce will do. It’s like trying to circulate water with dynamite; it’ll make for an impressive blast and some excitement, but things will settle back down fairly quickly.
Instead, add something new to the routine, something that the two of you can do together. It can be as simple as taking dancing or cooking classes, or getting friends together for a bi-weekly roving dinner party… it just needs to be something that can inject a steady level of newness into your life. Adding a little chaos to the mix can help push you out of the rut.
How You Caught Her Is How You Keep Her
Part of the fun of a new relationship is how good it feels when you make her happy. The compliments. The flirty banter. The little gestures, like sending flowers to her at work just because you thought she might like ’em. It’s all a part of the charm and thoughtfulness that showed her what an incredible guy you can be.
I’m sure you see where this is going, right?
As with the examples above, it’s difficult to sustain that level of involvement for extended periods of time. It’s easier in the beginning. Before the two of you have hooked up, you had a concrete goal: convincing her to be your girlfriend. In the aftermath of getting together, you’re suffused with the glow of success and the thrill of how wonderful everything is. But just as with all good things, the rush tapers off and the new becomes the comfortable and familiar… even the expected.
It’s not that you care for her any less… it’s that you don’t have that immediate driving need to show her. You know she cares for you. She knows you care for her. It’s ok if maybe you aren’t quite as charming as you used to be when you first started dating, is it? Maybe those compliments are coming fewer and farther between… and maybe they don’t have quite the same snap they used to. Maybe you’ve moved from joking about crazy hot sex to the size of her butt in those jeans. She understands. It’s not really a problem, right?
Well… not really. Yeah, she may know intellectually that you care, but that doesn’t mean that that she doesn’t want to feel it. It’s surprisingly easy to make someone feel neglected, even taken for granted… and it’s even easier to make them feel better. You don’t have to go all the way back to the way you were when you first started dating, but little romantic gestures and signs of caring will pay off in big ways. Tiny surprises and signs of consideration – picking up a bag of her favorite coffee just because, a little handwritten note at her place before you leave saying that you’re thinking of her, even a sincere and unexpected compliment at the right time will remind her of all the things she likes about you. Show you pay attention and care even about the little things and she’ll realize how you feel about the big things… namely you and her.
The Sex Fades. Don’t Panic.
When you first got together, you couldn’t keep your hands off each other. You end up screwing on or against every vaguely flat surface in your apartment, and you would’ve made bigger inroads in hers if her roommate hadn’t been home so often. Hell, there were dates, movies and dinner reservations that you missed out on because the two of you never made it through the front door. You burned through an industrial size box of condoms in the span of two weeks.
Then… well, you can’t quite put your finger on when or how, but things started to taper off. You may have been bangin’ out every day and twice on Sundays, but then it turned to three times a week. Then two. Then once every two weeks. Now… shit, when was the last time the two of you went at it? Once a month? Maybe?
But… that must mean something’s wrong with your relationship, right? Oh God, you’re not a couple any more, you’re roommates! Quick, quick, must initiate sex now!
After the dishes. And c’mon, you don’t want to miss Walking Dead again. And you gotta get up stupid early tomorrow so you can get to that staff meeting and….
I’ve said it before but the half life of romantic love and passion is approximately six months to a year. No matter how passionate and sexual you are at the beginning, it will taper off. It’s part of every relationship. As that wild passion fades, it’s making way for a quieter – but deeper – level of companionship and intimacy that’s just as critical for a successful relationship as sexual compatibility is. You may not be burning up the sheets the way you used to, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship, nor that you’re not as in love as you were at first.
This, by the way, is part of the reason why monogamy is so difficult. Just because the passion between a couple fades doesn’t mean that your desire for sex – or for novelty – does as well. We get addicted to the rush of oxytocin that comes with a new relationship; when you feel that first spark of a crush on that woman at the office or the attraction to the hardbody at the gym who’s always on the bike in front of you in the spinning class, that rush comes screaming back. It can be intoxicating. But that rush ultimately says nothing about how you feel about your significant other… it’s just a reminder of how things were in the beginning and how easy it is to mistake infatuation – or lust, for that matter – for love.
Like every other aspect of a relationship, this is an area that requires some attention and initiative. Just as you can end up in a rut in your day to day lives, you can end up in one sexually. If sex is nothing more than “head to the bedroom, a little foreplay, oral for him, oral for her, 15-20 minutes of missionary aaaaaaand scene!”, it can – as hard as it can be to believe – get pretty boring. Shaking it up a little – moving it out of your bedroom, exploring fantasies the two of you have, even if it’s just talking about them… can re-ignite the flame.
And don’t think that the sexual attraction is gone forever. It ebbs and flows in any long-term relationship. There will be long dry-spells where the two of you may well be platonic roommates. Then, just as suddenly, you will find yourselves getting as hot and heavy as you were in the beginning, screwing like you’re a couple of teenagers in the throws of their first relationship again.
Sometimes you just need to ride it out.
Being Correct Doesn’t Mean That You Are Right
You’re going to fight. There’s no getting around this. This is to be expected.
It may be a full-on knock-down, drag-out, screaming at each other at the top of your lungs brawl. It may involve one of you talking angrily while the other sits in sullen silence. It may be a serious discussion about issues that doesn’t get over the volume of a normal conversation… but the tone of your voices could turn water to ice at 50 paces. It may even be as subtle as one of you passively aggressively agreeing to whatever the other says, knowing that you won’t do it, but being willing to say anything to get them to just shut up already.
Fighting – or the lack of it – isn’t a barometer to how healthy a relationship is.
Fighting when you don’t need to, on the other hand, is counter-productive.
One of the more famous sayings about men and women is that men are intellectual while women are emotional. This may not be strictly accurate, but it does illustrate a tendency in guys to believe that being correct means that you are in fact, in the right.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why arguing between couples is so often counter-productive. Guys will frequently argue logic while women are arguing emotion and end up driving each other crazy. While she is arguing about how she feels, say, about your never lifting a hand to do anything around the house, you’re arguing about all the things you do do for the house – paying bills, arranging for all the repairs, keeping everything in working order and that this effectively balances out the scales. And yet, this does nothing to resolve the fight between the two of you.
And therein lies the problem… you may be correct, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually right.
Y’see, when guys try to logic an argument, they feel that they’re showing that they haven’t done whatever thing it is their girlfriend is accusing them of having done. To women, however, this sounds like “You have no right to feel the way you do and you’re stupid for doing so.” Thus she feels put on the defensive and has to unfairly justify why she feels the way she does, which only makes her angrier, and so the cycle continues.
Same argument, two completely different messages being taken from it. It’s one of those moments where you need to take a step back and ask whether it’s worth “winning” the argument… or whether it’s better to back down in the name of relationship harmony. Yes, you may have a point… taken from a strictly cost-effort-benefit standpoint, you may be entirely correct and your actions completely balance out hers. However, when the cost of being correct is paid in tears, anger, resentment and frustration, it’s better for the relationship as a whole that you back down, get off your ass and help out more around the house.
Part of maintaining a healthy relationship is knowing that sometimes there are some fights that aren’t worth having, even when you know down to the depths of your soul that you’re correct. Being correct may make you feel superior… but you better hope that this makes you feel better when she’s packing her bags and heading out the door.