I spent years in the dating pool, searching for a long-term relationship. To get there, I went on hundreds of Tinder dates, encountered commitment phobia (sometimes theirs, sometimes mine), anxiety, indecision, flakiness, breakups and makeups, and constant ambiguity. I did not expect that settling into a relationship would be so hard. I also got used to a steady diet of novelty.
Not unlike many of the couples I interviewed for my book on relationships, it took me and my boyfriend about a year to get it right. When we met, we were living on opposite sides of the country. For months, we got to know each other slowly while visiting each other in our home states. But we just kept choosing each other. We just kept having fun.
The miles between us created both sparks and uncertainty. In the beginning, it was the standard will-we-or-won’t-we excitement; later on, it was a different will-we-or-won’t-we mystery. Could we traverse the physical distance to a long-term partnership? Was there an expiration date on that distance … or on us? The tug-of-war between my head and my heart eventually gave way. I broke it off.
Five months later, with a new job opportunity that would put us in the same city, we rekindled. I was, and still am, thrilled. We’d never been better, closer or more conflict-free — and our future was no longer a hanging question mark.
But no one talks about this weird sensation that arises after a commitment, after years of prolific dating. It felt similar to wracking my brain after leaving for the airport: The vague sense that something might be missing. Over time, I understood it to be that raw, physical craving for an often-absent partner — the former hallmark of my romantic life.
I’m not alone. There’s a record number of singles in the United States, as the age of first marriage continues to rise. When you’re single for years, rarely experiencing what comes after the constant swiping and shuffling of the match deck, having a series of relationships lasting just three, four or five months at a time, romance — to many and to me — can become entirely about wanting.
Having, then, becomes a new sensation to get used to. “Over time, we get more comfortable in a relationship,” says Marisa T. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College and author of “From First Kiss to Forever.” “We get set in our ways, and with that comes a wonderful sense of security and trust in our partners.” But she also says this transition “may be unnerving to some people, especially those who want or expect that exciting and passionate feeling they experienced at the beginning of the relationship” to hold steady. “Especially with the rise in swipe-based sites and the ‘gamification’ of dating, part of the appeal for people may be the thrill of the chase, or meeting new people on a regular basis.”
The stillness of my relationship made me uncomfortable at first, perhaps even a little reticent to stay once my boyfriend and I finally solidified. Waning passion was a first-time scare, so much so that committing suddenly seemed irrationally risky. The stakes feel high in choosing the wrong someone, as opposed to staying at arm’s length from everyone, says Rebekah Montgomery, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington. “You can have a fear of missing out on something ‘better,’ making the wrong decision, or being stuck or trapped in a relationship that isn’t right,” she explained.
I discovered that moving from single to couple requires a full mind-set shift. “When you transition to relationship mode, you are essentially focusing your time and energy on one partner, creating a deep, intimate space with them,” Cohen said. “You’re focusing less on getting to know many, which is breadth, and more on getting to really know one person in particular, which is depth.” We often lump dating and relationships into the same category, but, emotionally, these are different, says Montgomery. “Being with someone who is soft, kind and supportive is pretty stable; it’s not the roller-coaster ride, or anxiety and butterflies of wondering what’s going to happen next. It might, at first, even feel a little boring.”
Boring gets a bad rap in relationships, because our experience of falling in love is often the rom-com version — an exciting meeting, facing conflict and then solidifying things — though we forget the credits usually roll just as two people become a couple or get engaged. But passion, a mainstay of early dating, is just one component of being in love.
Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg has a theory that love needs three things to last/survive: intimacy, passion and decision/commitment. Intimacy is the sense of closeness and bonding that develops only with time. Decision or commitment is, in the short-term, deciding that you love another; in the long-term, it is deciding to do what it takes for that love to remain.
All three of these components work in tandem. But as you increase in intimacy and commitment, some of that passion — the passion of novelty and of uncertainty — organically subsides. I know my partner’s favorite sex positions, day-to-day routines and that he’ll always text me back. I am reminded of Esther Perel, the couples therapist who thinks intimacy, stability and comfort often replace excitement, curiosity and intensity in a committed relationship. When one waxes, the other wanes. “Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery,” she writes in “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.” “Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. . . . Love is about having; desire is about wanting.”
But stability is exactly what we should be holding on to, if we want our loves to last. According to Amir Levine, author of “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help you Find — and Keep — Love,” this sense of softness and safety is the best ingredient for a healthy relationship. He uses the “CARRP” acronym to describe the hallmarks of a secure partner: consistent, available, reliable, responsive and predictable. All traits that I’m happy to say my partner has in spades. I did not fully appreciate such characteristics until this past year, when I finally stopped chasing unavailable men.
If you find yourself choosing prospects that are all about passion, or pushing away ones who offer too much intimacy, there’s only one way to try to break the mold: Choose safe and happy, and settle into it, Montgomery said. She insisted that it’s important to look inward to make sure there isn’t a fear-based reason for wanting to bolt. It might be issues with self-worth, or feeling the need to protect yourself. “The greatest thing about only getting hooked on the potential of someone is that you never really have to face disappointment,” she explained.
I’ve had trust issues for a while now. As a high-functioning adult with lifelong chronic pain, stitching another person into the fabric of my well-worn routines felt far scarier than meeting any new dating prospect. My self-reliance then became a defense mechanism for avoiding real letdown. But if there were ever a smart risk to take, it was for the person who made me feel safe, wanted and chosen. My boyfriend responds to my needs consistently, and it’s the reason I trust him so much. It’s the reason I can love him.
It’s easy to mistake stability for a lack of chemistry; looking back into my younger years, prolifically dating, I probably did that a few times over. Every now and then, I miss those high-intensity sparks. But I’m enjoying the depth I’ve found in my relationship.
Passion is great, but it’s not the predictability of knowing what time my partner gets up in the morning or tracing the tiny scar above his eyebrow before we go to bed at night. Sparks might be easier to manufacture than you realize, too. I still discover new things about my partner that make me love him in whole new ways; we still travel, have new experiences, go on dates. We still make time for physical intimacy.
Love is both having and wanting at the same time, but rarely in equal measure. Love is bigger. Love is staying. It might not be the novelty of Tinder. But it’s better.