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Carolyn Hax: Can relationships grow if not headed toward cohabiting, marriage, kids?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I’ve been with my significant other for three years, and we are in our 30s. I have always assumed we were headed toward cohabitation, marriage and kids. Then the pandemic hit and it clarified multiple things for me.

1. I don't want to have children — I don't ever want to be as miserable as some of the parents I know, who seem on the verge of breakdowns right now.

2. I am not especially eager to live with my SO, and they seem to feel the same way — we decided against quarantining together and were happy as clams.

That rules out the idea of a traditional marriage, since as I see it raising a family and living together are two of the most compelling reasons to get married. So … now what?

Obviously, this will have to begin with a conversation with my SO, who I expect will feel about the same way. They have had the same revelation about not wanting kids. Where do we go from there? I have always believed that “anything that’s not growing is dying,” and I don’t know how to wrap my head around a relationship that is going to stall out where it is right now.

— Where Is This Going?

Where Is This Going?: Well wait. It could still grow, exactly as it is. You just typed out proof of that yourself. You are three years into this relationship and just underwent — childlessly, unmarried and from your separate homes — an enormous emotional transformation that sure looks like growth to me.

You have new clarity, honesty, and a better sense of yourself and how you relate to others and how you relate to the world.

Not that I’d wish another pandemic on anybody, but why wouldn’t it remain possible — and good — for you to both stay together and remain open to these kinds of evolutions (and upendings) in your worldview? If these two clarifications are merely precursors to realizing you’re not in love anymore, then so be it.

But the real issue may be that you’ve outgrown your definition of “growing.” Cohabitation, marriage, kids are life changes, and milestones, but they are not in themselves representative of growth. As we’ve all seen here, they can just as easily represent stuntedness, inertia, confusion, misguidedness, selfishness, cruelty, fear, denial … have I missed any?

Meanwhile, two people can grow closer to the end on love and compatibility alone.

So, give your head some time to expand into your new way of seeing things; I suspect you’ll be able to wrap it around many different possible futures.

Re: Going: WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER! You both want the same things! A long-term monogamous commitment with someone who’s fine with my lack of maternal instinct and lives near enough to see several times a week but not necessarily every day has always been my DREAM, and I’ve never been able to achieve it. Lucky you!

— Dreamer

Re: Going: Goldfish stop growing when they hit their bowl limit. Adults stop growing at the end of puberty. If we’re playing Aphorism Tag, I’ll throw this back at you: If you don’t stop growing, congratulations, you’re a cancer.

Focus on whether this relationship is comfortable and healthy to you.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Omg, the cancer. Can we be friends?