Our first weekend as a couple, my boyfriend and I asked each other those 36 questions to fall in love, which appeared in a New York Times Modern Love column last year. We’d been friends for years and were giving things a shot, romantically.
In answering those questions — which covered our lives’ biggest hopes, dreams, fears and regrets — there were not a lot of new revelations. But we both cried over things we shared. It felt like real intimacy. It felt like a sign we were going to last.
Instead, our relationship barely made it three months. He ended it — along with a 10-year on-and-off friendship that had endured college, distance, other relationships and hard times.
Looking back now, I realize a better sign of intimacy would have been to spend the afternoon discussing our exit strategy, should our budding romance fizzle out. I believe that knowing how someone reacts in their worst moments — when the personal stakes are high and emotions are intense — can tell us more about them than hearing about what would constitute their “perfect” day.
It’s rare that two people launch a relationship thinking about how it might end. But perhaps we should.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I have begun to think of romantic relationships more as a blip on my life’s radar screen than a major event. I am tired of loss. Losing a close friend in your 30s is much harder than losing a boyfriend. So if I could go back in time, I would encourage the two of us not-so-young lovers to answer 10 questions to help us plan the end of our romance from the beginning.
- When ending a relationship, do you tend to blame the other person, yourself, or other factors internal and external?
- In interpersonal conflict, what is the best possible outcome?
- In arguments, who do you believe should have “the last say”?
- When someone you love strongly disagrees with you (or vice versa), what is your greatest fear for the outcome?
- Describe the worst fight you’ve ever had. Did it resolve?
- Describe the worst recurring fight you’ve ever had. Why do you think it is recurring?
- If your significant other asks for something you can’t or don’t want to give, how do you respond?
- Describe your worst “heartbreak.” How long did it take to move on?
- What is the worst thing you have done in response to heartbreak? The best thing?
- Have you tried to “stay friends” with any of your exes? Did it work? Do you regret it?
I have more regret about how things ended with most of my exes than I do about dating them in the first place. Despite the anger and hurt that can follow breakups, I would rather find a way to keep my important exes in my life than relegate them to my past. The reason that often has not happened is because endings catch us by surprise. It feels like the end of the world. We say things we mean in the moment. We blame. We send angry texts. We unfriend. And it becomes difficult to take any of it back.
The one ex I’ve managed to keep as a friend stayed in my life because we were able to separate our reaction to conflict from how much we cared about each other. That doesn’t mean our breakup was easy. When we broke up, nasty phrases were hurled from both sides. We shouted outside a karaoke bar. At one point, I physically shoved him. But we managed to hit pause and agree to a no-contact break. And when we met for drinks a month later, the anger was gone and all that was left was a shared connection.
I will not deny that I ever cried over this guy again or that the first time I saw his new girlfriend sitting in his lap I wasn’t knocked off balance. But we have both proven that we value the other as a person beyond the definition of a romantic relationship — and the benefit of that, to me, far exceeds that of a short-term romantic relationship.
Perhaps we could treat our future selves better by thinking ahead to breakups when we’re just getting started. Breakups don’t always mean that we no longer care about each other. But it’s impossible to know that if we confuse our reaction to an ending with our reaction to each other.
These 10 questions might sound negative. But approaching relationships knowing that conflict is inevitable might be a counterintuitive way to create more intimacy — as well as an outline for retaining some of it once we end.