When we were young, we were told that one day, we'd live happily ever after. But now that we've grown up, we've come to realize that relationships — and life in general — are far, far more complicated than that. Bustle has enlisted Susan Piver, a New York Times best-selling author who teaches around the world on communication, creativity, and relationships, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous.
Now, on to this week’s question:
Q: My girlfriend and I are in love. After a year I'll admit it — finally! Here's the problem: I have this feeling we might not be compatible for the long-term. She isn't as driven as me, and I worry that we'll always be in different places that way. I'm only 25, so I'm still young — who cares? Except I can't seem to stop worrying about "wasting time" with someone who won't end up being my partner for the long term. What if I end up 30 and broken-hearted and have less time to find a person to start a family with? How can I just trust in the fact that I'm in love without obsessing all the time about how it will probably end?
A: First, yay for love! All the clichés are true: It changes everything. It heals old wounds. It makes you feel beautiful. It gives you courage.
Now, here's the thing no one ever tells you: There is a difference between a love affair and a relationship.
We live in a culture that tells us that all of our love affairs ought to become relationships, and that all our relationships should be love affairs. If you’ve ever been enraptured by someone that you can’t picture introducing your friends, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Or if you’ve met the perfect “checklist” person (smart, funny, nice, good job, wants to live by the ocean), but feel nothing remotely akin to magnetic desire, you too know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you know you would like someone for the long-term (eventually), then there are some things to consider. Here are five steps you can take to start figuring it out.
Stop Judging Yourself For Having Doubts
You are young, but even if you weren’t, you still owe it to yourself to look at your girlfriend and then ask yourself, not, do we love each other, but can we make a life together that we will both love? Because, unfortunately, loving someone does not necessarily mean you will love your life together.
Marriages don’t usually break up because people don’t like each other anymore. They break up because one (or both) people don’t like the life they’ve created together — it’s just not how they saw things working out for them.
You want to create a life that sustains and nourishes you, and there's nothing wrong with that. I say this because the way you phrase it, “How can I just trust in the fact that i'm in love without obsessing all the time about how it might end?” implies that love should be enough, and that applying rational thought is somehow a move against love.
I think not. With people we care about, we are constantly bouncing back and forth between the emotional and the pragmatic — and both are necessary to make it last. “Love should be enough” is often a shaming tactic we use against ourselves when we want more than what is on hand, or that we may use as a way of avoiding confrontation with scary things in a relationship.
The key question for you is this: Are you and your girlfriend able to discuss these concerns? If not, that raises a giant, flapping red flag. Unless the relationship is very new, the ability to express doubt and concern without freaking the other person out is super important.
And if you can talk about these things, here's your next move...
confront your true long-term concerns about the relationship
After you’ve given it careful thought, create a list of two or three simple, pragmatic questions that get to the underlying issues. These questions are meant to be about how you want to live life, not about how you feel about each other. They could include things like the following:
As far as the way you or I imagine our lives turning out:
Where do we want to live?
How much money would make us feel safe?
How do we feel about each other’s level of ambition (too much, too little)?
These are just examples, formulate the questions in your own way.
ask your partner the same questions you just asked yourself
Look for an opportunity to discuss these questions with your partner, preferably at a time when you feel loving and comfortable together. It could be on a long drive, over dinner, or hanging out on a Sunday. These are good times to have such a conversation (as opposed to when you’re in a fight or feeling distant).
You could introduce your wish to talk about these questions by saying something like, “I was reading an article about relationships that suggested answering questions together. It may be a silly idea, I don’t know. I thought it could be interesting. Want to give it a try?” (In other words, blame me.)
Go over the questions with a “get to know you better” type of vibe. One of three things will happen.
1. You will have the same answers.
2. You will have different answers.
3. You will be unable to answer.
Here is the critical point: All three of those outcomes are fine. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean you should break up. Rather than looking for perfect harmony, what you’re looking for is the ability to talk things over.
ask yourself one more question
Do I feel more loving toward her, more confused, or both?
If it's more loving, hang in there and see where it goes.
If it's more confused, pause. I’m not saying you should break up, but do keep a focus on these concerns.
If it's both, then you’re going to have to find a way to sit with uncertainty. Uncertainty is not a good basis for decision making. The way to tolerate uncertainty is to simply feel it. What does it feel like to you to be uncertain? Where does it live in your body? Does it make your heart race, your stomach clench, your eyes glaze over?
Chances are, it's all of the above. Here's how to deal.
learn to sit with uncertainty
Rather than trying to dispel uncertainty, try to simply be with this feeling until it begins to subside on its own. (It will.) Each time your mind jumps back to the story of why you feel this way — She’s going to kill my dreams! All the financial pressure will be on me! — come back to the feeling. Soften toward it, which means allow it to be present. Again, it will subside at some point and when it does, simply let go. When it comes back, repeat. (Meditation really helps with this.)
Leaning in to our uncomfortable feelings is a gesture of power. It also provides a much better foundation for making careful decisions, rather than taking reflexive action. Embracing what you feel settles your mind and at some point, know that the right decision will become obvious.
In the meantime, trust your mind, trust love, and be very, very kind to yourself and to her.