Q: If I don’t know after four years, does that mean my boyfriend isn’t “the one”? I ask because we’re planning to move in together next summer, and I feel like I should be sure that I want to spend the rest of my life with him. I always hear, “When you know, you know,” so I’m wondering if I don’t know yet, does that mean I never will? I’m 27, and while I’m comfortable being single at this point, I don’t want to figure out three to five years from now that he isn’t my person for life. That scares me!
I don’t want to feel like I’m settling but I also don’t know if it’s normal to feel a little unsure. I can absolutely see spending the rest of my life with him, but in a way, I also assume I’d be able to find someone else. (I definitely don’t believe there’s only one perfect person for everyone.) I guess my question boils down to: Do you always “know,” or is it normal to have some uncertainty? And if you should be sure, at what point in a relationship should you call it quits if you aren’t?
A: To answer the big question you have, yes, it’s incredibly normal to feel uncertain, to harbor lingering doubts. The truth is, you cannot know how long a relationship lasts until it’s over, which might be when one of you dies! I want to gently suggest that the length of a relationship is not what makes it good or bad, real or false, love or a poor approximation. There is no knowing that someone is going to be “the one,” the right choice forever. The question isn’t, “Will this person always make me happy?” but rather, “Is this a relationship I want to build?”
There’s a misconception that most of us unconsciously hold about relationships. It’s perhaps the most pervasive myth out there when it comes to long-term love, and it’s the idea that a relationship is actually a predetermined set of life events that a specific potential partner is selling, and we choose to buy it or not.
In reality, relationships aren’t given to you fully formed; you make them together. You build your relationship with someone, your compatibility with them, brick by painstaking brick. It’s like a house you and your partner build that you never actually complete, never get to fully live in. You just keep building it, every single day, through your words and your actions, the things you overlook, and the things you blow up about. It’s a little Sisyphus-ian, really. (The silver lining here is that if Camus is to be believed, Sisyphus is happy.)
I’m not suggesting that you can change any person into a great partner, or that you can change people at all, or that that’s the goal. I’m just reminding you that what you have with your partner is created by you two — you have control!
There’s a joke in the book Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun where she asks her mother, “How do you stay married?” and her mother answers, “You don’t get divorced.” It’s a trite joke, sure, but there’s some truth to it, too. The way to stay together is… you just do it. So if you’re worried about leaving your partner in a few years, one option would be to simply not. I know I’m massively oversimplifying things! My reductionism is off the charts here.
Your real fear is one of two things. One, that things will somehow be so bad that you’ll want to leave, which frankly seems unlikely (although certainly possible) if they haven’t been bad up until this point. Or two, and I think this is the root of the root, that things will never be so f*cking good that you will feel certain that you picked correctly. And if things aren’t That Good, shouldn’t you just leave now?
My vote, honestly? Stay. Don’t leave. Now, I am distinctly not of the belief that long-term love is a hard slog where you can’t stand to be around your partner, but it’s somehow valuable because… you did it! You made a choice and never changed your mind and now you and your partner of 47 years sleep in separate bedrooms and haven’t had sex in two decades, which is somehow an achievement because you Stuck It Out.
Let me be clear: Those are bad outcomes. I am, however, of the belief that long-term, committed love feels a lot more like sitting in a comfortable armchair than riding a roller coaster. It’s a lot more like putting on a great pair of socks than it is like going to a dance party. Obviously, there are times when that’s a little sad. I wish love were a little more like the movies sometimes, but there’s a reason rom-coms end after people get together. It’s kind of boring! Not every day. Some days are hot; some days feel like falling in love again.
Every negative train of thought in your letter is posed as a future hypothetical. The questions you ask are, “What if things get bad? What if I become bored or dissatisfied?” Not that you are currently, which I think is really telling. I believe if you were to start feeling very unhappy you would know.
Is there a guarantee those things won’t happen with your partner in a few years? No. But right now you’re giving me absolutely zero reasons to predict that it will. It’s always possible that you and your partner — whether that’s your current boyfriend or someone else — change and grow in ways that mean you two no longer fit together. It’s possible that one or both of you has a massive, unforeseen life event that breaks the relationship. It’s possible you want different things out of life down the road. It’s possible that Adam Driver knocks on your door and tells you that it’s always been you and asks you to run away with him. Are any of those a reason to leave now? No.
You’re never going to get a Hogwartsian letter in the mail that tells you who The One is. You’ll never know with absolute certainty that you made the right choice. As you pointed out, there are lots of people out there who would probably build a lovely life with you. Would it be different in some really good ways with another person? Yes! Would it also be different in some really bad ways? Also yes. No matter who you choose to spend your life with, there will be some degree of wonder about what it would be like with someone else. But if you’re 95% with someone, I don’t think that’s settling.
So if you love spending time with your partner, if being with them feels good and happy and secure now, even if not Unendingly Thrilling and Wildly Exciting, but warm and loving… well, that’s pretty d*mn good. If it doesn’t feel like that, if it feels like you’re just going through the motions, then walk away. As Marianne Moore says in one of my favorite poems, “Satisfaction is a lowly thing. How pure a thing is joy.” Find happiness and stick with it when it’s hard, but not when it’s bad.
You’ll never be able to see what’s coming down the road. The great news, however, is that you have a lot of control over what you make and with whom.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com.