“Expectations are the fungal rot of a marriage.” Just Married, one of my favorite movies. After a honeymoon that was nothing short of a Jerry Springer episode, Ashton Cutcher’s character announces that he “had the perfect relationship, which was ruined by marriage.” In every relationship, we reach certain milestones if we’re lucky. But does reaching these milestones alter the way we interact with one another and the way in which we perceive our relationships? Can these milestones actually ruin our relationships?
The first, and arguably most awkward milestone is reaching the point where “it” becomes official; you become girlfriend and boyfriend, agreeing to not touch anyone else’s “goodies” but each other’s. This is, in fact, where I am in my current relationship. The first time I heard CC call me his girlfriend, I almost tripped, literally. We were walking in Central Park and it just fell out of his mouth like he had been saying it all the time. I wondered if he had, just not to me. I haven’t been dating anyone else since CC and I first started spending a significant amount of time together but how he felt wasn’t so clear. And you can’t ask. It’s one of the most uncomfortable moments in a relationship as far as I’m concerned. How are you supposed to approach it? Do we ask if they’re seeing anyone else? Are we supposed to just blurt it out like CC did? Should there be some long, drawn out and uncomfortable conversation about where the relationship is going? I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t want to stab themselves in their own ears just to avoid that conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to establish that title with CC, I just wasn’t expecting to hear it out of nowhere. What if I didn’t consider him my boyfriend? We often assume exclusivity because we’re spending a lot of time with one another or because we’ve met the other person’s family but is it really that simple? That certainly would’ve been an awkward train ride home if I hadn’t felt we were at the same place in our relationship.
So, the relationship is finally established and things are humming along. What’s next? The dreaded “L” word. I feel safe in saying that there is no other word in the English language that is both yearned for and feared so much at the same time. And, let’s be honest, no one wants to be the one to say it first. There are times in our relationships where we are ready to burst from holding those words inside; we want to climb up on top of our apartments and shout it out for the world to hear. Yet, something inside of us holds us back. Because there is no coming back from the “L” word. Once you say it, it’s out there and if there isn’t an “I love you” return? Fungal rot. And even if we’re lucky enough to hear those three beautiful words echoed back to us (or said to us first since we’re stubborn), doesn’t it change everything?
Agreeing to exclusivity and saying it out loud, not to mention dropping the “L” word, it does something to our psyches. Maybe it’s just women, I’ve never been a man so I can’t speak for their species, but I do know that there’s a little switch that flips in the female brain, no matter how hard we try to keep it in check. We suddenly expect more from our significant other. We start expecting together-time all weekend and permission for certain things, like girls night or boys night out. My gay baby-daddy recently asked me to be his date to a wedding this summer and, true to form, I felt like I had to run it by CC. Logically, I know that I don’t need anyone’s permission to do the things that make me happy and, had CC had a problem with it, I would still probably go. Especially because my baby daddy is…gay. There is no reason to have any mistrust here, it’s not like I’m going to be shacking up with him at the end of the night. And still, I felt almost guilty. Because now, I’m not just “getting to know” someone, now I have a “boyfriend.” But what’s really changed? We’re still the same two people who were getting to know each other and, well, we still are. Isn’t that what makes relationships exciting? That you’re constantly learning about one another? Why should a title change anything about who we are?
Of course, some of the biggest milestones lie far down the road of a relationship, like moving in together, getting married, having children. So many friends, shortly into a new marriage, have said to me that getting married changes everything. Some of the strongest relationships I have ever seen have struggled and almost ended after getting married. Something about that certainty in a relationship can change people. We fall into this trap where we become less appreciative of one another. When relationships are new, we quick clean up around our homes before the other person comes over, even if that means throwing our dirty (or clean) laundry into the closet from its home on the floor. We do our makeup every day, we spend HOURS getting ready for dates. In the beginning of relationships there are flowers and surprise gifts and unexpected sexy-times. And then, we get comfortable. Especially after marriage. We’ve already made it to the finish line – we’ve won. So why keep working towards it?
Relationships are tricky. There are twists and turns, unexpected potholes and detours. We may find ourselves getting frustrated, feeling overwhelmed or even helpless at times. But like anything else in life, the harder we work, the greater the rewards. Expectations truly may be the “fungal rot” of any relationship, married or not. We can’t just expect that our significant other knows how we feel about them or that they’re going to be happy with us even after the romance fades away. Keeping the romance alive is the key to keeping a relationship exciting after all.
My grandparents have been married for over fifty years. And my grandfather still buys flowers for my grandmother every week. For over fifty years. And my grandmother? She’s Italian, she shows her love through food. And she stands over her stove every Sunday from the wee hours of the morning and cooks a huge pot of gravy and meat for her man. They’re silly with each other and still affectionate with one another after all of those years. They do things with each other even if one of them isn’t really into it, just to make the other happy. And they find their own time as well, like my grandmother going to a Broadway play with “the girls”. They are exactly what I hope to have when I’m 80.
There is a difference between being comfortable with each other and getting comfortable. Getting comfortable is a death sentence. We have to keep surprising each other; with flowers, kisses, long embraces out of nowhere and dancing in the kitchen while making dinner. We should never lose that spark that existed in that “honeymoon” period and we should never let a title or a piece of paper change who we are. We reach these relationship milestones because of who we were before them; because we connected as those people. If we allow saying “I love you” or exchanging rings to change us, it changes our relationship, too and not often in a good way. “You never see the hard does in a photo album but those are the ones that get us from one happy snapshot to the next.” And the harder we work? The more happy snap shots we have in the end.
“Don’t go changing, to try and please me You never let me down before Don’t imagine you’re too familiar And I don’t see you anymore I wouldn’t leave you in times of trouble We never could have come this far I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times I’ll take you just the way you are” Just the Way You Are ~ Billy Joel