This is what I wish someone would have told me about relationships when I was young

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Aurora
taiwan_prewedding71
Photo by Wild About You Photography

Society places a lot of pressure on us regarding relationships. What is and isn’t supposed to happen has changed over the years, but our culture and the media seems to make this particular relationship trope the most popular:

  • Meet a college sweetheart.
  • Date for at least four years.
  • At this point, the woman (because of course we’re all heterosexual) starts pressuring her boyfriend for a ring.
  • He drags his feet.
  • He doesn’t want to get married, but it’s what we’re supposed to do, and it’ll make his girlfriend happy.
  • Finally she changes him and makes him come around.
  • He proposes, they’re engaged for a year, have a big, white wedding, and maintain a long and monogamous marriage.
  • I’m not ragging on people who follow the essence of this formula — date for a mid-range number of years, decide to build a life together, get married, and be true to one another until they die. But what about those of us for whom this formula doesn’t quite work?

    Take me, for instance. Once I hit college age, I was very marriage-minded. When I dated someone, it was with the intention of evaluating their potential as a future spouse. However, I had this idea in my head that a) the person I dated and married was supposed to be a man (I turned out to be a late-in-life lesbian) and b) that this man would drag his feet to the altar. So it seemed totally normal to me that I had to harp about my relationship goals while all the guys I dated were less-than-enthused about my seeming “obsession” with marriage.

    I felt horrifically guilty for this and thought there was something wrong with me. I brandished my online dating profiles with tags like “I’m not looking for anything serious,” and hooked up with people in an effort to make it seem like I didn’t care about marriage. But I did. It was important to me, and I honestly wasn’t interested in “let’s just see where this goes” dating, or “we’ll date seriously for a few years and then reevaluate whether or not marriage is right for us” dating, or “casual” dating. I was interested in, “I want to see if you’ll make a good partner and parent, and if not, then it’s time for us to part ways” dating.

    Meanwhile, a lot of the people I dated were not interested in marriage whatsoever. They wanted easy access to sex, someone to confide in, and companionship — but without all those serious strings attached. They wanted someone who could conveniently provide these things and then move on, once it wasn’t easy for them anymore. But since we were young, it never occurred to either of us to communicate this.

    I assumed that I would have to keep bringing up marriage until my partner finally (begrudgingly) conceded. They assumed that all women were “marriage and baby crazy,” and that once I brought it up it should either be ignored until their needs and wants in the relationship were no longer met, or even get rid of me once it was clear they were “commitment-phobic.”

    Here’s what I wish a loving older brother or sister figure would have told us (and what I’m passing on to you young Offbeat Homies out there): there is nothing wrong with wanting a casual relationship. Not in your late teens and early twenties, and not even in your late twenties, thirties, forties… you get the idea. You can have casual relationships for as long as you want, and you never have to “settle down.” Just communicate to your partner that this is what you want, so you’re both on the same page.

    Alternately, there is nothing wrong with wanting a serious relationship that ends in marriage. You don’t necessarily have to do something as strict as the “courtship” route, but if you go into relationships evaluating your partner for their potential to create marital bliss, that’s fine. Again, communicate this to your partner and make sure your goals are on the same page.

    Having dabbled in polyamory but ultimately realizing I don’t identify as poly, I will also say that it helps to make it clear to your partner whether or not you’re interested in monogamy. There’s no rule saying you have to be, so if you're feeling something is missing in your monogamous relationship, do a little soul searching. Keep in mind that polyamory is not the answer to a desire to cheat — it requires a strong set of ethics and good communication skills. But if you think you'd be better suited to an open or polyamorous relationship, make that known.

    Society and the media tell us that relationships follow one specific, prescribed route. That’s not the case. You don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time in a relationship where your goals don’t align and you’re constantly bickering about where things are going to end up. And you don’t have to feel guilty if a potentially wonderful relationship ends quickly because it turns out one of you wants something more along the line of “friends with benefits” and the other wants to walk down the aisle in a more timely manner. You don’t have to feel bad if you call it quits because one of you is the sort that only needs one person to fill their needs and the other would prefer to keep the playing field more open, or even maintain deep, committed relationships with more than one person.

    Not everybody fits into the role that society, the media, and romantic comedies say we should when it comes to hooking up, dating, relationships, and marriage. And that’s just fine.

  1. Great points! I was lucky enough to start my college life young at an all-women's college where I was surrounded by people of every sexuality, various gender identities, and all kinds of tolerance for those things. My school had its own "rules" for dating (which basically boiled down to "be in a serious relationship with a woman by your senior year"), but honesty and communication were the big rules. Served me well there and served me well after I left.

    • Step 2 is definitely not for me, but I like the general concept: explain what you want, listen to your partner do the same, and work it out as best you can–if you can.

      Looking back after 11 years of marriage, I think that there's a lot that my wife and I never had to communicate while we were dating because we were coming in with a lot of unspoken assumptions about what healthy relationships are like. Fortunately, we happened to agree on these unspoken assumptions. It all worked out fine, but these days, it would have be necessary to directly talk about relational topics, like expectations of monogamy.

  2. "Can't keep it in your pants" does NOT equal polyamorous. It's incredibly offensive to place those two concepts together and encourage the already harmful stereotype of polyamory being an all-you-can-cheat buffet. Polyamory is one option under the umbrella of ethical nonmonogamy. Infidelity is UNethical nonmonogamy. While those who cheat on their partners *might* be, in fact, poly people trapped in a mono assumption, those who practice polyamory (or any other dynamic within ethical nonmonogamy, such as swinging) understand that it doesn't exist without honesty, communication, and consent. Infidelity is a violation of honesty, communication, and consent. Most poly people I know who lived under the pressure/assumption to be monogamous did NOT cheat on their partners, because the core of polyamory is that very firm set of ethics. We're fidelous people, you know. It's just that we're fidelous to multiple people. Suggesting to someone that the cure to "consistently cheating on their partner" is polyamory would be laughable if it wasn't so dangerous. Polyamory requires a high level of ethics, maturity, and communication skills that those who cheat on their partners do not display. In summary: please stop lumping unethical and ethical nonmonogamy together. I get that we're both nonmonogamous, but that first part – the ethics? That's kind of the most important part. Thank you.

    • Yeah, while I like most of the ideas in the rest of the text, the part about cheating also sounded very wrong to me. If someone cheats in the mono relationship, that doesn't mean they won't cheat in a poly one. Cheating has nothing to do with the number of people you're having sex with. It's about violating trust and agreements, which makes maintaining any kind of relationship a problem.

    • This was such a great point, actually, that I contacted Offbeat Home & Life's editors and had them change it. I hope the new set up accurately reflects the issue! Again, thanks so much for pointing that out.

      • Thank you for doing this! I'm a polyamorous person who had been in several monogamous relationships before beginning a poly one, and I never cheated on any of my partners. I think that for a lot of us, it's not so much the idea that one partner isn't enough for us, as it is the idea that more than one partner isn't too MANY for us. 🙂

  3. I like the way you've laid this out, and it echoes things I've discovered in my romantic life:
    "Use your words" i.e. communicate your feels/needs/thoughts to your partner(s)
    "Something doesn't have to be eternal to be meaningful" i.e. a relationship doesn't have to last 'forever' for you to have learned something and to grow as a person.
    Here's to understanding societal pressures and casting them off if they don't fit!

  4. I had (what I would now term) super-conservative views about marriage, sex, and family when I was a kid. It wasn't even coming from my parents, who aren't at all conservative and have gotten off all kinds of escalators throughout their lives. It must have been coming from the media and general environment? Also I think I valued being "normal" as a kid because I grew up in a relatively offbeat home. However, by the time I was high school age, I'd realized that I was, in fact, the type to follow a different path. Now, I think the child version of myself would be shocked by my (really very mundane) current life.

  5. The biggest lesson for me was that There is No Path. I mean, I always thought of relationships (and everything else) as a linear progression. No matter what age I dated or married or whatever, there would be set timelines and an order. It turns out, chance, opportunity, Fate, etc. jumps in and makes a big chaotic soup of life. Absolutely nothing followed the prescribed path in my life (and that's OK!), but I wouldn't have understood that as a twenty-something.

  6. I guess what I want to say is ; do what feels right and admit when you've been wrong.

    I gave the marriage thing a giant effing finger for years.
    Until I nearly died in a car accident and re-evaluated my priorities.
    I realized my whole anti-commitment thing was a way to rebel against my crazy messed up abusive yet paradoxically ultra-religious parent's marriage.

    Man, it sucks giving up your anti-conformist badge. But yeah, I ate humble pie and admitted my casual relationship of fifteen years was casual only in name. Beware of labels and plans… whether they stick to the norm, or not!

    • so THIS! I struggle with my anti-conformist leanings (rebelliousness) and I did not expect to get in a "serious" relationship ever!
      Now, that I am planning marriage, I have NO idea what to do… (haha) since I never dreamed I would even do it!
      I am so glad I am not alone….

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