This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
It was a huge, liberating flash of insight for me. I’d been automatically linking “romantic love” with “cohabiting,” and I didn’t have to… and I could therefore pursue the one even though I was highly dubious about the other. Neat.
And the first words out of my therapist’s mouth?
“Or you could change your mind about that!”
Talk about a buzz-kill. The idea that you could have a serious love relationship without sharing an address? The idea that romance and sex didn’t have to follow an invisible checklist of progress? The idea that a romantic relationship could be a series of separate choices instead of a giant package deal? She wasn’t interested in discussing that.
I want to talk about how people make decisions about sex and relationships. Specifically, I want to talk about the unsettling frequency with which major decisions about sex and relationships get made by default.
Decisions that get made because that’s what’s next. Because that’s what everyone else is doing. Because that’s just what’s done. (Or not done.)
When you first have sex. When you make the decision about whether the relationship is serious. When you move in together. When you merge your finances. When you get married. When you have kids. Think about it. How much variety is there in your circle about when these things happen? And when people do step outside the standard timetable, how do other people react to it?
In my experience, there’s surprisingly little variety in the timetable. And when people step outside of it, they’re often met with surprise and bafflement at best, disapproval at worst. If you move faster than the timetable (having sex on the first date, say), you’re “rushing things”; if you move slower than the timetable, you’re “dragging your feet.”
But for us, moving in together was too big a decision to make just so we could cross it off the checklist. For us, moving in together was something to do because, well, we wanted to do it and felt it was right for us… not because That’s What Comes Next.
Especially since, for the first several years of our relationship, the question of moving in together wasn’t a “When?” but a “Whether?”
See, default decisions about sex and relationships don’t just get made based on the timetable. Default decisions aren’t just made about “When?” They get made about “Whether?” as well.
And there’s more. What kind of sex to have. How often to have sex. Whether to have a joint checking account. (We recently had friends act as though we were space aliens because we still have our own checking accounts. Yes, we have a joint account, for bills and other joint expenses… but we each have our own money as well. And that works really well for us.) Whether to travel together, or sleep together. (Couples who take separate vacations or sleep in separate beds apparently get as much bafflement/ concern/ flak as couples who don’t move in together.)
Whether to be monogamous. That’s a huge one. The assumption that of course a long-term couple is going to be monogamous is a deep and pervasive one. Most people don’t even discuss it.
Even whether to get into a serious relationship at all. I was single for twelve years before Ingrid and I fell in love. And for about ten of those twelve years, my singlehood was a conscious, positive choice. And if you think you’ll be met with disapproval and baffled concern if you don’t move in with your sweetie, imagine the disapproval and baffled concern you get when you tell people you’re not interested in having a sweetie, period.
But here’s the thing.
These decisions? They’re too big — and too personal — to be making by default.
Sex and relationships should be like a walk in the woods, where you pick the trails that suit your interest and stamina. They should be like a trip to the market, where you buy the vegetables that you need for your recipe. They should not be like an express train — where the track is laid out ahead of time, and everyone has to get off at the same stops.
P.S. Just for the record: I do understand that, in some specific sets of circumstances, there is a genuine timetable, not a made-up social one. I understand that people who want kids — especially women who want kids — can’t wait indefinitely. My point is that this in itself should be a set of decisions that’s made consciously (“I very much want kids, I’d rather not be a single parent, therefore I need to keep an eye on my biological clock when I’m considering my romantic life”), instead of being made by default (“Kids should happen by the time I’m 35, so I should be married no later than 30, so now that I’m 27 I should stop dating people who aren’t serious about marriage”).