Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
I’ve been dating my girlfriend for three years and we live together. We both have full-time jobs and extracurricular activities that take up much of our evenings and weekends—she’s getting her PhD and I’m writing and producing plays. Everyone tells me that we should set aside a date night, because love requires effort, etc. etc. By no means do I see myself as a love sloth, but my partner and I are really busy, and more often than not we forgo date night to cuddle on the couch. Are we realistic or destined to fail?
Concerned from Cambridge
Dear Concerned from Cambridge:
So many people tell you that love is supposed to be unrealistically wonderful. On your 450th date you’re supposed to feel the same rush of excitement as you did on your third date. After you have four children you’re supposed to go on date nights once a week. You’re supposed to create and receive constant, unending, incredibly detailed and planned romantic gestures. Your love is supposed to be amazing and perfect all of the time.
When you start dating someone, when you first fall in love with them, they excite you. They make your heart race and blood move to the surface of your skin. Your pupils dilate so you can drink all of them in. Your brain is bathed in a potent bath of chemicals: adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, which are the exact same chemicals that are released during a cocaine high. You feel amazing because you are high, you are drugged, and you want it to keep going. Your love enters the room and your stomach flips. You think about them all of the time. You don’t sleep because you just want to stay awake and stare at the other person. Life is beautiful and perfect now that you found each other.
But then time goes on and, like nicotine and cocaine and all good things that go bad, you can’t sustain that initial level of excitement. Your body doesn’t want to. Your body wants normal, so eventually love becomes normal. And the person you love transitions from a stimulant to a relaxant. You see your love and muscles let go, your breathing slows, and new chemicals take over: oxytocin and vasopressin. When you’re together, you’re calm. And calm bitches love to sit on the couch and watch movies.
But some people miss the initial passion. They want that first, fierce high again and again and again. So they sate their cravings by continually starting new relationships with new people, or by putting their current relationship in jeopardy so they can feel that exquisite relief when it’s saved.
Friday night you’re feeling itchy and bored so you pick a fight with your spouse. During the fight you have the opportunity to deescalate but instead you decide to bring up that one time your partner had dinner with her ex-girlfriend without telling you first so you both get totally emotionally overcharged and have a yell-filled, plate-smashing, super horrific evening. You sleep in separate rooms, and spend the next day not speaking and silently seething. And then, one of you breaks. He buys you flowers. She says she’s sorry. And then you’re kissing, groping, in a heap on the kitchen floor just going at it. By Saturday night you’re a glow—you’re so in love! It was all a silly misunderstanding that will reoccur whenever you’re bored.
Here’s an opinion that’s not usually stated because it doesn’t sell anyone anything: Incredibly passionate romance is not sustainable. Passion is passion because it’s rare. If it happens all of the time, if it’s your normal state, then it’s, at best, a full-time job and, at worst, a mental disorder. When you’re in the throes of passion you don’t have time for anything else.
I don’t want to turn to my relationship to provide drama in my life. I want my relationship to be the oasis that I can run to to escape the craziness of the rest of the world. I want my lover’s touch to relax me. I want to snuggle and cuddle and be in it for the long haul. I miss the stomach-flips and the delicious waiting of the first days of our romance, but I don’t miss the agony of wondering if he’s going to call. I don’t miss the fear that it’s all been a ruse and he’s going to dump me at any moment. I like the assurance of being with someone long-term. I like knowing that neither of us are going anywhere.
But then we enter your situation: long-term love achieved, yet concern growing. How do you sustain this? Should you be doing more? Snuggling on the couch is amazing, but it leaves you worried that maybe you’re taking your love for granted. I call this The Sweatpants Paradox. When you’re at home, on the couch, in sweatpants, you are incredibly comfortable yet filled with anxiety that you’re missing out on more exciting opportunities. But then, when you’re out at dinner, or a concert, or any sexy amazing Instagram-worthy event, you’d rather be home in sweatpants.
One month after I gave birth to our first child, my husband and I went on a date because we wanted to make sure that we stayed connected during the insanity of living with a newborn. My mother watched the baby and we went out for sushi. The hostess showed us to our table and indicated that I could sit in any of the four available seats. I stood in the middle of the dining room and started crying because I was so tired I couldn’t decide where to sit. My husband helped me pick a seat, we ordered, and ate sushi in mostly silence because we didn’t want to talk about the baby but we couldn’t think of anything to talk about that wasn’t the baby. I cried about three more times during the evening and we were home by 9pm. It wasn’t really the right moment for a date night.
Date night is code for trying—everyone is saying “you need to go on a date night” because they’re all really saying, “you have to try.” You don’t want your relaxed state to become so relaxed that you end up taking your love for granted. You want to try. As your love progresses, there will be times in life when trying will be more necessary than it is now. Because as crazy as life with full time jobs + school + artistic pursuits is, there are stages of life that can be even crazier. Times when a family member falls ill, or someone loses their job, or someone is sick for a while, or someone decides to have children.
There are times when just sitting next to each other on the couch won’t be enough, because in that sitting there will be no connecting. There will be a memory of connection but your current state will be exhaustion. There will be a time when you will be so used to seeing each other, living with each other, being together, that you’ll stop seeing each other. And that’s when you need to go on a date.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.