If you’ve been in a relationship with an expiration date—a romantic situation that can come up when two people decide to explore their connection in the face of something like an upcoming move—you’ve probably daydreamed about having just a little more time with your lover. But it can be surprisingly difficult to transition from just-till-you-go to long-term-possibility when those daydreams come true.
Five months ago, when my partner told me he would rather stay with me than take the distant job opportunity that had been looming over us from the start, I was so giddy that I didn’t consider how the basic nature of our relationship was going to change. And I certainly didn’t understand how tough that transition would be. When we had a deadline, the relationship only needed to be strong enough to last until then; when we were deciding whether or not we’d ditch the deadline and forge ahead into the future, we had to judge whether the relationship had the potential to become something worth uprooting his life plans for—and, though less obviously, mine too. Now we’ve turned what we thought was a fling into something with longer-term stability; these are the things we considered when we did:
1. Think about—and share!—how your needs change if the relationship changes. If you two have gotten this far, you probably satisfy each other on a day-to-day level: you have chemistry, fun conversations, mutual respect, etc. But you might not have thought about whether your partner can fulfill month-to-month or even year-to-year needs
For instance, the first time I went to my partner’s house, the sink was full of old dishes—and the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time. He and his roommate hadn’t worked out who did which chores, and dishes were only occasionally washed. This didn’t bother me when our relationship was time-limited. Only when cohabitating became a possibility did I realize that I needed both a clean house and an equal division of housework, so my boyfriend would need to be okay with washing the dishes far more often if we were going to live together. I explained that, and he agreed—but it was something I had never thought about until then.
2. Talk about your expectations for the future. When you don’t think that you’ll be together for more than a few months, talking about the future is verboten. But when the expiration date itself expires, you can be so overjoyed that you don’t realize that you don’t want the same futures. Maybe one of you thinks that the relationship should either lead to marriage and children within a few years, or it should end, while the other one never wants to get married, but wants the relationship to last for a long time. Some differences can be resolved and some can’t; the important thing is to lay them out on the table and see if you can come to a long-term agreement that matches.
3. Look for unsustainable patterns.When a relationship has a known ending, you do things you wouldn’t be able to keep up for long periods of time. For instance, my partner and I had a habit of ignoring punctuality in favor of a few extra minutes in bed because we knew we wouldn’t have that luxury for too long. If we kept that up forever, we’d spend the rest of our lives being late; something which I wouldn’t sign off on. Whether you’re spending all your time with someone because that time is limited or not sharing things with them because they’ll just leave anyway, things have to change if you decide to stay together. This can be the hardest part of the adjustment: acknowledging that your routines will have to shift. Even if it’s just the little things you love (like those extra few minutes of cuddling in the morning).
4. Deal with breakup paranoia. When I thought my partner would be leaving in a few months, I didn’t worry about us breaking up. If he broke up with me, we wouldn’t be losing much time together. And our relationship was good enough that I couldn’t imagine dumping him.
After we decided to stay together, I realized that either we’d be together forever (and I’m a little young for that), or one of us would have to leave the other. With no upcoming move to take the pressure off, I started obsessing about when and why we’d break up. I thought I was going crazy, until a friend who’d been in my situation said she’d felt the same thing. Uncertainty is scary—until you realize that the choice is between uncertainty about a longer relationship and certainty about a shorter one.
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