The frantic, queasy, butterflies-in-the-stomach ritual of falling madly in love is overrated, says Sali Hughes. What comes next is more important.
The married couples of online community Reddit were asked last week what has changed about their relationships since the wedding. Not much, they said for the most part. Some reported that sex had dipped a little, that date nights had become less frequent. But things were broadly the same as before the nuptials. I’m not sure why this was such a surprise to the papers who covered the story. The seismic shift in a relationship happens way before the wedding. Pre-kids, the biggest change occurs when the falling-in-love stage is done and dusted. And, from my perspective, it can’t come soon enough.
It’s perhaps a damning admission, but I don’t much enjoy the frantic, queasy, butterflies-in-the-stomach ritual of falling madly in love. Living out of an overnight bag, seeing much less of your friends, pretending not to hate the phone as you send your three-hundredth text that week and prepare to read undue meaning into his delayed reply. It feels less like a joy than a period of mental instability. And it’s so, so exhausting.
There’s the having to obsessively hide your potentially unappealing side, artfully arranging your hair in bed, pretending not to wear make-up (while painstakingly applying it before every date) or ever need a poo, and feigning enthusiasm for his interests or cooking, like some dream girl who actually enjoys attending a freezing cold football match on Boxing Day, or who likes the taste of rubbery beef broiled in lemon juice (now we’ve split, allow me to tell you, guys, that I hated both). And, throughout it all, the fear that it may, at some point, end – that the spell will be broken.
As in love and genuinely happy as I am with my partner, it’s also an undeniable truth that, at 41, I simply cannot be bothered to start again with someone new. I will take the occasional sexy-times dry patch, the watching TV in silence, the weeks without a dinner-for-two or bunch of flowers, in return for knowing that while he’s downstairs watching Match Of The Day with the dog, I can potter peacefully about to the sound of a good podcast. He knows how I like my tea. I know which of his sweatshirts will shrink. We have one another’s back. I no longer think nothing he does could ever annoy me. I know that his annoying characteristics are the most bearably compatible with mine. I’m content to know that someone else is feeling all the gut-churning excitement so I don’t have to.
“Even a deeply loving long-term relationship cannot compete, or ever hope to replicate the dizzying euphoria and mad sex on tap with someone lapping up one’s life story for the first time”
I get that new love can be fun, too – the constant rumping, posh dinners and days sitting in loved-up filth and his old T-shirt. But, very often, they’re wasted on your lost appetite, you have no more clean clothes, no shower gel that doesn’t smell like aftershave and no proper moisturiser to soothe your snogging rash. Your vagina is sore and his shower is like being spat on from a great height. And yet you must be together at all times, protected from the real world, seeing how wonderful, funny, sexy and special you are through someone else’s eyes.
But, instead of the blind panic over a day without sex (has he gone off me? What have I done wrong?), I now love having the option of drinking tea in bed, laughing like drains at the day’s events. Gone, for the most part, are the two hours of foreplay, but what remains are 15 minutes of solid maintenance-shagging by two people who know exactly what they’re doing and how to get it done to everyone’s satisfaction before the start of Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets. Naturally, there are purple patches, where things are more frequent and more intimate than usual. When we can sneak off for a film and a steak and not talk about work for a couple of hours, but they have a different quality to dating. I know what he’ll order before he does, and that the electric blanket will barely have warmed through when we hurry home afterwards.
Where endless articles on the excitement of the new see drudgery, “giving up” and “making no effort” in long-term relationships and marriage, I see a lack of pressure, an extreme level of comfort and a safe space from the bullshit of the outside world. It’s OK not to have shaved legs every day, or to wallow in my hangover with a face like an old slipper fished out of a skip. It’s perfectly fine to eat my dinner off my lap in front of the telly, be no one but myself with a man I know like the back of my hand, with no great fear that one day he’ll find me out. I see continued effort as vital, but where it really matters – kindness, physical intimacy, respect and open gratitude.
And, while I can see that falling for someone can be a delicious drug, to become addicted to the process is untenable and, ultimately, unhealthy. It’s why affairs happen and why they kill marriages, even when the wronged party is able to forgive the deceit and infidelity. Even a deeply loving long-term relationship cannot compete, or ever hope to replicate the dizzying euphoria and mad sex on tap with someone lapping up one’s life story for the first time. Marriage is the legal herbal high to a new relationship’s half ounce of skunk. And, while it’s normal to occasionally miss the new-love buzz, would we ever want to swap, to get back out there and start again? I’ll pass. The beginning of a relationship is so often the end of the fairytale or Hollywood movie, but real happiness lies not in the ephemeral, but in the long game – a largely uneventful, quotidian existence, where lows are as inevitable as highs, but where, some mornings, one glances over the paper at the back of his neck as he descales the kettle and, momentarily, is right back where it all started.