Just weeks into my relationship with my now-fiancé, I noticed an underlying calm I’d not experience before. I wasn’t afraid he’d cancel plans or suddenly ghost, and I instinctively knew I didn’t have to play it cool.
Part of me was worried. I wasn’t used to this dynamic: was something wrong?
What I didn’t realise, was at the beginning of our relationships, we tend to focus on the wrong things.
It’s not our fault: it’s a cultural phenomenon. Music, films, television, books, just everything really focuses on the head-spinning infatuation stage of love; as a result, that’s what we think is important too.
At this stage, we’re consumed with attraction and dizzy with longing; the object of our attentions has set up camp in our heart and is toasting marshmallows over the fire. Because of this, we assume lasting love will follow; the more intensely we want someone, the better we imagine the relationship will be.
Unfortunately, this is a myth.
What no one teaches us to look for are the indicators of true compatibility that help a relationship thrive despite inevitable twists and turns in the road.
What no one teaches us is that to find happiness with a partner over time, one of the most important things you can do is question everything you think you know about love.
Here’s everything I wish I’d understood earlier: what experience has taught me actually counts.
A relaxed nervous system
When it comes to love, we sink to our knees at the altar of ‘butterflies’. We crave that maybe-going-to-actually-die of desire, or at least throw up a little, feeling. In part, it’s because it makes us feel alive; in part, it’s because we’ve been taught that’s what love looks like.
In fact, long-term love has shown me that butterfly feeling is elusive. Even in my best relationships, it’s skipped in and out like a teenager with a latch key. So even though early on you’re likely to be giddy, you should look to see how this plays out over time.
For long-term happiness, we need to feel safe with our partners. They should become our anchor from which we can explore life and find other sources of meaning too.
To our nervous systems, the right person will feel soothing, like a squishy hug or unlocking the door to our own home. This is so important because when we’re at ease, we can better connect with our inner child. We become playful and live in the moment. We can be truly ourselves.
What this might look like
When I first met my fiancé, I felt confident in him on a level I’d not experienced before. I felt calm and relaxed, and I couldn’t quite work out why.
Then I fell ill after only a few months of dating, and everything I’d felt proved true. He was just as patient and caring as I thought he’d be; my body knew I could trust him before my mind did.
What’s not so promising
They’re unreliable about staying in touch, and it’s unsettling. You’re always chasing because they play hard to get. You’re always nervous around them.
All of the above is an invitation to tap into your inner wisdom. Are you scared because of the ways relationships have gone wrong in the past? Or is there something unsettling about your dynamic with this particular person? Listen to your nervous system: the body knows.
A recent, groundbreaking study rated knowing your partner is committed as the biggest indicator of long-term relationship success.
I have to agree. Of course, not everyone wants their romantic relationships to end in marriage, and not everyone is suited to a lifelong relationship. That being said, most of us want some kind of commitment from the people we date—even if it’s just looking forward to future adventures. Why? Because we all want a partner who believes in us and thinks we’re worth investing in; we all need progress.
However, we also live in an increasingly on-demand culture; we want everything right now, including our perfect long-term partner down on one knee in a lavender meadow.
If a relationship isn’t a whirlwind, we’re not sure it’s the one.
This is short-sighted, particularly if we consider the percentage of marriages that end in divorce. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: long-term relationships are a tricky beast. As Susanna Abse, a psychotherapist and CEO of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, puts it: “Can [a marriage] tolerate the process of disillusionment, the facing up to limitation that all long relationships have to go through?”
That’s something that takes time and experience to work out. We all need progress, but few of us benefit from rushing.
What this might look like
About 9 months into dating my now-fiance, I wanted to “just get engaged already”; my partner confessed he wasn’t sure.
At first, I felt like he’d pressed a panic button in my brain. When I reflected, I realised it’s actually good to take things slow so long as you’re both moving in a direction you’re happy with. It takes off the pressure and ensures you know what you’re getting.
Crucially, he explained he saw a future together; he just needed more time. He suggested we check in regularly about how we were feeling, and it turned out that was all the reassurance I needed.
I use this example to illustrate progress isn’t necessarily about both being in the same place at the same time: it’s about establishing communication about the future that’s grounded in hope and makes you both feel secure.
What’s not so promising
They break into a cold sweat if you mention your future together. They don’t seem interested in you meeting their family and friends. They say things like, I live in the moment! or I don’t want to put pressure on our relationship by categorising it!
All of the above should ring alarm bells. Whether it’s because they genuinely aren’t ready to commit or they’re just too scared to leave, the effect is the same. A lack of steady progress erodes trust on both sides. It’s hard to dive in headfirst when your partner’s only dipping a toe.
The more I explore long-term relationships through writing, the more obvious it becomes that the beliefs that shaped me are false—or at least not true for everyone.
Always ask questions. Is it really a good idea to remain anxiously infatuated long-term or is that a symptom your relationship is unequal? Is it really necessary you do everything together or does autonomy keep a relationship exciting? Do you actually need a ‘perfect’ partner or is it better to adjust your own mindset for acceptance?
In this way, we can see more clearly when a good relationship does come along. Green flags sometimes look red when you’re color blind.