Who among us has never had doubts about a relationship? Who among us has not also wrestled with which doubts to take seriously, and which to sideline? What if someone told you that, despite your doubts, a relationship ought to be sturdily defensible—that you ought to be able to defend it in a court of law?
No relationship comes without its obvious detractions: the counterargument against your imaginary defense. If you’re old enough to have had a relationship, you’re old enough to have had a nagging thought about it. One of my first boyfriends was great and everything—if it weren’t for the fact that he always smelled like hot dogs. Another one seemed really into me, but he was also really into “doing donuts” in his Camaro. Here are some other assorted doubts I’ve had about boyfriends over the course of my dating life:
Smart but lacked ambition
Super good-looking but treated sex like performance art
Liked interesting films but couldn’t discuss feelings
Perfectly nice but didn’t like books
Hot, not deep
Deep, not hot
Sweet and funny but hated movies
Funny but too nice all the time
I know that maybe doubting someone who hates movies or books seems shallow, but have you ever tried to be with someone who hates movies or books? This eliminates a good quarter to a third of things you could talk about over the course of your relationship. Think of all the missed references, the absent inside jokes? Brutal. And it’s not like instead of liking books or movies they are hella into string theory instead. Nope. It’s usually bong hits (or it was, in my case).
As relationships become more serious, though, the doubts become more complex, and therefore more difficult to parse. When you’re playing house in your post-collegiate 20s, understanding the fit of your relationship becomes an exercise in ratios, preferences, pros and cons—or, sometimes, just how the thing feels, all said, day in and day out, whether you can articulate it or not.
At NYMag’s “Ask Polly” column, advice-seeker “Unsure” writes in with these data points:
27 years old
In a serious relationship with a boyfriend
Dating four years
Nice, rarely fight, lots of “mutual weirdness/oddities”
Good at spending free time together
Again with the comfort
Sounds amazing, right? Sure, if you ignore the following information:
But I find myself bouncing back and forth between blissful happiness, sure that this is it for me and stomachache-inducing stress that he isn’t what I want.
I’m a little more intellectually curious than he is, and more well-spoken. He jokes that I’m “the smart one.” I’m just a stronger personality. (Very douchebaggy thing to say, admittedly.) He has his areas, too. He’s not a doormat or a doornail. Or a plastic bag. He’s smart and witty, etc., and his tendency to not overthink plays to his benefit I’m sure. Sometimes I wonder, though, if he’s bringing enough to the table intellectually (for me). Like can’t he overthink just some things? I’ve just always considered introspection a sign of intelligence (a hugely self-serving belief!). In times of doubt I find myself comparing him to other (usually older) guys who are better conversationalists and seem to have stronger worldviews. Guys who have deeply thoughtful advice.
Of course, Unsure goes onto reiterate just how easy it all is with this boyfriend. And then she does the tortured internal acrobatics that anyone, but I suspect especially women, do when they want to reject something but can’t seem to confront it head on. They internalize it and focus instead on everything that’s wrong with them for not wanting this easy, great dude who loves her and seems good for her but can’t really put together a meaty idea. “Maybe I’m asking him to hit my every marker,” she wonders, “and maybe that’s unfair.”
I gotta say: No, someone doesn’t have to hit your every marker—this can happen, sure, but perfect is pretty rare and when it shows up, it’s usually to mock you. To quote Chris Rock in Never Scared on the topic of finding “perfect”:
Even if you meet the perfect person, it ain’t gonna be at the perfect time. You’re married, they’re single. That’s right. You’re Jewish, they’re Palestinian. You’re a Mexican, they’re a raccoon. You’re a black woman, he’s a black man.
That funny cynicism aside, I think your significant other really has to hit the markers that count. The trouble, of course, is figuring out which ones those are. At 27, I barely glimpsed such a truth. I was in an almost eight-year relationship and was about to become engaged to marry my college sweetheart, a sweet, funny guy who fits the description of this advice-seeker’s significant other to a frightening degree. I had never felt more comfortable with someone, never had a better rapport, never had more laughs, never felt more like I was with my best friend.
And yet, and yet, and yet. I was troubled over the idea of forever we seemed headed toward, because all those things made him distinctly good college boyfriend material but not necessarily a great mate for life. I’m sure I was missing some key qualities for him, and he was certainly missing some key qualities for me, in spite of our natural time-tested ease: for example, the desire to ever save any money, to travel, to wrestle over complex ideas, or worse, to have/discuss any complicated feelings about being alive.
One the one hand, I loved that about him—it sort of took me out of my own solipsism to be around someone who seemed to have it so easy in the world. On the other hand, a critical part of what I wanted with another person was to be able to explore this part of myself, my overthinky sort-it-out self, without judgment. And that was achingly absent.
And the problem with stuff like this is that you don’t know until you know. You can’t rush this kind of clarity. Polly astutely writes that, dating in her 20s, she never knew which doubts to take seriously and which to ignore either. That she convinced herself that having a huge amount of doubt and then putting up with it was what it meant to be in a relationship. (Also, who can can divulge the perfect doubt-to-no-doubt ratio that equals happiness? Nobody.)
Then, she drops this:
In my early 30s, I was dating this guy I’d committed to in spite of a vast sea of doubts swirling through my head, and I was assigned a piece about psychics for a women’s magazine. I sat down with a psychic and she looked at a photograph of my boyfriend and she asked me, “What are you doing with this guy?”
I burst into tears on the spot. That wasn’t the response of someone who was sure of her relationship. The psychic knew it. She said, “If you can’t defend your relationship in a court of law, then you shouldn’t be together.”
What does she mean exactly?
If you can’t quickly and clearly lay out WHY you should be with someone, why you’re the perfect team, why you feel grateful every day to have found that person, it’s probably a good idea to move on.
This is a fascinating concept—especially from a psychic—and as Polly mentions, probably pretty insightful, all said. But for those of you who might read this and feel that you couldn’t defend your relationship in a court of law, don’t fret. Lists of good reasons don’t mean anything if they don’t add up to enough. The supposed logic behind understanding that someone’s “objectively” right for you in every way might fall flat in your own subjectivity, which is what cants. And many relationships might not look so great on paper, but they have a kind of ineffable chemistry or workability that simply works, even if you can’t always articulate it.
I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their unexamined or inarticulable happy thing. And of course, not every relationship needs to live up to this scrutiny. But if you’re immersed in a swirl of doubts despite a list of good reasons, it’s probably a sign—and if you have no good reasons but no doubts either, that’s an important sign too. It’s your instinct that matters. And more important than all that is this: as Polly notes, if you have to ask if you’re settling, then you probably are. Or as a wise person once said: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.