Just the two of us? When being a couple becomes a hard choice

There are times when we start to consider the possible futures we have closed off

Sometimes I lie awake in the dark and fear the complacency that is the first step along that road to ruining what you have. Photograph: Getty Images

Sometimes I lie awake in the dark and fear the complacency that is the first step along that road to ruining what you have. Photograph: Getty Images

 

At some point into the mania of a new relationship, a conversation will have to be conducted. It will be awkward, but the gist of it will go like this: “So it’s the two of us then, is it?” This sentiment may be expressed through varying strains of eloquence or lack thereof, but that’s the crux of it. After that conversation it will indeed be the two of you then, or it won’t. That moment is the fulcrum of the relationship to follow. That is the instant that determines all future instances and how you will deal with them as they arise.

In her diaries, Reborn, Susan Sontag declares that “in marriage, every desire becomes a decision”. She separated from her husband, Philip, whom she had married at just 17, a few months later. She was right, but not just about marriage. From that moment when you decide with another person that it’s to be the two of us, you blot out so many possible futures in favour of one.

Seeing the skeleton

There comes a time in every long-term relationship when burning flesh has melted away to reveal the sturdy structure of an essential but less exciting skeleton, when we start to consider the possible futures we have closed off. The adrenaline of jogging on young legs through unsteady terrain gives way to a brisk walk across a flat plain hand in hand with someone you deeply care for. Sometimes, you slow one another down. They may have longer legs than you do and a wider stride. Sometimes it feels like they carry or drag you along. Sometimes you wait impatiently for them to catch up when you get an urge to pick up the pace and they can’t meet it. You have to take a middle pace together, or someone will get left behind.

This all feels less poetic when you wake yourself up in the night with a cacophonous fart only to find that other person blinking wetly at you in barely veiled distaste. Unflushed toilets. Bits of food left in the sink. Towels on the floor. These are the minor obstacles along the flat plain that can build to large resentments, quiet indications that your good opinions have become less essential to one another. These are the things that reveal you to your partner as less than they had hoped. The admiration that once reflected from the pools of their eyes hits your messy shoe pile or your bad taste in food and refracts. It is done. They see you differently now. You are merely human, and sometimes appear less than that.

More than reality

What follows is a sense of total vulnerability. They know you. They have happened upon you listening joyously to Wham! or reading Andy McNab when you told them you love Bach and Hilary Mantel. They have seen you put brown sauce on French toast and eat it. At this point, the temptation can set in. For the flightier or particularly insecure, this can happen right away. For others, it may take years or decades, but it tends to come all the same. You forget the tender gift of real acceptance that other person presents you with each day. It once seemed to float around your head like a crown of flowers, but you have become used to it. Now it streams out behind you like long hair in rushing water and you are tempted to feel something fresh again. Tempted to be seen as more than you are again.

Sometimes I lie awake in the dark and fear the complacency that is the first step along that road to ruining what you have. I am doing that tonight when he shifts and turns over on his side of the bed. I am sure I hear him mutter something in his sleep which sounds like “skunk omelette”. I fear the complacency because I value what I have. What is the admiration of a stranger compared to the love of someone who has held you in the throes of furious grief or gone to get you chips at 10pm just because you wanted some? It is nothing at all. We decide again together each morning.

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