How to Make a Long-Term Relationship Work in Your Twenties
Some handy tips for dealing with the issues every long-termer will go through.
Photo: Fred Clifton
There are exactly two types of long-term relationship. The first: where you're best friends who can make each other orgasm without it getting weird. And the second: where you both know that all you're really doing is watching each other die. Their jokes no longer make you laugh; their alcohol dependency isn't as fun as it used to be; their personality, it turns out, is extremely bad. You are the couple sitting opposite one another in Bella Italia: clinically silent, the reason the child watching you from across the room will one day develop serious commitment issues.
The good thing, though, is that 42 percent of marriages end in divorce. So the reasoning goes that plenty of couples – and I'm lumping together spouses and long-termers here – may well get a do-over. And that's heartwarming, because while the long-term relationship (LTR) might be testing – there are only so many times you can witness someone get truly red-in-the-face angry with subpar Domino's service and not scream at them to just fucking chill out – it can also be a very rewarding thing.
But how does one ensure this is the case? How, when long-termers are shaped by years of varied interactions unique to you and whoever you're in an LTR with, can one catch-all guide apply to your deeply personal relationship?
Read on and you'll find out.
The thing about arguments is that they're mostly completely stupid and can be solved incredibly easily. Unless your partner* has "done a Judas" and betrayed you – or got really into drowning cats, or something – the vast majority of squabbles can be solved by stopping and thinking: 'Am I being a dick right now?' Because the answer will almost always be: yes.
The problem with being an adult is that, if you're in the wrong and you're being chastised for being in the wrong, you will lash out, because that scenario reminds you of being a child. But you're not a child any more, are you? You're a big bad grown-up. You have a contactless card. You could order 17 drinks, smoke 17 fags and set off 17 fireworks indoors all at once if you wanted to. But don't let that pride get in the way of common sense: if you know you're being a dick, just apologise and that'll be the end of it. No more slammed doors, no more tears, no more having to maintain the act that you're annoyed when really all you want to do is just be normal again, because being pissed off is actually incredibly boring.
*We used "partner" there to keep it gender/orientation-neutral, but be aware that, depending on how deep in you are, you may soon be using that word earnestly to describe the other person in your relationship :(
The "spark" is a very nebulous concept. What does it mean? Is it just a thing in Match.com adverts? If you feel like the "spark" is missing, it's probably because you're easing into a new phase of your relationship; there's only so long you can keep sneaking off during parties to do hand stuff in cupboards, or flirt all day on GChat, or get shitfaced on £11 cocktails every time you see each other. At some point, the hangovers will begin to seriously affect your cognitive function, and your work will start to suffer, and an emergency HR meeting will be called, and your employer will trawl your chat history and find literally hundreds of examples of you using the phrase: "All I want to do tonight is snuggle and bone." Which is just an excruciating thing to go through for everyone involved.
Part of being in a long-termer is becoming basically co-dependent. Alongside the joy you feel upon seeing your partner, you'll also start to notice a creeping sense of fear and sadness that one day they might not be there any more, the spark mellowing gradually into a humming log fire. This is no bad thing; do not let it freak you out – remain chill and it means you've successfully transitioned into what's arguably a much more meaningful stage of your relationship.
If you crave unfamiliarity and novelty to the point of holding a destructive obsession with preserving the "spark", then grab the Clearasil and studded belt my friend, because you are quite clearly a child.
Sometimes you'll get those horribly intense self-reflective mind-fogs that make you examine everything about your life and question, among other things, if your relationship is actually a good idea. That's normal. If you don't like yourself all the time, how can you be expected to always like somebody who still regularly Dutch ovens you four years into a relationship?
But again: don't freak out. Quietly wait until it passes, or until you can think rationally about what you really want, and don't do anything dumb in the meantime.
What are you, five years old? Can't resist the choccy bar resting on the kitchen top? Grow up. The grass is always greener, and a sloppy drunken kiss is not worth the overwhelming, all-pervading sense of guilt you'll feel for the weeks, months and years after.
The thing with single people is you'll sometimes look at them with longing and envy: don't they seem so happy in their aloneness? Aren't they just so much less tied down than you? They can stay up at the party an extra six hours doing keys. They can do that short-notice trip to Amsterdam with the lads. They can go on Tinder and have casual sex at any moment. They can spend an entire weekend growing stagnant in their own dirt, watching 100 consecutive episodes of Geordie Shore and rolling thin little blunts. Nobody is going to make them go to the shops. Nobody is going to tell them to shower and have brunch.
However: single people are largely unhappy and broken. That's why they complain about being single all the time. A universally-acknowledged truth: everyone else seems happy, but isn't. That's why we all inherently hate our lives so much. But finding a good partner to hate your life with alleviates that feeling somewhat. Remember that.
Get a partner, get a partner's mates: that's the rule. Partner's mates always want to make a big thing about going to a pub and having a big group roast. Partner's mates always want to "quiz you" on "whether you're good enough for them". Frequently, partner's mates are bad twats and shitheads. Partner's mates make you call into question everything you thought you know about your partner.
But everyone has bad mates, don't they? Everyone has some posh girl called Jocasta who they hate but lives quite nearby. Everyone has some lad from halls who still talks about halls all the time and how good halls was. This is why you have to get on with your other half's mates, even if they're a shower of total cunts: nobody is perfect, and even fewer people have good taste.
It's important to avoid pressuring each other into integrating, unless that's what you both want. You don't have to show them off at the pub like a surgery scar. Leave them to their own devices. Unless you're some gross, controlling maniac who constantly tracks their movements on Find My Friends, their independence is probably what drew you to them in the first place, right?
Most people enjoy the company of at least one of their parents once they drag themselves out of the emotional mire of puberty, so they'll make a big deal about you meeting them.
You might have to meet a quiet stern dad who judges you exclusively on your posture and how well you can drink a pint of mild. You may have to meet a zany mum who seems exceptionally sweet until you accidentally put your feet on some forbidden sofa and she starts crying. The relationship between a partner's parents and yourself is often an odd one: fraught, high stakes, underpinned by a sort of begrudging search for likeable traits about one another, grey areas of small talk to revert to over silent lunches.
But generally, don't worry too much about "meeting the parents" – they're just old people like you see in the butcher or on a train platform. Main tip: don't be shy. Try to strike up a bit of PG banter to get everything going – the last thing they want is to think their child is entering into a 20-year pact with a flavourless oat cake.
Unless you're one of those self-conscious couples who schedule in regular joyless sex sessions solely to keep the numbers up, you're going to end up having less sex deep into an LTR than you did when you started. It's an inevitability, but it's not necessarily an issue: if the sex is still good, there's a bit of variation going on and everyone's still regularly #climaxing, then there's surely nothing wrong with slowing things down a bit.
Equally, if the sex starts to get a little stale, here's a quick fix: talk about it. Say, "I want to do weirder shit," or, "I want you to press my anus with your thumb a bit," or, "It would be great if we could try some foot stuff." By the time your sex is becoming tiresome, you'll most likely have been together long enough that you should be able to talk openly and honestly about whatever's on your mind.
This is something people generally stress over way too much. You know how you've basically spent every night for the past two years sleeping over, while also paying rent on your own flat? You know how you really enjoy waking up together on a Saturday and splitting the cost of a Deliveroo so you don't feel so repulsive for spending £23.80 on two juices and a breakfast pizza? You know how mindlessly dull texting hourly updates to each other about what you're watching on TV can be?
Easy remedy: move in with each other.
Yes, you'll probably have some space issues and a few little quandaries to work out, but when the timing's right, suck it up and make it work: if you intend to stay with this person for the long haul, moving in is part and parcel.
THE INVISIBLE TIMELINE
We've had it drilled into our subconscious that, although it's totally fine to live your own way, you're a total idiot if you do because there are magic moves that need to be played at the correct time if you don't want to fuck up your one shot at happiness. Thank everything we've grown up with our entire lives for that: comedies starring relatable horny single people who are HOPELESS at relationships, passive-aggressive think-pieces telling us the "10 Reasons You Should Be Single In Your Twenties"; and, if you have a womb, the constant reminder that your fertility and time are inversely proportional.
And so an invisible timeline works its way into your subconscious: in your late teens you have a serious relationship that teaches you how to do sex; you fuck everything you can in your early-twenties; and then, between around 26 to 28, you meet the love of your life because you still want to look fit when you get married and be young enough to not have to splurge your pitiful disposable income on IVF.
The more you allow the invisible timeline to drift into your consciousness unchallenged, the more you will question everything. Don't get into this neurotic spiral. If you're happy in a relationship in your early twenties, who gives a fuck? If things don't work out, you can always slut around in your thirties or forties or fifties. In fact, by staying in an LTR in your twenties, you're doing just about the most subversive thing you could do.
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