Posted on October 24th, 2019
We begin many different ways: introduced by friends; meeting on Match or Bumble; with a sudden, more personal turn in a conversation with a colleague or neighbor or friend of friends; with the instantaneous experience of love at first sight; or entirely by accident.
None of these beginnings is in itself a relationship. Relationship usually starts with a mutual acknowledgement, an up-front discussion, and some kind of commitment. People can be involved with each other for a long time before they decide to move forward into a relationship.
A relationship starts with a question. The relationship question has many variations, ranging from “Are we in a relationship?” all the way to the ultimate: “Will you marry me?” Sometimes the question is belatedly “Aren’t we already in a relationship?” Once the relationship question is asked, the lives of the couple (“Are we a couple?”) are changed, often radically.
What drives us toward openly declaring a relationship is not only our desire but awareness of our growing connection with each other. By the time we come to asking the relationship question, we are experiencing an unusual emotional vulnerability. We’re becoming involved, our feelings are more engaged, yet we have not declared where we stand with each other. This creates a challenging tension within and between us. As much as any positive vision we have of a relationship, it is this emotional tension which drives us toward asking the relationship question.
The relationship question, in any form, asks whether we are jointly ready to recognize some commitment and responsibility to each other. The simple response of “Yes” dramatically relieves the building tension.
This simplicity doesn’t last for long. Declaring a relationship soon leads to the need to define how the relationship will work. Two visions of relationship—often longstanding and deeply held—have to be merged. Even between two people who largely agree on the form of the relationship, there are bound to be differences. It could be that he feels asking the question ends his emotional responsibility, while she sees this as the start of a joint emotional journey. Or she wants to move in together, while he’s wary of moving too quickly. How questions like these are resolved will define much of the couple’s life together.
It is important to work through these questions as much as possible at the start, to become clear with each other about the boundaries and expectations of the relationship. Not because any of this is legally binding, but because it’s emotionally binding. Ambiguity at the beginning can show up as great, even unresolvable differences later.
Relationship is not a stock item, readymade for use. Each couple has to do the work to figure out their own relationship. Even traditional wedding vows are held in individual ways, defining a unique relationship.
While we are far from knowing everything about each other—and ourselves—at the beginning of a relationship, becoming as clear as we can then will reduce the difficulties we will run into later.
Posted in Marriage and Couples