“If we were 28, I’d ask you to marry me right now,” an ex-boyfriend told me once, my face in his hands outside the group house where we shared a mattress on the floor. The face-in-hands move: Tired cliché. Marriage: A bureaucratic nightmare. Twenty-eight: The age the average American man gets married for the first time.
We were a couple of broke, cynical feminists whose relationship bore no resemblance to a Nicholas Sparks joint. But we were both emotionally drained from a fight, about what I don’t remember. Standing there on the stoop, it felt oddly comforting to anchor our unconventional relationship into some grander romantic context, even if just for a moment.
When real-world relationships get confusing, we grasp for the closest romantic trope that helps everything make sense: Love at First Sight. Always a Bridesmaid. The One That Got Away. The Love of My Life. At best, these stories make imperfect fits for our big, complicated lives. At worst, they force us into ways of thinking that make us miserable and set us up for failure. That's why it's so important for us to build alternative romantic narratives for ourselves, ones that conform more closely to our lives as we want to live them. We need our own tropes to fall back on, our own arcs to lean on in times of stress and doubt and confusion.
I'm 26 now—the age the average American woman marries for the first time. And though society's stock romantic narratives and rigid gender roles may seem like childish stories you grow out of with age and experience, I've noticed that the older I get, the more they attempt to exert their influence over my life. My peers and I—out of the dorm room but not yet into a mortgage—have found ourselves squirming under the slow suck of societal pressure, which encourages us all to settle down and get married already, or else acquire our dozen cats and our witching license and shut ourselves in forever.
Intellectually, we know that these narratives can be sexist, boring, and alienating. But emotionally, they can be clarifying, simple, and temporarily satisfying. Even if we do not lean so heavily on these stories, we end up befriending and rooming with and falling in love with people who do. We set out trying to live an unconventional life, then wake up to realize that despite our best intentions, we have filed into place. One friend told me with horror how she had begun scoping out the ring fingers of attractive men. Another expressed confusion over whether, "as a man," he's expected to make the first move in a relationship—he wants to approach the situation as equals, but fears that his crush might be playing off an outdated gender rulebook. “I am going to get married,” my best college friend wrote when she announced her engagement last year. “I am eating my words for all the times that I said that I would never get married.”
I’ve had enough experience with the traditional romantic narrative to know that the husband, kids, and picket fence scenario is not for me. But I still carry around this confusing emotional investment in these big romantic stories that have seemingly little application to how I actually want to live my life. Then, I read a study about what happens to your brain when you get drunk, and everything started to make a lot more sense. The study found that the higher a person’s blood alcohol level, the more conservative their thinking became—it didn't matter whether the drinker identified as liberal or conservative while sober. When drunk, their thought processes became streamlined—they reached for the simpler narrative, not the nuanced one. Related research has found that liberals start to think more like conservatives at times when they're particularly distracted or overwhelmed. The same can be said for our romantic thinking. These big universal tropes catch hold of us when we get stressed, tired, sick, older.
Only recently have I come to understand that the real-life feeling of “romance” is really just the tension and release that occurs when a series of seemingly unrelated events suddenly all make sense. Think of a relationship like a long flip book—yours might be filled with years of makeouts and petty fights and amazing records and intellectual arguments and good sex and bad sex and takeout Thai curries and Netflix Instant screenings. But as time passes, our memory has a tendency to dog-ear select pages, so that when we flip through again we only see certain story lines. If we're not careful, our flip book will be flagged into one of those big romantic narratives. It will encourage us to dwell on the private moments that conform most closely with public ideas about how a relationship should be, and where it should go.
After time, these narratives don’t just shape our perception of our memories after the fact—they start to affect us on the memory creation level. We begin to interpret an ambiguous text in the particular way that stokes our worst anxieties. We delete a Gchat record that's too painful to remember. We buy a diamond to try to silence the competing narratives once and for all.
One of my favorite ways to escape this trap is to take a narrative that society has framed as deviant or unacceptable or sad and flip it on its head to occupy it with my own meaning. This can take many forms. GOOD executive editor Ann Friedman, who has no interest in getting married, has proposed reframing the term “spinster”: “I want to reclaim it, like ‘bitch,’ until it carries the same connotation as ‘bachelor’: free, fun, independent, loving life.” For long-term singles like us, constructing jokes around the #foreveralone hashtag helps recode activities society sees as lonely and pathetic to ones we see as lonely and awesome. I often listen to a sad song that has a lyric that goes like this: “I know you feel how I do, too, and even though I’m close to you, I can’t be what you need, ‘cause you’re just as lost as me." He sings it like it’s a sad thing, but I think it’s really romantic—one of my life goals is to be close to other people, but not to get tied down to them, and that song helps me remember that.
The upside of the relationship flip book is that it contains endless little details that do not fit into the big stories society has written around it. We can use that scrap material to build new arcs. (Modern love pro tip: Keep every Gchat on the record—a targeted search is all it takes to get some new perspective on old memories). I have a peculiar insight into this romantic narrative construction process—I edit a column called Dealbreakers in which writers dig into the reason that they broke off a previous relationship. Often, these exes don't know how to begin to spin a complex relationship into a story—one with a beginning, end, climax, theme, and emotional thread. They broke up for a lot of reasons. Life is complicated.
In those moments, I encourage them to settle on one framework for filtering that relationship—something as literal as He's A Crack Addict or as loose as She Needed Me—then shake out the flip book onto the page to see what sticks. At first, that framework might seem limiting, but it actually forces you to think deeply in a direction you haven't before. In the process, these writers take their memories, mix them up and turn them over. They go back and tear out more pages from the back of the book that they forgot even existed. Then, they rearrange them into their own personal narrative that still builds to that satisfying emotional release.
This doesn't make for a full and complete account of a relationship—nobody wants to read about all those curries you ingested together. But it’s a way of making sense of the world on your own terms, and it's one that can be remixed over and over again to create as many stories as speak to you. It's important for us to tell these stories, to write them down and pass them on or just file them away in the back of our minds. Those standard romantic tropes provide us with so many big finishes—Get Married, Break Up, Delete your Grindr, Roll Credits. I think it's endlessly more satisfying to always look for those little endings, the personal insights that help you make sense of your own developing story.
Here's one of mine: Six months after my ex and I broke up, I came down with the flu. Tired and weak, I could feel my own personal narrative receding—I missed my boyfriend, someone who would crawl into my bed with me and confirm the temperature of my forehead and bring me something hot to drink. Then I remembered how I used to grow a little too comfortable in that sickness, to almost push for the fights that would force a kind of clarity into my romantic life. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and I don’t need to beat myself down anymore to remember what I want.