It’s Okay: To Choose a Short‑Term Relationship Over a Stable One
In It’s Okay, we defend our most embarrassing, unpopular opinions.
Feelings almost always defy a rigid definition, but we surely seem to have some requirements for them to qualify as “true” and “love.” They must be present for a considerable period of time — what the benchmark is on this, and whether it spans nine months or nineteen, no one quite knows with certainty. The relationship must also check off some milestones from the list — you’re not in a real relationship yet if you haven’t been on a vacation yet, for instance. It must have an aura of stability, too, and that only comes with time.
A good relationship goes a long, steady way– because if love is real, it is also, by definition, ethereal and eternal. And thus our default in dating, relationships, and even situation–ships, perhaps, is to equate meaningful love with long-term evidence.
Arguably, why we desire long-term relationships is also because of how unambiguously their benefits reside in our collective imaginations. High-school sweethearts and childhood romances are adored, not only because they hold something sweet and savory, but also because they carry the stamp of stability and time. You can only truly know and love someone if you spend time with them, the wisdom goes.
But, longevity isn’t the ultimate metric of a genuine relationship. Short-term relationships have legitimate reasons to hold value too; there is a magic to them that pop culture and the social understanding around love and passion don’t do justice to.
Short-term relationships aren’t always the byproduct of a “failed relationship.” The break-up is seen as a veil of sadness that may have interrupted a love story in the making. But, short-term relationships can be as easily borne out of choice and agency. It is indeed possible for people to rationally know from the start if there is a future or not. And when there is no future, there are still virtues to being in a relationship with an expiry date.
Here’s a debunking to start with: the connection that people feel at the start of a short-term relationship is quite similar to the emotions felt early on in a long-term one, according to a 2018 study. Among the 800 participants researchers surveyed, romantic interest increased in both forms of relationships for almost everyone — irrespective of how long the relationship lasted. There is a plateau eventually, but what the study tells us is that the meaning found in any relationship isn’t naturally linked to the time spent together.
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For one, the fatal flaw in any companionship is the equation that comes in the form of droll inertia: people tend to begin to take each other for granted, and slowly but surely deprioritize each other. This is not the gospel truth, but a relatable pattern that is very easy to fall into. Being with someone for a few weeks or months is, at least, an attempt to subvert this unconscious behavior. The heady magic of the initial phase in a relationship could remain as is — a thing of beauty that doesn’t have to be butchered by time, impatience, and exhaustion. It takes away some pressure from the whole dynamic: a relationship is less of an obligation where people commit to finding and learning about each other. It is an adventure in its own right.
Two, short-term relationships, or what some experts are also calling “sequential relationships,” come with the promise of growth. There is wisdom in exploring different people in different contexts, as long as there remains healthy communication and clarity. A four-month relationship can teach people incredibly important things, perhaps sometimes more than a relationship that has run the course for years. “You’ll be able to discern the qualities of who you are with more quickly because you will be comfortable with open, direct questions that come from a genuine interest rather than the need for self-serving comfort,” wrote clinical psychologist Randi Gunther.
These short-term dating stories come with the promise of learning — something about the other, something about the self.
Moreover, short-term relationships offer room for boundaries — and also, a kindness more tender than many others. Each fight and disagreement is contextualized in the larger scheme of things; instead of letting arguments simmer for days, the instinct may be to just resolve and move forward, because time is a limited currency. The complex circuit of resentment, jealousy, and guilt may untangle itself, because a short-term relationship forces our attention to the present, offering a perspective both novel and familiar. As the old chestnut and its many variations go, just because something didn’t last forever, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth having it in the first place.
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We can let some differences lie dormant because a relationship isn’t always about the future — it’s about the people and their presents too. Moreover, sequential dating can make one more discerning about red flags and toxic behavior in general. Longer, stable relationships carry an almost stubborn persistence — as if the longevity of a relationship is more sacrosanct and important than the people in it. People protect the idea of affection more than the affection itself, and that can go very wrong very quickly.
Rightfully, then, short-term relationships can be a new and underappreciated way to love. Stability is a lovely aspiration that only comes with trust, mutual comfort, and respect; it’s about two people who desire to grow together. If love is a boat bobbing over treacherous seas, the idea is to move to calmer waters and settle down. And while that’s surely lovely, not everyone has the emotional bandwidth to commit. They may just want to explore the local wind waves or long ocean swells; it may be rocky and messy but it can foster an understanding of love that knows more than one language.
People love and grow fond of each other in wondrous ways, and short-term relationships are a reflection of that joyous chaos.
If stability is for two people, short-term dating can be about the individual only. And that deserves to be a palatable choice, for this may be an education in finding oneself.
People are also increasingly trying to understand their emotions and their attachment styles; they are forming ideas of how they love and even want to be loved. The temporality of dating, then, can be a way to move forward while staying still.