what should the beginning of a relationship feel like?
mixed feelings is a multi-voiced advice column. Once a month, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, filmmaker, actress, producer, and founder of Club Curran Tommy Dorfman answers: does the beginning of a relationship have to have the proverbial “spark”?
I have never been kissed before or even romantically involved with anyone. I’ve flirted some and had some crushes but it has never led to anything exciting. I have also been asked out on a date but always declined, because I didn’t like the guys who asked. But something strange happened a week ago. A male friend, with whom I have had only a surface level, platonic connection…asked me to meet with him…He’s leaving for college again and I agreed, I assumed it was just a meeting between two acquaintances.
Since we sometimes talk about books or plays, he asked if instead of a walk in the park I would enjoy watching an outdoor play. It was a play I was looking forward to seeing so I agreed.
We went to see the play and afterwards when we were walking back home, in the middle of the conversation, out of the blue, he put his arm around me and asked if it was okay. I was so shocked that I panicked and said “no” very awkwardly. And then things went back to normal.
Afterwards I told my bestie about it and she asked me why hadn’t I given him a chance. There is a teeny tiny part of me that wonders what would have happened if I had said “yes”, because as much as my feelings towards him are lukewarm at best, I have never been closer to experiencing something as romantic as I was then. On the other hand I know that I am not even remotely attracted to him and I really want my future relationship to excite me and make me feel butterflies in my stomach.
This whole situation has left me wondering what “giving someone a chance” really means and if I made the right choice. What should the beginning of a relationship feel like? Exhilarating? Or is getting boyfriend sometimes like getting best friends — you have to get through the lukewarm stage of getting to know them but not really connecting to them on a deep level? — CityBaby23
As a former slut with minimal criteria for lovers and relationships, I can only share what I’ve learned from my experiences. While I’ve had many a weekend romance, first date, one-night-stand, I’ve also had a few special long-term-relationships in my life — a whole ass marriage to be exact! — and can say from my experience that love and loving can come from many different places.
There’s a saying that goes “work begets work,” so I have to assume kissing begets kissing, romance begets romance, and stifling or running away from those broken-winged butterflies in your belly probably begets distancing you from a potential partner. But that only matters if that’s what you’re looking for.
The unknown can be terrifying. Once you rip the bandaid off, you’ll likely find it’s not so scary out there. And so much of kissing, dating, fucking, etc. is about learning what you don’t like as much as what you do. Communication is where it’s at, and if you do in fact kiss the boy and it’s giving nothing, you politely say afterwards (or in a text): “That was nice but I think we should just be friends!” Or, maybe it’ll open up a new portal in your psyche and you’ll want more. But the fact remains — you don’t know until you know. From the sound of this last interaction and your dismissal of his advance, it could go one of two ways, still. I think your friendship could still bear romantic fruit. But if your instinct is to get the fuck away from him, that’s an important message your body is telling you that shouldn’t be ignored.
perform a gut check
Looking internally can help you understand your outward reactions a little better, says Dr. Sophie Mort, a clinical psychologist, Sunday Times Bestselling Author of (Un)stuck, and Mental Health Expert at Headspace. “Certain attachment styles can make [feeling] ‘the spark’ complicated,” she says. While being careful not to oversimplify your emotional responses, she says that “people who are avoidantly attached may notice their brain does everything in its power to point out the reasons to not be attracted to another person. This is a self-protection strategy developed early in life, and rarely a conscious choice.” Likewise for those that have an anxious attachment style, Dr. Mort says that self-sabotage can often become the name of the game, overanalyzing things to the point of seeing rejection or incompatibility where it may not actually be. “Getting clear on how our past and [attachment] style affects each of us and how to manage those specific things can be life-changing,” she says.
I wonder, though, if your first kiss shouldn’t be with someone you enjoy hanging out with socially. Sometimes the pressure of what could become of a friendship when things veer romantic can be overwhelming. I might suggest some practice dates, trying FEELD or Hinge — whatever you fancy — and seeing what comes up. I also know a lot of successful relationships that started as acquaintanceships, with no indication that it would evolve from there, but a shift happened or the simulation glitched in such a manner that they suddenly wanted something more.
Mort notes that we should look more often at our romantic connections the way we do our friendships. “[Both friendships and romantic relationships] deserve work and exploration…Many of our friendships didn’t just arrive overnight, but built up over time…Some of the people we are friends with now we didn’t like when we first met.” After a date where the intention is romantic, she recommends asking more helpful questions than “Did I feel a spark?” like “Did I have fun?” and “Would I like to do this again?” Shared values, interests, and mutual respect can be the strongest foundational building blocks for a meaningful connection, she says.
but how does it feel?
The beginning of a relationship or romance can feel like throwing up. Sometimes it’s a heaviness that makes it hard to breathe or move. Sometimes it’s a specific lightness, like you could float up into space and disappear. It can also feel like the soft hum of the unknown, because, who knows what’s to come? For me, it’s been all of these things and more with myriad partners. Shared excitement and interests and obsessive, intrusive thoughts about whoever I’m entertaining in the moment seep into my work and personal life, often disrupting my sleep.
I happen to be the kind of person that has a powerful ache to see/touch/speak to my romantic interest in the beginning of any meaningful, long-term relationship I’ve been in. The feeling of falling in love or lust is like a switch being turned on — I’m consumed with fantasies of a life with this person, and a mountain of curiosities about them. Some call this the “honeymoon phase”. If these sensations linger for longer than a month, I know there’s some foundation to build upon. It’s important to note, however, that this period can also blind you from major red flags in partners — so I always counsel people to be discerning and look at the facts of your future compatibility.
This, however, is not code. You’re going to have to learn from your own experiences what the beginning of a relationship feels like. There’s a lot of “give them a chance” talk out there, but as Dr. Mort says, listen to your gut instincts, too. “If you decide to give someone a chance, it doesn’t mean keep giving them that chance forever.”
Love, lust, romance, kissing, sex — all of it is like jazz. The notes might appear the same on the page for all of us, but ultimately the interpretation is personal. We will rearrange them in unpredictable ways.