This essay was written for the Carnival of Aces, which is this month themed on “relationship stages”.
There are strong cultural norms regarding the proper trajectory of a romantic relationship. In my mind, they start with initiation: one person asks the other person out. The couple has a few dates, and then they “go steady”, whatever that means. Eventually, they meet each other’s parents, they start living together, they get engaged, and get married.
Since these are cultural norms, you’d expect them to be everywhere. You’d expect to find lots of popular articles describing them as the way “all” relationships work. But when I recently searched “relationship stages”, I found something different.
For instance, these two articles describe the five stages as “Romance”, “Power struggle”, “Stability”, “Commitment”, and “Co-creation”. Another article describes “Attraction”, “Infatuation”, “Enlightenment”, and “Commitment”. A third article lists nine stages, including “Infatuation”, “Moulding”, “Doubting”, and “Complete trust”. I could go on, but at this point I decided it was mostly bullshit.
Let’s put aside how terrible these relationship stages sound. (Does every relationship seriously need a “power struggle”?) I want to talk about the bigger distinction between these articles and my expectations. It is not merely that we put the relationship stages in a different order, but that we are operating under entirely different definitions of “relationship stages”. When I first reflected on relationship stages, I thought about the mechanical steps–what does the couple do? But these articles instead use relationship stages to describe an emotional trajectory–how does the couple feel?
Perhaps the reason I focus on the mechanical stages of a relationship is because those are the ones I actually understand. Take dating. At its most basic, dating is time that people spend together with the intention of getting to know each other. It’s difficult to deny the utility of dating in a long-term relationship. But how are we supposed to feel about dating?
As a gray-romantic ace, I’m bound to find dating confusing. I don’t experience crushes. That confounds expectations. That’s a problem.
But if only it were that simple! The bigger problem is I don’t even know what expectations I’m confounding, or when. There are multiple conflicting narratives about when crushes are supposed to occur relative to dating. In many romantic stories, a person develops a crush, and eventually they come to admit it to themselves and to their crush. This would imply that by the time they’re dating, they’re already in the middle of their infatuation stage. On the other hand, lots of people have first dates without strong expectations that they’ll lead to second dates. Also, blind dates are a thing (how I met my boyfriend, and how my parents met each other).
Without the personal experience to go by, I had little basis to sort the narrative fact from fiction. And I had little basis to guess the feelings of my dates. Most people won’t say outright how they feel, you know?
Given my confusion about dating, it bothers me when people act as if there is only one consistent set of expectations about relationships. Even critics will act like there’s just one set of expectations, all the better to reject them as too narrow. In reality, there are so many conflicting expectations that they are incoherent.