Love should be mundane: here’s what I know about long-term relationships
For years, we scoffed at ‘date night’. The idea that you’d need to synthetically jump-start your relationship through cocktails at a chain restaurant, or photographing yourselves in the living room like you’re off to a latter-day leaver’s disco. How basic. How mundane.
Then we established our new tradition. On Fridays we meet for a pint and a half at our favourite local, followed by dinner at the reliable Vietnamese place up the street.
We order the exact same thing every time. We chew over the week along with spring rolls and bun cha; dissecting each workaday detail and piece of office politics at length and leisure. We save up thoughts and observations especially for the occasion. We troubleshoot each other’s tedious dilemmas and tell each other about funny people we’ve seen on the bus. Then we get a tub of ice cream on the way home, to eat in bed. “Hashtag FridayNightDateNight!” we chorus at each other. It was ironic at first. Now it’s not.
We’ve been together for ten years, which means we knew each other before we were boring. Before the aubergine emoji was a dinner suggestion. Before “let’s heat things up” meant via the app that switches our boiler on from the bus.
Once upon a time, we used to go clubbing, fight in kebab shops and snog in the hallway at house parties. In cobwebbed corners of my memory there are spontaneous presents, scratchy underwear, self-conscious playlists and neurotic deep-dives into his social media feeds. A little swooning; lots of anxious sucking-in of my real personality. For a long time I was scared he might not text back, and that would be it — another man-boy, melted away into the ether.
And for a longer time, I feared the mundanity. Every couple goes on this ego trip: believing their love alone is special and magic enough to dodge the bludgers of Cupid’s humdrum cousin. When we moved in together, a friend pulled me aside. “Just so you know, you will have an argument about leaving socks on the floor,” she said, eyes wide like one who has seen the other side of the looking glass. Not likely, I thought, even as I nodded. Not such a tired cliché. Not us!
Six months later I was repeating the sock line to other couples who were about to move in together, an evangelist for the Church of Newly Cohabiting Truth. The mundanity will get you too, whether you like it or not.
Six years later, I can preach whole sermons on the real meaning of intimacy. “The first time you realise you can recognise their fart in a crowd,” I will tell people, “you know it’s love.”
I love the mundanity now. But I’ll be honest, it took a while to make peace with the absence of swoon. After all, I am of a generation raised on the promise of the grand gesture. Hugh Grant in the rain. Paul Rudd on the stairs. Colin Firth telling me how ardently he admires and loves me, then jumping into a lake. John Cusack standing under my window with a boombox. Billy Crystal running through the streets on New Year’s Eve. Heath Ledger dancing with a marching band. Rachel Green, getting off the plane. Colin Firth again, getting on one.
He came to meet me at the airport once, five weeks into our relationship. It was Heathrow, the sexiest airport. It’s harder to be in love at Luton.
It was 9am, which meant he’d got up at dawn, and he’d even made a little sign with my name on it. I put it in a special box for safe-keeping.
These days he doesn’t come to the airport (Harry Bright was right), but he is eternally frustrated at my inability to hold on to the pole when we’re standing on a crowded bus together, which is often. He holds on to me instead. A different kind of safe-keeping.
Hollywood’s biggest crime isn’t peddling us great, sweeping ideas of romance — it’s never showing us what comes after the happy ever after. We so rarely see the low-key cosy parts, the muddling-through parts, the parts where they put your side of the electric blanket on at your favourite setting without needing to be asked, or the parts where they’re annoyed you left their marigolds in the sink again. The time he sat with me for seven hours in A&E, calm and stoical, keeping me distracted with a game we made up that involves naming as many different chocolate bars as we can, in alphabetical order. Then crisps. Then 20th century TV sitcoms.
All the missed trains, broken boilers and other minor domestic dramas that become a shared repertoire of anecdotes, finessed through years and years of retelling. We rarely see those parts because they’re not good plot devices, but they’re nice life devices all the same.
Hollywood tells us they’re supposed to say “I love you” during the Big Important Moments, but he says it at the stupidest and smallest. I think I prefer it.
Compared to the hold-your-breath hopefulness of the previous decade, love in my thirties feels like a slow exhale. These days, we might be basic and mundane but we’re entirely, unquestionably ourselves. Every sock on the floor, every spoonful of Häagen-Dazs between the sheets. Even while I apologise for the soggy marigolds, I am laughing at how brilliant and hilarious it is to have another person’s life so utterly and completely entwined with mine that you care, actually care, about their washing-up glove storage preferences. Most of the time.
Sometimes you don’t realise you’ve slipped into that cosy relationship mundanity because, like the air on a still spring day, you don’t feel it. Just a vague sense that somewhere along the way, something has settled and something else has lifted. But it isn’t the absence of fun, it’s the absence of fear. Fear of the unknown, the unknowable and the unpredictable.
Because there is nothing more romantic, I realise now, than the rock-solid certainty that they will always text back. Even if it’s just about dinner.
This was originally written for Guardian Labs in 2019.