When people obligatorily ask, “How long have you two been together?” whenever my boyfriend happens to come up in a conversation, I make my response anything but nonchalant. “Five years,” I typically say, and allow myself a proud smile. Because today, it is something to be proud of, and it’s sometimes something that my audience envies me for. “Wow!” They say. “Five years? You might as well just get married!” And I usually kind of chuckle to myself quietly and shut my mouth.
Because what scares me is that they’re serious.
Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love my boyfriend. We’ve been best friends since we were twelve and have had the invaluable opportunity of growing up alongside each other. I forced him to try out for my drama camp’s production of High School Musical in 2009 (can you say Troy and Gabriella?), he tried and failed miserably to teach me the witchcraft that is prealgebra, and I summoned the courage to kiss him under the spring sky one night when I was fifteen. He has been there from the awkward days of puberty to the adolescent angst of my junior operator’s license to now, as I try to find my footing in this incredibly complex and terrifying world that we live in. He supports me. He loves me. He occasionally buys me chocolate after I have a long day at nursing school.
But would I say I feel prepared to marry him?
I hope you can understand that that’s a rhetorical question.
They call us the Instant Gratification Generation – us “millennials,” the children of the questionably kosher 80s and 90s – a population ever used to the wonder of pressing a button and being rewarded immediately. Naturally, I have spent the majority of my young and rebellious life fighting this principle tooth and nail, but upon further analysis, I can’t help but agree with the presumptuous old men in grey suits who are granted the honor of naming intangibles such as these.
I find this most evident in the mixed responses I receive in response to my long-term, happy, and successful relationship. Yes, I constantly get the awestruck gaze and emphatic coos and comparisons – “You guys are like Cory and Topanga!!!!!!!” – but I’ve learned that when people really sit down and think about it, they reject every single thing about it.
And again, they’re serious. And again, it scares me.
This is typically when I get a lecture of some sort, and 99% of the time it’s from somebody my age. “Don’t you want to LIVE UP your TWENTIES? How could you POSSIBLY settle down?” they wonder fervently, panic rising in their chests and constricting their tracheas. I can practically smell the fear they radiate from every pore, terrified for the disaster that must be my young adult sex life. How could I know my boyfriend is what I want if he’s all that I’ve had?
What if the perfect man is out there waiting for me, and I’m just settling for what I know and love????????
Well that’s just it, isn’t it? He’s what I know and love.
My generation gets tired of the old and familiar – and quickly.
My iPhone 5 works perfectly fine and it’s done me no wrong, but I absolutely need the iPhone 6, because it’s that much better. What if the iPhone 6 is a life changing endeavor that I’ll never know if I just play it safe with this soon-to-be-obsolete $500 piece of circuitry and plastic? We’re constantly searching for the next best thing, wanting to grasp it before it could possibly slip through our fingers or be a missed opportunity.
This is something I can appreciate, because it’s what makes us so motivated, independent, and power-hungry. Yes, we are used to getting what we want, when we want it. So when we don’t? Talk about frustration.
In school, I’ve learned that the autonomic nervous system – the system responsible for regulation of all the involuntary things the human body does – is split up into two parts. One is the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” reaction. Blood flows to the core and allows us to do exactly that – relax. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response: blood pumps to the extremities and heart rate skyrockets, preparing us to either stand our ground or flee if we must.
So this is the dilemma, then; whether to settle or search, fight or fly.
I see couples get engaged after six months of even knowing each other, I watch marriages struggle as they attempt to learn the stranger they sleep next to each night. I watch as people I graduated with – people I ate sandbox sand with in the second grade – get married and have children and start families that they have no intention of seeing through the difficult times. In clinical, I help 14-year-old mothers deliver babies while the men they think they loved play Flappy Bird and order takeout on their Galaxies. Meanwhile, my boyfriend and I watch YouTube videos of ducklings for three hours at a time.
In the exact opposite sense, I watch as my friends at college almost refuse to settle, claiming that nothing can make them happy, that nobody out there is good anymore, and that they’re solely in it for the sex and rock and roll. They reject perfectly wonderful people for the sheer excitement of being able to. They refuse to see relationships through the end, instead travelling from hookup to hookup like bumblebees pollinating a rosebush. “I’m living up my twenties,” they say, and toss BuzzFeed articles at me with taglines like “94 ½ Reasons to Stay Single Until You’re 45.”
I’m all for being a strong, independent woman, but there’s a point where we need to draw the line. This is the generation of the sympathetic nervous system – but we need to learn to digest a little more.
That is exactly the double edged sword. The excitement of moving from one to the next, the high that we get from never choosing or coping or processing; or the excitement of immediately settling down, immediately getting that diamond and buying that white dress.
Our generation needs to take more time. It seems as though the generations before us have high expectations. “You’re the future,” my dad so often says to me, and it makes me want to vomit everywhere. We are constantly expected to go, go, go, do the next thing, graduate school and move on to the next school, get the next degree, get the white picket fence, marry, kids, grandkids, cure cancer, pilot a one-man mission to Venus, this, that, everything… until we’ve gotten there, and, upon looking back, can’t quite remember how we did.
Love today is as it always will be – passionate, true, tender, sweet, goofy, fun. It’s just few and far between because we can’t seem to wait long enough to see that it’s truly there.
What those so involved with the immediate reward and the rushing forward into the great beyond don’t seem to recognize is that once you find love – once you allow yourself to hang on long enough to establish it, to tend to it like a gentle flame – you will wish you had fallen in love with them when you were fourteen years old. You will understand that you’re not wasting any part of your life, be it your twenties, your thirties, or your nineties; you’re simply subjecting yourself to happiness that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I have not settled in my choice. He has fought long and hard and proven himself worthy.
So I implore my peers, the Instant Gratification Generation, to open yourself to the idea that perhaps love isn’t something found in a single moment of eye contact as you’re mid-keg stand at a frat party, but it certainly could be the apple-picking date you went on six months later.
That it’s okay to let yourself be vulnerable and to want companionship, as there is nothing wrong with dancing through life with a partner beside you. Most importantly, though, to understand that love isn’t about the way it makes you appear as an individual (either powerfully independent in the sense that you refuse companionship or painfully loyal in that you’re engaged after one month of courtship); it’s about the way it makes you feel about somebody else.
In the end, it could not matter less that anyone ever thought that they were better than me because they rushed to or refused to settle down. Yes, I probably will marry my high school sweetheart someday, because he is the man who knows my soul. Rest and digest.