Talking About the Future with Your Significant Other (Without Ruining Everything)

Perfectly reasonable humans turn into walking rom-com tropes when it comes to the future of their relationships.
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Let's just get this out of the way: This post will not tell you how to talk about the future of your relationship without ruining everything. What it will do, however, is walk you through a few ways I have almost ruined everything and why I continue to insist on almost ruining everything when I talk about the future with my long-term boyfriend, Josh.

People go bonkers about this. Perfectly reasonable humans turn into walking rom-com tropes when it comes to the future of their relationships. The non-married, long-term couples I know tend to fall on a spectrum:

At one extreme, there are those who are obsessed with their future plans. They have timelines. They have rings and baby names and curtains and grave plots picked out. They have built their Tunnel of Love and they are just so excited to live in it forever you guys and tell you all about it... whether you like it or not.

At the other end of the spectrum are the couples that turn into mob witnesses when asked about their future plans. Are they thinking of getting married? They can't recall. Do they want kids? No comment. They haven't thought about it. They're playing it by ear. They're seeing where things go. They're perfectly happy right now, and that's good enough for them, alright, Mom and Dad?! Jesus...

And where does my relationship fall on this spectrum?

I live in a Tunnel of Love with a mob witness.

I've always been a planner. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I've always been a dreamer. My idle mind is constantly concocting elaborate fantasies about all the things I really want to -- or even just think in passing it might be cool to -- do with my life. I fantasize about having a beautiful apartment. I fantasize about winning a Tony. I fantasize about getting married and having kids. I fantasize about being on Chopped. I fantasize about traveling and working abroad. I fantasize about quitting jobs dramatically and telling off bosses and stupid coworkers. I am very rarely, if ever, thinking about tonight or tomorrow. Or even next month. I tend to be thinking one-three years in advance most of the time. That's my default mind-wandering horizon.

My boyfriend Josh is the opposite. Concrete plans for the weekend elude him, let alone plans for going home for Christmas, getting our own place next year, the possibility of living anywhere other than New York or having a family ever. It's not right now, so it's not taking up space in his brain. Dinner? Yeah, we can talk about dinner.

I envy him in a lot of ways. This kind of ever-presence is a brand of Zen I am incapable of achieving. He can be Here and Now. That's a powerful paradigm, and one that probably grants him a good deal more mental peace than I have. Because while I'm scheming and planning so far in the future that I cannot possibly anticipate the outcome, I am also worrying and stressing and gnashing-of-teething about all the uncertainty-- the uncertainty I have created. In most cases, it's not helpful. But it does modify how I conduct myself in the present.

For example, knowing we are both theater artists (read: chronically impoverished) in different capacities, I try to cultivate additional revenue streams outside of theater. I am acutely conscious of how much more money I'm making than the year before and how much I can save in anticipation of our next security deposit or to start a Roth IRA or to buy health insurance. Right now, we're getting by, which means two things: Josh isn't stressing because we're actually getting by, and I am stressing because we're only getting by! Same reality, different reactions.

Over the years, my attempts to engage Josh in conversations about our future have mostly been lessons of what not to do. Don't assume we're on the same page. Don't assume we're not on the same page. Don't expect him to initiate a conversation, but give him a chance to have a conversation before jumping down his throat. I've gone into a tailspin more than a few times in my paranoia that we must not actually be as happy as we seem because we can't have functional conversations about when we might (hypothetically) want to get married(?) someday. We've spent long, frustrating hours talking about how we talk about the future. I've learned a lot about how to talk to him to find out how he really feels, and he's learned a lot about what I need to hear him share to avoid existential meltdown.

Knowing that he wasn't building a little Tunnel of Love felt -- and at times still feels -- so personal. He couldn't possibly be as serious about us as I am! Look at all the work I've (imagined I've) done! But over time, over late-night Skype sessions and meandering text threads and good, old fashioned hashing it out with the door closed, I came to an ah-ha moment: realizing (and reminding myself) that simply because we look at the future from different angles doesn't mean that we aren't looking at the same future.

Josh is serious -- in a language that is hard for me to understand. Same reality, different reactions. I've had relationships tank as we've both been busily engaged in constructing an elaborate Tunnel of Love... only to find that our relationship couldn't fill the vast space we'd carved out for our life together. We came up short of our blueprints. Having two architects does not automatically ensure success.

No, he doesn't daydream on the subway the way I do. He doesn't have many full-term ideas about what the future looks like. But he's sure that it's with me, and that's the most important plan of all.

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