Having a crush when you’re in a relationship is a bloody tricky business. It’s hard enough when you’re single. Unrequited feelings, awkward encounters, accidentally saying “I love you” when you meant to say “Did you see my email about tomorrow’s meeting?” It’s an absolute minefield.
When you’re in a relationship and you have a crush, you’re adding a whole new layer of potential pitfalls and danger. Because isn’t crushing on other people supposed to stop when you meet bae and settle down? Isn’t a crush when you’re coupled up a warning? A bad omen? A massive sign that your relationship is doomed to an imminent and terrible end? The short answer: of course not. You’re being dramatic. Have a hot lemon drink, relax, and read on.
Fancying other people isn’t always cause for alarm. It may even be something to celebrate, to lean into and enjoy. For couples considering polyamory or 'opening up' the relationship, crushes can act as a gentle middle ground for exploration. “Before we opened our relationship we used to talk about crushes all the time. It was jokey and fun, but realising how comfortable and open we could be helped us have the more difficult conversations,” said Kyle, 29. Crushes can also be a way for bisexual or pansexual people to feel connected to that aspect of their identity when they’re in a relationship.
Fancying other people isn’t always cause for alarm
Refinery29 reader Katy says: “I love my boyfriend and see a future, but I do feel strange when people assume I’m straight now just because I’m in a 'heterosexual' relationship. My crushes on women don’t feel like a betrayal – I’d never act on them – but it is nice to remind myself of who I am outside the relationship.” Crushes manifest differently in different people. For Holly, 25, a crush can be problematic. “I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder when I was 22. My relationships until then had been unstable and obsessive. A lot of what I took to be mutual infatuation was imagined and over-exaggerated, and when the relationship (inevitably) fell apart, I fell apart too.” Now she’s with someone who understands her illness there are fewer triggers, and bad days are dealt with as a team. “But sometimes I still get obsessive about other people, and I attach a significance to them that they just don’t deserve, and their approval and attention begins to matter more than my partner’s.”
But what even is a crush? And how is it different from having actual feelings for someone outside of your relationship? Very often a crush has little to do with the subject itself. We see the crush as an idealised version of themself. They’re unattainable, mysterious – two qualities which so easily give way to sexiness when left unchecked.
With most crushes, the attraction is based solely on intrigue. In reality, like everyone on Earth, your crush contains truly unsexy multitudes. Maybe they don’t tip on dates. Maybe they’re selfish in bed. Maybe they litter and don’t believe in evolution. Whatever it is, they probably wouldn’t make a good match for you IRL and reminding yourself of this can be necessary if your imagination tends to get away from you. Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that celebrity crushes are a totally different kettle of fish from crushes on people you (and your partner) actually know. Lots of couples even have a “freebie list” of celebrities that they’re allowed to shag if the opportunity ever arises. Isabella, who happily jokes with her partner about all of her crushes, told me: “To be honest, I’d probably be proud of him if he ever got a chance with Hayley Williams.”
Far from being confessional and deeply shameful, talking and teasing one another about our crushes can be fun and supportive in many relationships. But what about when we’re not able to joke? Even when we can recognise a crush to be harmless, it doesn’t mean it won’t hurt to find out our partner is all swoony and googly-eyed about somebody who isn’t us.
Of more than 2,400 women who responded to my poll on Twitter, 61% said that although they wouldn’t consider their partner having a crush an actual 'betrayal' they would still feel upset about it. We can be totally rational and outwardly relaxed, and still feel like our heart is being trodden on by a heavy-footed hamster in high heels. Not that this means we need to feel guilty about our own crushes, or necessarily worry if we find out that our partner fancies someone else a little bit. Scientifically speaking, our brains and our hearts can be impulsive and badly behaved idiots. Letting a crush burn out on its own is always preferable to (and a lot less work than) self-flagellation and misery. So where do we draw the line? If a crush is a reaction, and out of our control, at what point does it become a problem?
Back on Twitter, 18% of respondents said a crush becomes harmful when you fantasise about them, 55% when you flirt with them, and 27% when you confess your feelings to your crush. Taking action to spend more time (especially alone time) with the person you have a crush on seems to be where most people draw their line, and when an emotional or romantic bond has been made, something has gone way too far and needs correcting. And telling your partner that you’ve crossed this line can be terrifying. For some, it can trigger a discussion about boundaries that leaves the relationship stronger and more durable. For others, it can be the end of a relationship. One person, who would prefer to remain anonymous, said: “I drunkenly exchanged numbers with my crush, something I told my boyfriend the very next day. I expected a mature discussion, to apologise and for us to grow from it. Instead we argued and the whole thing broke down around us.”
Ultimately, there are no universal laws for crush decorum. Far better to let each arising situation be a conversation and build a system with your partner (or partners) that works for you. There are questions you can ask yourself if you’re worried about a crush. Are you taking steps to nurture or prolong your feelings for this person? Does it feel different to other crushes that have come before? Do you feel at risk of betraying your partner’s trust? Keep an honest and open dialogue with yourself, and judge yourself by your actions, not your impulses. So have your crushes, let them burn bright and then let them burn out. Respect your partner by crossing no lines, but don’t agonise. Crushes are fun and life is short. They can energise and motivate us, give us something to think about on our commute or when we’re cleaning the oven. You don’t need to feel guilty every time your heart reaches for something you know you can’t have. The world is an odd and shadowy place, so allow yourself small joys, and remember that it’s possible to be a wonderful person and partner and still catch the odd crush. Exhale. You’re fine.
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