Dating and breakups are seen as defining features of the teen and twentysomething experiences; they're increasingly characterising later decades, too. But, it's easy to forget that here in the U.S., the liberty to date and have sex outside of marriage is a relatively recent cultural and legislative development. A handful of states still have laws that forbid premarital sex (though they aren't enforced), and it wasn't until the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas that consensual sex was officially declared off-limits to legislation, even when that sex is between (gasp!) unmarried or same-sex couples.
As the average age of marriage continues to rise — from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 to 27 for women and 29 for men in 2011 — having a sampler-platter of relationships before "settling down" may seem inevitable. But, not everyone who's been in one relationship has gone on to a second or third or fifteenth. We spoke with three women in different phases of their relationships — dating, recently wed, and approaching 43 years of marriage — to hear what it's like to still be with the first person they ever dated.
Nicole, age 23, has been dating her partner Rhys since eighth grade, when they were both 14. They're not engaged, but marriage is in their sights. Sonya, meanwhile, married Matt in 2012; they've now been together nine years, since Sonya began college, and neither has ever fallen in love with or slept with anyone else. And, 61-year-old Geri, who married at 18, is preparing to celebrate her 43rd anniversary with Lee this summer. From whether or not they believe in "The One" to if they feel they're missing out on all of the sexual and romantic variety the world has to offer, these women's candid thoughts on "extreme monogamy" will resonate with anyone, regardless of relationship status.
How did your relationship begin, and how did it progress?
Nicole: “We started dating in the eighth grade. It was holding hands on the bus, hanging out with friends after school… [our first date] we went to see Blades of Glory…We didn’t apply to the same school; he was valedictorian of the class, so his opportunities were very different from mine.
"[Long-distance] grew heavy — really, really hard. The hardest part was our junior year. My mother’s an alcoholic, and when Rhys started to drink in college, even though I was already drinking, it really scared me — because, like, I knew that I was in control, but what’s he doing four and a half hours away? I can’t see him; what if something goes wrong? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, and so I was very controlling and he felt very smothered... But, I value the time we fought and spent apart because it gave us an opportunity to grow as individuals. People say their partners are their other half. But, my partner is this other person, whom I love, who makes me better, but I don’t need that person to function as an individual."
Sonya: “We became really good friends in AP Biology, but didn’t start dating until the year after, when he was a senior in high school and I was a freshman in college. [Right before he left for college] he wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to start school with a long-distance relationship, so we actually kind of broke up that summer. He got to college and realised, This is fun, but I miss her — so then, three months into his freshman year, we got back together, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Geri: “We met in high school, December 1969. We went to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He went away to college — he was a year ahead of me — and then I went to college probably about two hours away from his college… He would come to my school on Friday and spend the weekend with me... So, that’s what we did for a year or so, and then we decided to get married. We were tired of commuting. I was 18. This is 1971, so people weren’t really living together like they are now... We were protesting on campus the invasion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, and we were holding signs that said ‘Don’t trust anybody over 30.’ We got married in August of ’72, and then we both transferred to a college in New Jersey.”
Do you ever regret not having a wider range of sexual and romantic experience?
Nicole: “[People assume] you’re either on the end of a spectrum where you’ve been together for so long, and you’re so happy, and it’s so easy and fun, and you just know in your heart, in your soul, this is the person you’re going to be with for literally ever… At the other end of the spectrum is this vaguely offensive ‘You’re so young, just date around, be free, there’s no reason for you to settle down' [attitude]… 'Why don’t you guys just take some time off from each other, even if it’s just temporary?’ As if that’s a functional thing that works.
“Anyone who says they don’t wonder [about being with other people] is lying. There have been little incidents where I’ve panicked about the commitment thing, watching everyone else run around at college — it looks fun! It took a while for me to realise: Everyone’s doing that so they can meet someone, or [so] they can have the kind of sex life that [Rhys] and I have...[so] they can work toward the kind of relationship that he and I have — [one] that’s communicative and affectionate and kind and safe.”
Sonya: “When we broke up, my friends were saying ‘Long-distance doesn’t work; you should try other relationships’ — and of course, when you’re in college, there are guys everywhere, and they come knocking, and so the opportunity was certainly there to just move on. But, in my heart, I knew that’s not where I was at, and even when we broke up, we were still the best of friends… We couldn’t stay away from each other.
“There were always other opportunities… When you date somebody, it doesn’t keep other people away; it never will. So, there were other opportunities that came along, little attractions here or there, but never anything that I was interested in acting on. He has been the only person I’ve ever been with and vice versa, and I think that’s beautiful. If it’s good, you know it’s good, and you don’t need to know whether [something else might be] better.”
Geri: "You have to take risks... We all have to make decisions. Fortunately, in my life, my choice of a spouse was a good one. Throughout my lifetime, I’ve met other people who I’ve had friendly relationships with, who if I hadn’t been married I could’ve pursued. I think that in order to remain married and be loyal to your partner, you have to make a decision not to move in that direction. It’s easy for people to be enthralled by the newness of somebody who’s interesting. You have to just make the decision you’re going to be friends and not let it go further than that.”
What experiences have solidified your bond with your partner?
Nicole: “Senior year, I got the worst stomach bug of my life… He took care of me like I’ve never been taken care of. [He] went to the pharmacy twice to get medicine so that I would stop vomiting and experiencing diarrhea at the same time, came and sat with me in the bathroom, was not deterred by how disgusting I was at all. Afterwards, we were lying in bed and he was still like, 'Wanna have sex?' [I said], 'No, but I love that you do!'”
Sonya: “He was my best friend, and I think that’s what sealed it with me. He’s the only person I ever felt comfortable being vulnerable around… He has a half-sister who’s quite a bit younger… We were playing hide-and-seek and [it was] one of the first times she was getting to know me… They were searching for me, and she said to him, 'Now, where is that sister?' And, I think that kind of did it for him — this three-year-old just knowing I was her sister.”
Geri: "We had four children in seven years; we were busy. It’s very stressful, but your relationship can be put on hold a little bit if you really have a good foundation. You don’t have to work so hard on it; it doesn’t have to be your top priority, because your children are... You just let each other breathe a little, and give each other some room.”
Do you believe in the idea of "The One"?
Nicole: “Absolutely not. I think we both know that if we broke up, we’d be okay — we’d be devastated, but we’d be okay in the long run, and I think that’s actually helpful. To me, it feels like a choice.”
Sonya: “I think there is such a thing as [The One]. I don’t think you have to search too hard for it; it’s not finding a needle in a haystack. It’s more of a magnetic thing, and it’ll come to you. To me, The One is somebody...you don’t settle for. They meet every one of your criteria. If they don’t, they’re not The One.” Geri: “I have three girls and a boy, and I tell [them]: There isn’t one perfect person for you. You could be married to any one of 50 different people, and you’d just have a different relationship [with] different issues. There’s no person ringing your doorbell who’s perfect for you, and that’s it for you. Marriages and relationships take work, but [my relationship with Lee] is a good deal, and I didn’t want to let it go. I knew somebody else would take him!”