The Story of Us: How do You Know When a Relationship is ‘Right’?
I celebrated my one-year anniversary with Ben two weeks ago.
As someone who once thought I wouldn’t last 1-month with anyone, 12 months feels a little surreal.
It made me think back to the time before we started dating and how uncertain I felt about commitment, feelings, and relationships. I used to go around asking all my coupled-up friends about their story. All I wanted to know was: how did they know they were with the right person?
90% of the time, they would sigh and give some version of the answer: when you know, you know. 100% of the time, I’d be left feeling utterly perplexed and still wondering: but how?
Now that I’m the one fielding this question, I understand why people rely on cliches. It’s hard to condense your rollercoaster of emotions for one person into a few pithy sentences.
I don’t think I’m qualified to speak in-depth about relationships. But wrestling over whether someone is right for me is something I’m more than familiar with.
Before Ben, I was hopeful I was going to meet my person in a café or a bookstore. Or, even better, a bookstore with a café. I would be sitting on one side of the room with my nose buried in a book, and he would be seated at the table across from me. Whatever the location, I always expected to look up at him and just know.
The night I met Ben, nothing special happened. He sat next to me at a dinner party three years ago and I introduced myself with an awkward handshake. We said a total of five sentences to each other the entire night. The whole thing was so uneventful that I’ve forgotten most of the details. All I remember thinking was that Ben was someone I would never date.
Over time, as our friendship circles started to mix, I started to appreciate that he was actually kinda funny. Soon, tentative small talk evolved into quality banter in real life and on our screens. Until, finally, at the night of a conference, Ben approached me and asked if I needed help cleaning up. As a paying guest of the event, he had no obligation to stay behind and collect the 200 leftover flyers that were strewn across the auditorium. But he did. I remember thinking that maybe saying yes to a date with this guy wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world…And two days before we rang in the new year, he finally asked.
This is where the story usually ends.
People like to gasp, swoon, and tell me I’m lucky. Everybody adores a good cute-meet story. Rarely anyone speaks about the limbo that exists in between the first date and the day they became official.
Our limbo lasted for 6-months before we decided to be in a relationship.
Correction – it took me six-months to be sure if I wanted to be with him.
One thing you should know is that Ben is six years older than me. That’s 6 more years of life experience than I had. To me, it looked like he had his life sorted out. He had a grown-up job and was close to putting down a deposit for a house. He had reached a stage where he wasn’t wildly flinging his feelings around or texting a string of girls. He was ready for something serious. And that terrified me.
While Ben knew what he wanted from day dot, I was deep in the throes of uncertainty. Fear. Lots and lots of worrying. Scared I was going to make the wrong decision and hurt the both of us. Massively unsure if he was right for me. If I was right was for him. What ‘right’ even meant.
It also stemmed from the fact that I was surrounded by dozens of couples who said they knew they were supposed to be together straight away. They had gotten their sign: this was the only person they had been with and this would be the only person they would ever be with.
My dating history, on the other hand, wasn’t as clean cut. I’ve lost count of the number of false starts, rejections, and boys I’ve kissed and ghosted before I met Ben.
So when it came to us, I wanted to be 110% sure that we would work out before I put a label on anything. I liked him, but I wanted a guarantee that he wouldn’t be someone else I was going to cry about over brunch with my girlfriends. I wanted to anticipate every complication that could arise in the future so we would avoid getting hurt. Above all, I wanted a feeling or some sort of sign that he was the right person.
“There are some things you can only find out after you’re in the relationship,” Ben would say whenever I’d try to stall defining what we were. He would ask me daily if I was ready, and I’d tell him to ask me again another time. The fact that he didn’t give up on me while I was flip flopping in all my feelings is a testament to his patience.
Now, we’ve hit 1 year.
There was so much stalling that we can’t remember exactly when we got into a relationship. All we know is that it must have happened sometime after Easter and before Mother’s Day.
In the end, there was no voice in the sky telling me this was the right decision. No huge sign or an overwhelming feeling that told me he was the one. But even though I wasn’t 100% sure back then if we were going to work out, there was one thing that made me want to take the risk anyway.
I was sure of his character.
When Ben and I were just friends, I saw how he would always go out of his way to make others feel seen and included. He treats everybody the same: with respect, kindness, and, occasionally, as a potential victim of a lighthearted prank.
I saw the way he consistently showed up to serve. He is the type of guy who stays behind to stack the chairs and collects the flyers without needing to be asked. I read somewhere that we’re trained to believe that great leaders are the ones in the spotlight or on the stage. But it takes a special kind of leadership to work silently in the background without ever needing credit.
I liked the way he looked out for others, even when he wasn’t obligated to. One night, long before we started dating, we were at a friend’s place for dinner. Afterwards, when he saw me drive off and take a wrong turn, he called to make sure I knew the way home. I liked that he cared.
The more we got to know each other, the more I knew that he wasn’t someone who scares easily. He doesn’t run when things get hard. He is faithful, steadfast, and intentional in everything he does. When I thought of the path I wanted to forge and the things I wanted to accomplish, I knew it would be the biggest challenge of my life. But when I thought about going on that journey with Ben, I was certain that he would be the best support system I could ever hope for. I’d lean on him and he’d lean on me.
When it comes to dating, there is no shortage of advice you’ll receive. Everyone and their dog will leap at the chance to tell you who they think is right for you, and when they think it’s the right time for you to be in a relationship.
If you’re like me, the conflicting opinions and contradictory advice may make you feel torn between what you should or shouldn’t do. What rules to follow. What feelings to pursue.
And I get it.
When your heart has already been through the wringer and back, you want to be extra, extra careful before you dip your toe back into the dating pool. Dating in the modern age is like a tug-of-war between putting yourself out there and being the first to pull back so you don’t get hurt.
I don’t want to add to the thousands of voices out there. But if you’re wondering how you’ll ever know if someone is right for you, here’s what I’d say:
Circumstances change. Character shouldn’t. You don’t have to be 100% certain at the beginning if this person is your end game. But you do need to know if they’re going to treat you consistently well when life throws a curveball or an unprecedented global health crisis your way.
You don’t have to be perfect before you meet your person. It’s ok if your dating history is a little cringey and if there are moments in your past that you’re not proud of. A lot of people would tell me I needed to be living my best freaking life first, so I spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. But, truthfully, when Ben came along at the conference, I wasn’t feeling like my best self. I was knee deep in an existential crisis and spent most of the night holding back tears. It just goes to show that good things can happen in the background of your messiest moments.
You don’t have to know straight away. For a long time, I used to think I had to have all the right feelings instantly. I would meet guys who set off all the sparks and fireworks, and things between us would progress so rapidly that I thought surely, this must be it. But, ultimately, it would end as quickly as it had started. Now I know that fireworks fizzle out and sparks fade, but a gentle, slow burn promises to endure no matter how dark it gets.
Above all, know that your story will be different from mine. It’ll look different from your best friend’s relationship and the couple you look up to on Instagram. I don’t write our story as a template for you to mimic, but an encouragement that right means different things for different people.
Maybe the right person is the one you want standing in your corner when things get hard. They’re the person who cheers you on when you’re feeling low, and the one who makes you feel safe to truly be yourself – no filter added. They’re the person who chooses you, again and again. And you choose them right back.
In the last year, Ben and I have tried our best to show up and commit to being the right person for each other. We back up our words with actions. We choose to give each other grace when the other person is being difficult. We take turns rallying each other on. We argue, then listen, then argue about listening. We make the choice to love the other person well. Above all, we promise to always, always fight for the other person.
And that’s how I know it’s right.