What if we started relationships expecting a hot mess?

relationship expectations

This post, a couple years old now, came to mind this evening when having a drink with the lovely man I'm involved with. It's a new affair, we're both divorced, not young and agreed: This relationship is going to be a hot mess, just like the rest of them. The upside is that this relationship is new, so all the simmering, festering resentments have yet to be seeded. Good times to come! Whee!

It got me thinking …. are relationships later in life easier, or harder? Does past heartbreak, life complications, set-in-ones-wayidness, and heaving sacks of immobilizing baggage mean it is that much harder to fuse with another? Or is it that said heartbreak and complications deepen one's heart, smooth out the craggy rough patches that made relationships less satisfying, more prickly earlier in life?

Both, I think. The latter moreso, I hope.



A 10-year contract will save marriage

Soulmate marriages: Model of hope AND unrealistic expectations

I want to experience as much as life has to offer, including a long-term marriage

Did your divorce story start with ‘He's the one!' ??

Checking your relationship expectations

I have two awesome but occasionally horrible children, a brain-injured ex who is mostly a good dude but sometimes not at all, a family history riddled with addiction and mental illness and my own cadre of qualities that include neediness, impatience and an intolerance for tardiness, with the exception of my own. Oh, and a public platform where tens of thousands of people each month hear all about the gritty details of my personal life.

If you and I were to date, this is where the shit show begins. After that? Once we get through your endless pile of emotional crap, we will devise our own dysfunction that requires constant negotiation, discussion, some hearty arguments and probably a mental health professional or five.

That is what love is all about, and I fully embrace it as normal and expected. I suggest you do, too.

I've been on a mission to discredit our reliance on love-at-first sight as the standard by which all relationships are measured. What if we shook it up and instead anticipated a delightfully messy, challenging affair that keeps us both on our toes for the rest of our days?

Per the current state of affairs, check Natilus:

We humans are a romantic tribe. Over 54 percent of American singles (which make up over half of the adult population) believe in love at first sight; 56 percent believe laws should make it easier to wed; 89 percent believe you can stay married to the same person forever. And, remarkably, 33 percent of American singles believe it’s ok to leave a “satisfactory marriage” if you are no longer passionately in love. In America, as in much of the post-industrial world, romantic love is in full bloom.

Further evidence, this essay by comic Steven Crowder, in which he urges men to marry:

Picture coming home every night to your best friend, your greatest fan, and your number one supporter. She (or he) makes each good day better, and each bad day good again. Every day, you get to live what is essentially a 24/7 sleepover party with the greatest friend you've ever had.

… Now add sex and sandwiches.

Get married, like, now.

That's intoxicatingly cute, but that expectation for pure and constant romantic love doesn't work out so great for most of us. We all know half of our marriages end in divorce (read my “Did your divorce story start with ‘He's the one!' ??” Or, just digest the title, which says it all), and the number of unhappily single people — women in particular — is growing. The reasons are numerous and not definitive, but include newfound economic freedom for women (yay!) and a general, societal trend of our inability to deal with shit. 

This Thought Catalog essay sums up that point, as it relates to dating:

Our choices are killing us. We think choice means something. We think opportunity is good. We think the more chances we have, the better. But, it makes everything watered-down. Never mind actually feeling satisfied, we don’t even understand what satisfaction looks like, sounds like, feels like. We’re one foot out the door, because outside that door is more, more, more. We don’t see who’s right in front of our eyes asking to be loved, because no one is asking to be loved. We long for something that we still want to believe exists. Yet, we are looking for the next thrill, the next jolt of excitement, the next instant gratification.

None of that works if you, like me, seek the real-deal, long-term lasting relationship. I like very much what Eleanor Barkhorn writes in The Atlantic in a pro-marriage article, commenting on Crowder's (and America's) view of marriage:

Anyone who's been in a marriage or observed one closely knows that these relationships can go through long periods of financial strain, sexual frustration, lethargy, and loneliness. That spouses are sometimes tired, or cranky, or not in the mood for sex or sandwich-making. And promising marriage skeptics otherwise does not help the case for marriage. It only provokes further skepticism from people who see through the false advertising. And for people who do buy into Crowder's argument, a potentially worse fate awaits: disappointment and disillusionment when the challenges of marriage inevitably arise. Indeed, it's entirely plausible that Crowder's marriage is currently exactly as he describes it: blissful, harmonious, satisfying. Studies say that couples experience a happiness spike in their first year or two of marriage. But that euphoria is fleeting: A couple's happiness returns to its normal, pre-marital level in the years that follow.

In other words: Marriage is life. Relationships are just life. Hard and complicated and joyful and sexy and miserable and unapologetically, relentlessly challenging. For everyone. The long-term relationships I aspire to take this fact for granted and face it with grace. These friends of mine say: Marriage is wonderful, get married! Marriage is so fucking hard! I want to kill him every day! But get married already! Quit being so picky, Emma and just pick one guy and work through it! 

I'm trying, people. I'm really freaking trying.




About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life on July 23, 2015 at 9:53 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever even liked anyone at first sight, haha. I don’t blame you for being picky, I am too – probably because I don’t subscribe to the romanticized notions of relationships either.

    • Emma on July 23, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Thanks Stephanie – I’ve liked plenty of people at first sight, but not sure about any lightening bolts. Maybe never ?

  2. Amy on July 23, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    I’m using your first two paragraphs for my dating profile. Along with disclosing my income, of course. All but giving the finger to potential suitors…

    But I do believe that there is not enough emphasis on the work that goes into building a relationship. If you are lucky, that work doesn’t feel like work at all, but something that feels natural.

    • Emma on July 23, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      >>If you are lucky, that work doesn’t feel like work at all, but something that feels natural.

      That’s it — as good as it gets.

  3. Dev Saini on February 3, 2017 at 2:23 am

    nice post . I like it . Thanks for sharing…………….

    • Carmegeddon on February 6, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      There are no lightening bolts. Life sucks and marriage is simply a partnership to help get through this life. i married my best friend. It’s not perfect but nothing is. We all need to know that, when the shit hits the fan, someone will be there to help us get through it. That’s all.

      • Emma on February 7, 2017 at 6:38 am

        Yep, pretty much.

  4. Living Well Best Revenge on February 17, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I had a relationship that I knew was going to be a hot mess last year! We knew it was going to end at some point but we both got companionship and lotsa hot sex out of it. He was also my emotional crutch through the final stages of my divorce and because I was cheated on, I needed the validation from men that it wasn’t me so he came in useful for that. We haven’t seen each other in three months. I have self imposed an alone time on myself but … I’m finding it so hard to stop thinking of him! I’m hoping that time will help…

Leave a Comment