2 min

Longer isn’t always better

I'll take quality over quantity any day

Credit: Xtra files

Milestones are interesting things. Anyone who is looking at turning 20, 30 or 40 – or any decade for that matter – will have spent some time thinking about what it all means with a capital M. At what point have I achieved something? At what point do I realize I have frittered the time away?

I’ve been doing a lot of things for a long time. I’ve been a bookseller for 18 years, and I’ve worked at the same place for the past nine years. I’ve been involved with this publication in one way or another for 18 years. These things might indicate that I’m tremendously stable and a big believer in long-term commitment (or maybe I’m incredibly boring, with a pathological resistance to change).

In the midst of this stability, I’ve had a variety of relationships. Some of them lasted in the four-month range, one lasted almost 10 years and several fell somewhere between. Coupled with the fact that I’ve moved a ridiculous number of times, pinning down my depth of commitment, my tendency to settle or not settle, becomes more complicated. It’s much harder to reach a conclusion about how I’ve used my time.

Experience dictates that time isn’t the key factor. There are things about spending most of a decade with one partner that are profoundly rewarding. But the impact of a brief relationship can be powerfully heartbreaking as well.

Assigning a value to the longevity of romantic relationships is a contentious thing, filled with arbitrary judgments. Is it automatically meaningful when a relationship turns 10? Does that mean that the partners involved are more highly evolved than those who have not crossed that line?

Or maybe 25 years is a more convincing chunk of time? How do we decide when the relationship clock starts ticking? Should it be the move-in date or the first time you had sex? There is a general perception that longer relationships are better, with duration beating out quality in how we measure intimacy, love and sex.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating relationships of long standing. But it gets tricky when we do so in an automatic way. Years of being told that same-sex relationships are inherently and inevitably unstable seems to lead to that superficial reaction. We endorse the existence of these long-term relationships to prove that we’re not immature, even though there is no measurable correlation I’ve heard about between number of years and maturity. Promiscuity, set against this narrow definition of maturity, becomes something sordid or maybe even downright bad.

Long-term picket-fence relationships certainly makes for good PR if what you’re trying to sell is the idea that homos are no different from anybody else. And maybe for me that’s the part of the pitch that doesn’t sit well.

It’s certainly true that lesbians and gay men have come a long way in the past couple of decades, but so much of what has been gained just brings us closer to what most heterosexuals take for granted. It’s not as though the persistent debate about same-sex marriage causes straight people to question the nature of the institution except for those who irrationally pine about its sanctity. Other options get drowned out.

The quality of relationships can’t be accurately evaluated by a particular set of rules or requirements. It’s not like filling out a credit card application where the answers to arbitrary questions produce a score and determine what you’re worth. It’s more complicated than adding up the years.

We limit ourselves by measuring our success by conventional standards and we diminish our achievements in doing so. We need to acknowledge that many kinds of relationships exist and that the emotional value of any type of relationship is determined by its content rather than its length or romantic nature.

The pressure to conform to conventions undermines efforts to opt for the unconventional. And it undermines our ability to be happy about making other choices or finding ourselves in circumstances that require a different response.