I always thought wanting something wasn’t as good as having it. That true satisfaction lay in ownership of the lusted-after It-bag or the Farrow & Ball-painted Georgian rectory (in my wildest dreams). If I were to equate this to relationships, the younger me felt that happiness came with security. A nailed-down, rock-steady partnership. That flirting and courtship, pleasurable though they were, were just the gateway to forming a solid union that was built on unshakable foundations.
A bit of self-psychoanalysis would say this was because my parents divorced when I was young, which made me crave the stability I lacked in childhood. In my 20s and 30s, when single friends regaled me with dating stories, I would make appropriately envious faces at their wild tales of hot sex and cool dates, but inside I would be fist-pumping at my smug married status.
But here’s the thing I’ve learnt on my midlife relationship journey: the craving, pining, yearning you feel at the start of something new is deliciously thrilling.
The Psychology Today website (my new obsession) tells me that our brain’s motivational system rewards unexpected pleasure. So a message back from the guy you are not sure is interested? Mega dopamine surge. He suggests a next date? Excitement levels go stratospheric. The hit you get from a long-term partner planting a kiss on your forehead like he’s done a thousand times before is significantly less exciting. Apparently, unpredictability heightens the feel-good chemicals released in our brains, so the result is a glorious release of ecstasy in the frontal cortex.
Studies show it’s as powerful a high as cocaine – and I can vouch for that. After a slow and steady marriage, the beginnings of my new relationship, while laced with anxiety (‘Will I get hurt?’, ‘Will I blow things by revealing my love of Selling Sunset?’), have given me highs I couldn’t have imagined. The first few months of a relationship are the antithesis of boring. It’s dinners out, dancing in the rain and sex in the afternoon. I can see why people want to stay in that zone for ever. Why they become hooked on the mental push and pull that comes with it. The flurry of flirty texts followed by long silences. The intensity of a date followed by the chasm until you arrange the next one. It’s thrilling but disquieting, a stomach-turning, heart-wrenching rollercoaster ride that delivers a next-level adrenalin buzz.
I’ve been out with guys who are addicted to the thrill of the chase. Always wanting what they can’t have – or at least can’t be sure of. I could tell the prospect of a cosy night in made them feel dead inside, as though they’re settling into a ‘pipe and slippers’ phase. Or the 2021 equivalent: takeaways and slankets.
The thing about the chase is it is irresistible for the ego. When I first started dating again, if I won a man over I felt like that rubber stamped my attractiveness. The harder to get he played, the bigger the reward when he fell for me.
We all know something becomes more attractive when we think we might lose it. If ever I try to take my kids’ unloved toys to the charity shop, suddenly the one- eyed troll that has not been picked up for years becomes vital to their happiness. In relationships, my partners have become infinitely more desirable when I saw the flame of attraction light up in another woman’s eyes. But fun and thrilling as the first stages of a relationship are, the uncertainty is unnerving and the intensity unsustainable.
I am thankful for the natural progression of my current relationship into something more solid. I love the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with future plans and cosy nights in… but I also don’t want to lose the excitement of the early days. I want my macaroon and I want to eat it. Esther Perel, therapist and author of Mating In Captivity, espouses the theory that ‘desire is wanting and loving is having’. She asks: ‘Can we want what we already have?’ Or put another way, once someone is a sure thing, are they less desirable? I’m hoping not. But as a precaution, I’m saying no to slankets.