Developing a crush while in the throes of romantic commitment can be a confusing and anxiety-inducing experience. When I called for ideas for Crush Month, multiple people brought it up. So in honor of illicit crushes online and everywhere, we’re republishing an Ask MR column, originally published in January 2018, that tackles that very topic. P.S. You can always ask us questions via comment, DM, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. -Haley
Hey Man Repeller,
Is it okay to have a crush when you’re in a relationship? I have one and I’m stressed/don’t know who to talk to about this.
A crush can be a lot of things: an appreciation for your barista’s charisma, a jokey obsession with a celebrity figure, straight-up romantic interest with intention to boot. Human affection is an expansive, complicated thing, and it’s not something that turns off the moment you enter a relationship.
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, and there are a few ways to read your question: Is it cheating to have a crush while committed elsewhere? Does my crush mean something’s wrong with my relationship? Is it morally objectionable? I think the answers are probably nots across the board, at least at first blush, but at the heart of all these lies a larger question of loyalty, and what it constitutes inside a modern monogamous relationship.
In other words: How monogamous must I be for this to work? It’s a relevant and prescient question given how quickly the definition of commitment is evolving. As monogamy becomes a purely emotional choice rather than one rooted in tradition and practicality, must my every emotion be all in? Is anything else betrayal?
In my view, of course not, but that’s not to say I think crushes don’t matter.
It’s easy to get swept up in the romantic idea that true love stops the clock on your heart. It’s also comforting, especially when used as a tool to explain away the squirmy idea of a partner being attracted to someone else. I’ve used it myself. But imposing those kinds of boundaries on human emotion do nothing but blind us and rob us of our agency. Banning attraction would be tantamount to banning masturbation or sex altogether — the rule would be followed for as long as it took to break it. But can’t two people choosing each other in spite of other attractions be romantic in its own way? And further, can’t their appreciation of each other’s rich inner lives make their shared one even more expansive?
Attraction is a weird beast. I understand the impulse to want to frame it and control it. But it takes a lot of self-exploration (and self-permission) to understand yourself well enough to untangle your desires, and none of that can be done if you’re too busy denying yourself the full spectrum. There are times I’ve entertained romantic thoughts about someone while in a fulfilling relationship as a fun hypothetical, a daydream. Other times, I’ve fostered crushes and let them grow in my mind because I was dissatisfied with a partner. Neither was wrong, per se, but the former taught me something about myself, and the latter showed me something important when I was ready to listen. Wasting time on parsing the rules did nothing for either.
In my recent writing on relationships — about good sex and mystery and cheating and bad sex and exes — I’ve put a lot of emphasis on agency. It’s a concept I came around to a little late in my romantic life, but it’s really transformed my relationship with myself and others. It’s much easier to put everyone in boxes (I’m monogamous, therefore I look at no one else; he’s in love with me, therefore he sees only me) but I’ve learned that appreciating someone’s wholeness and courting their inner life with respect and curiosity — and doing the same to yourself — only stands to deepen and strengthen relationships.
If you have a crush, the more important question than “Is it okay?” is: “What does it offer me?” A playful sense of fantasy? A temporary mental escape from a rough patch? A self-esteem boost? A window into something that’s truly missing? A peek into your lizard brain? Crushes can show and tell us a lot, not just because our subconscious sometimes knows things before we do, but because crushes are hypothetical — they’re unbound by the grounding principles that make relationships live and breathe (hard parts included), and in that they offer soaring insight in the abstract.
Don’t rob yourself of that insight. In the emotional realm, black-and-white rules constrict us to black-and-white thinking. They take the emotionality out of the reason we behave the way we do. Attraction is normal; a crush isn’t inherently good or bad, but a good hard look at its impetus and context might prove enlightening. Only you can find that answer within yourself — just give yourself a little time and space to sift it out.
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