Crushes are something of a chronic condition. You’ve had them since you were young enough to pull pigtails over them, and you’re not going to stop having them anytime soon. Not a lot of things get easier with age, and crushes are no exception. Even with a long term, live-in significant other, I crush on anyone who makes me feel like I’ve still got it. Each time is as embarrassing as the first time, and the word itself feels equally childish to use. But we’re all adults and can see a crush for what it is: a fun and calculated low risk that comes with perks.
Some happy couples pine for these—they miss those initial sparks from when they first got together because it turned into a deeper connection instead. But a spark, or a shared sense of humor, or common interests—whatever it is that is fueling your crush—are perfectly fine to have with other people. In fact, you should feel that way about other people in the world. And often the chemistry-fix of a crush can be enough to make most people realize they don’t want anything more than that, making it a cheating deterrent instead of the incentive that some may fear. A crush may be how I got into my relationship, but having another one doesn’t mean I want out of it. I just want to get butterflies without having to eat a bunch of them.
Avoiding crushes does yourself a disservice and fails to give this finite infatuation the credit it’s due. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Assume everyone else is doing it.
This is one of the rare times in adulthood where the “everyone is doing it” excuse holds up, because everyone pretty much is. A recent study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that 70 percent of women in either marriages or committed relationships had crushes. A majority of the 160 participants found that these feelings improved their desire for their existing partners (who had no idea about the crush at all). Your other half isn’t any more immune to crushes than you are, so embrace your ignorance of them as bliss. Reminding yourself of that will make you feel like less of a jerk on the onset of a crush and increase your odds of keeping a cool head about it.
I don’t just assume my partner has crushes on other people—I hope he does, because if he doesn’t, he might be a sociopath who feels nothing. If I’m lucky, he occasionally hears “Dream Weaver” in his head while talking to women when there’s no music playing. The alternatives could be much worse. You’re reaping more benefits than you know.
Make sure the crush is just a crush.
A crush isn’t something you can have on a person you’ve been involved with. If it was a one-time fling, it’s still not a crush—it’s history, and calling it anything but that hurts everyone involved. It makes all other crushes look just as dishonest, when that’s not what was happening to begin with.
Crushes are not emotional affairs either, and the line between the two isn’t that fine if you’re keeping everything above board. If you have a history of infidelity and don’t want to keep doing that, be especially vigilant about setting boundaries with crush candidates. You might not be ready for a crush, monogamy, or both if you can’t handle laying down certain limits. There are plenty of other options, including open relationships, and guess what? Those aren’t crushes either. Having multiple partners can be such a difficult thing to negotiate to begin with, but if you can stomach the conversation, the more power to you. As long as you’re not trying to pull off an open relationship retroactively, discussing one wont be detrimental.
In short: A crush is not an excuse or an invitation. Don’t taint something great by using it to get away with something gross. It poisons the well for the rest of us.
Consider the conditions and manage risk.
Occupational crushes are one of many enjoyable ways to get through a 40-hour week. In the study mentioned before, a majority of the reported crushes happened at work without anyone acting on them. When your professionalism is at stake along with your relationship, it’s like having infatuation insurance: You hopefully won’t ever need it, but it is comforting to have.
Crushing under the influence can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence: The world would be a safer place if they were both illegal. Drink a few beers if the circumstances call for it, but keep it under control and in a group setting until the crush has run its course. Alcohol intake aside, have an exit strategy prepared for when feelings go too far. The cure-all for most crushes is getting to know them as a person instead of a fantasy, which is almost always less attractive. Let the flaw-finding mission begin.
Tell your friends about your crush.
When a crush gets into your conscience, consult with your buddies first—preferably ones who are also in relationships. It’s not that your single friends don’t want to be helpful, but they may be quick to call on freedom as the solution. Your coupled-up friends will understand that it’s not that simple. They may not be able to help you cope with a crush completely, but they will make you feel like less of a villain for having one. They’ve been there, too.
If you can’t contain the secret, your most trusted friends are the first line of defense. They will alleviate lingering guilt and help you figure out if there’s anything you should tell your partner. It also takes some of the pressure off of the crush by reducing the secrecy around it. At the very least, processing with your pals gets it out of your system, so you don’t tell anyone more consequential.
Whatever you do, don’t tell your crush.
If you do nothing else, resist the urge to confess your feelings to the crush in question. Even if they seem like they know, let them maintain some level of plausible deniability. Disclosing your feelings beyond that might seem like the honest thing to do, but it puts them in the unfair position of needing to respond or, worse, reciprocate.
The worst part of having a crush when you’re single is the possibility of not having those feelings returned. The best part of having a crush when you’re in a relationship is that it doesn’t matter. They might feel the same way, but calling that out ruins it for the both of you. Crushes and relationships can only coexist on a need-to-know basis, and they don’t need to know this.
Talking to your significant other about it is fine.
You’ve accepted that your partner also has crushes, discussed yours with neutral parties, and set some limits for yourself. Now the only person left to hash it out with is that special someone. It’s not a requirement, and it’s largely based on your shared comfort zones—ones you’ll know already, given that you’re dating. The deception you needed to dodge has already been covered, and disclosure at this point is about making you feel better, not them.
Crushes in relationships are easier to talk about in the abstract, which is why celebrity cheat lists are a common practice among couples—i.e. the list of people you and your partner are allowed a pass on hooking up with. The concept was popularized by the 1996 episode of Friends, “The One With Frank Junior,” though these lists likely existed long before Rachel Green. (It won’t surprise you to learn that the credited writers on that episode are Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg-Meehan—a now-married couple. They understood that idea of “celebrity freebies” are like crush contraceptives that make everyone feel safer having them, because the chances of them happening are near impossible.)
Talk about the topic of crushes with your significant other all you want, but only divulge specific details at your own risk. You love them and should be able to tell them anything, but that’s doesn’t mean telling them everything is good for either of you. But rest assured that a little oversharing will compromise your pride before the relationship, so it’s not the end of the world. For most long-term couples, you mostly run the risk of the other person outing your crush because they think it’s hilarious.
Lauren Vino is a comedian, writer and wrestling fan based out of NYC. You can reach her on Twitter.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.