Like those giant hydraulic car compactors that can reduce a Volvo to the size of a microwave, I’m someone who can crush and crush hard. I unashamedly enjoy having a crush, whether I’m single or not. I’m also one of those people who finds a crush impossible to get rid of, regardless of my relationship status. My crushes are, for good or bad, uncrushable. And I feel more scrutinised for this than ever.
The word “crush” is pleasingly vague, loose and hard to define. Much like the feelings it relates to, there’s an uncertainty to it that doesn’t feel mired in heavy-handedness or toxicity. It’s not an “infatuation” nor an “obsession”. It’s just – to quote Jennifer Paige’s 1998 soft-rock banger – “a little crush”. Crucially, a crush doesn’t need to be reciprocated, nor does it even need to be viable. You can have a crush on a celebrity you’ll never meet, as well as a crush on your married next-door neighbour. Crushes tend to be a one-way admiration, rarely disclosed or made public. Sometimes they’re a bit awkward, sometimes inappropriate, but that’s often because they’re mostly a soft bit of fun, unlike the sharper, meaningful pangs of actual love.
I’ve been thinking about crushes because of TikTok, which is currently obsessed with the topic of “micro-cheating” – meaning when someone in a relationship does something shady, as though on the path to cheating. What constitutes “micro-cheating” has become a subject of virulent debate. Some of the actions highlighted in this ongoing TikTok discourse are obviously suspect. Messaging someone in secret, for example, isn’t great. Likewise lying about your relationship status. But many people are surprisingly adamant that “thinking or daydreaming about someone you have a crush on” deserves to sit on the cheating spectrum.
We tend to think of young people as being socially liberal, but what’s intriguing about the values coalescing on TikTok is that they’re far stricter and more socially conservative than people would assume for a platform of predominantly under-thirties. The beady eye of judgement is never far away – if, for example, you “turn to someone else for your needs when your relationship is rocky”. Demonising someone looking for conversation, support or reinforcement outside of a relationship is just one example of this desire for strict, defined, black-and-white rules. Yet as someone dating in his forties, this all feels dangerously naive – given that most people ultimately discover that attraction is slathered in shades of grey. Not 50, just, y’know, lots.
The crush is perhaps the ultimate symbol of this sense of grey. As an example, and without wishing to goad TikTok’s morality even more, by and large I’m still able to hold a crush for pretty much anyone I’ve dated or had a romantic moment with. These crushes are not all-consuming. It’s just that my sexual feelings for someone frustratingly don’t suddenly evaporate the moment we’re officially over. And so an attraction remains, like the gentle heat left by a pile of smouldering cinders.
I don’t tend to have horrendous break-ups that involve horrendous words and actions, so I’m rarely left with a heavy animosity towards exes. Maybe that’s part of the problem. It would probably be cleaner and more sane to be able to crush my crushes, but in truth I’ve only once had an ick so seismic that it managed to kill a crush stone-dead: this was when someone I was dating got depressingly weird, antagonistic and tight when asked for change by homeless people in central London. An automatic goodbye. Otherwise, I admit, it’s pretty hard for me to totally purge myself of feelings towards people I’ve kissed, hugged, loved or just got naked with.
I’ve met a few people along the way who ardently feel the same, that get a kind of constant ambient stimulation from being around people – either from their past or not – who they have a micro crush on. As if to upend Freud’s thinking in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, it’s as though being in a constant state of unsatisfied arousal is actually, well, pleasurable.
Am I micro-cheating if I simultaneously have a crush on 44 people? Possibly. Am I currently dating in a monogamous fashion? No, which I think is the only ethical way to date if you are a serial crusher. Would I have a crush on someone in a relationship? Yes. Would I do anything about it? No. In a world that’s still so conditioned to the idea of singular love, where we aspire to own our partners exclusively and be “the one” and not “one of a few”, the idea of coupling with someone who unashamedly has a crush or two seems radical.
But, to be blunt, at least there’s honesty here. The bitter reality is that monogamous people in relationships get crushes all the damn time. You probably have a crush on someone right now, while someone probably has a crush on you. Not everyone cheats, but I’d wager that the majority of people do at least crush from time to time. Is that wrong? It’s terrifying to admit when you’re in a monogamous relationship, but maybe couples shouldn’t waste time wondering the parameters of micro-cheating and instead just take the plunge and ask each other: do you have a crush on someone? By TikTok’s standards, daydreaming about someone you have a crush on is a sin. By most other people’s standards, daydreaming is just what humans do.