Halloween: It's Doomsday for New Couples

by Joe Berkowitz

Celebrating Halloween is like going to the opera: some people hate it, some love it, some people hate it but pretend to love it, and everybody’s dressed like an Italian swashbuckler. Halloween and the opera are also alike in that they’re both journeys that couples seldom embark upon separately. (Who spends girl’s night out savoring the libretto in Don Giovanni?) The couples who enjoy Halloween tend to do so because it’s a chance to show off bilateral creativity while hanging with friends and maybe getting wrecked. At this very moment, legions of couples are anticipating this coming weekend with greater fervor than the Snickers-craving rugrats for whom the holiday ostensibly exists. The ones who’ve been together long enough to have sifted through and itemized each other’s garbagey baggage are probably in for a killer time. With a new relationship, though, it’s a different story. When couples are still finding their footing, neither person really knows who the other one is. If you’ve only started dating recently, Halloween is the moment when the masks come off. Boo.

For the past two years in a row, I have watched in horror as the still-blossoming relationships I was involved in passed, spirit-like, into the Otherworld on Halloween. Okay, that was very passive. I did more than just watch. In both instances, I was an active participant — done in by my own idiocy and ignorant man-logic. Although the actual breakups didn’t occur until some time after, they can both met their real end on Halloween.

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Are you sure you’re not just looking for something external to blame for what appear to be deep, fundamental relationship problems?” Well maybe a little — but participating in Halloween unearths a whole sarcophagus-load of issues in any new relationship, and so it makes sense that it just might raise some red flags too.

The sheer number of decisions that need to be made in advance of the big day is enough to make anyone’s skull itch. It’s like a little wedding. Each decision then affects myriad sub-decisions, to the point where mapping it all out in a tree-graph would look like the outline for a ridiculous Choose-Your-Own Adventure book. (The most boring Choose-Your-Own Adventure book of them all.) The decision that matters most is definitely the costume decision. While it might seem innocuous, having different outlooks on whether to dress up for the occasion speaks volumes. The anti-costume person might see her opposite as immature and embarrassing; someone who will go chasing waterfalls instead of rivers and lakes, etc. If you’re pro-costume, though, you may think your counterpart is either too cool for school or prematurely wizened into retired homebody status; someone without the imagination or cojones to bring a Zombie Liz Lemon to dazzling life, or even appreciate such a feat.

Thus begins a battle of wills and no matter who wins, nobody wins.

Let’s assume, then, that 80% of couples totally agree on the costume issue, and furthermore, that they’re in favor of dressing up. Now it comes down to the costume itself. Whose skin do you want to slip into? What pop culture reference and/or meme most accurately represents where you are right now, philosophically? Finding common ground to build costumes on shouldn’t be much of a problem, but that’s not always the case. If she’s superpsyched about her Snooki-poof and he won’t go along with the Guido theme, the question inevitably becomes one of “well, why?” And that’s when the unexpected opinions tumble out. Senses of irony, levels of vanity, appreciation of Edward Gorey — it’s the odd bits that really flesh out one’s master sketch of the person they’re with. These attitudes were surely going to come out eventually, but Halloween forces them to the surface, ready or not, like a pincer grip on a pimple.

Last year, my girlfriend and I decided to dress as Watchmen. We’d both enjoyed the graphic novel, and we were happy to buy readymade costumes at Ricky’s if it meant no last-minute scrambling for accessories. The deciding factor, though, was my eagerness to get her into a skin-tight, smoking hot catsuit. Amazingly, I failed to see any potential downside. Again, man-logic.

It only took one moment of seeing my then-girlfriend hollered at by every Heath Ledger Joker and Kanye West in the East Village to realize what a huge mistake I’d made. “Why did you want me to wear this?” she asked later on, after much unpleasantness. Although the booty-flaunting Silk Spectre costume was one she’d seemed in favor of earlier, there was nothing I could say in my defense. I had championed the idea basically to show her off, and then I hadn’t handled it well when the plan backfired. Unless, that is, an epic shit-talking match with Popeye the Sailorman is somebody’s idea of handling something well.

Jealousy is unavoidable on Halloween. Unless you are wearing a costume that covers your entire face, nobody’s immune. If you’re not at a small, intimate gathering (by the way — let’s hear it for small, intimate gatherings!), there’s bound to be a cornucopia of eye candy on display wherever you go. It’s unrealistic to expect that you and your partners’ eyes will stay ever-interlocked all night, especially when you get separated for a moment.

It’s also magical thinking to assume that the group of frat guys with CGI abs decked out like the cast of 300 won’t be trying to smang it with every girl all night long (and perhaps some boys as well). Halloween is a clarion call for rampant hedonism and silliness, so people try harder in every sense. You may think you’ve developed a lot of trust in your new relationship, but when that trust is tested frequently and aggressively, something’s got to give and it will probably be your brainstem.

The stress of Halloween travel combines all the worst elements of vacation traveling, only now you’re covered in foam and latex and you may not have any pockets. This makes for a particularly turbulent emotional state to navigate for two people who are still new at being together. If you’re in an urban warzone like, say, New York City, getting around on the night everyone goes out is an exercise in The Laws of Attraction: you’re gonna have to hope reeeeally hard on the outcome you want, and there’s no guarantee it’ll happen. Last year was especially brutal — the L train was down, dooming a bevy of Brooklynites to compete for scarce cab rides in the rain, and most of the other subway lines were malfunctioning too. (I’ll never forget the sight of a colonial soldier racing against a Jedi knight to chase down a cab, and the eventual shoving match that ensued.) And just like on vacation, the way you respond to contingencies and surprise stressors reveals a lot about how you function as a couple. It will either bind you together against a world conspiring to harsh your buzz, or it will turn you against one another.

So the best way to ensure that things go smoothly on Halloween is to plan it within an inch of your lives. That’s why it set off alarm bells two years ago, when my girlfriend of about a month seemed kind of cagey about making plans for the big night. She had been considering going to a costume ball with her girlfriends, but that was before we became an item. It took a while, but then she finally decided she still wanted to go to the ball with her girlfriends and meet up with me afterward. I agreed to the idea, matching her enthusiastic tone even though it was about the last thing in the world I wanted to do. The rest of that night is typical. Since we were only going to be together at the end of the night, I didn’t bother picking out a “Mad Men” character to match her Joan Holloway getup — instead settling for a dumb political concoction too embarrassing to admit here. Rather than deciding exactly where we’d meet or designate a time for our rendezvous, we agreed to play it by ear, which worked fine until the booze we were both separately drinking began to take effect.

New couples already have enough volatile elements to contend with on Halloween — the costumes, decisions, traffic, and sexy goings-on — throw a bunch of alcohol on top of that fire, and it’s obvious what can happen. What happened to me two years ago was that one of us began sending out a series of jealous dweets, and the other had to be put inside a taxi and sent home to an early slumber. (In the interest of fairness, I’ll leave it to you to guess who was who.) These results are probably typical, considering that Halloween is right up there with New Years Eve in terms of holidays that involve stunt-drinking and frequent use of the word ‘party’ as a verb.

So the bad news is that if you’re in a new relationship and you just sort of let ‘whatever’ happen on Halloween night, you might wake up on the first of November facing the beginning of the end. The good news is that this outcome is by no means predetermined! When you plan whatever you can plan and bring a laid back attitude to the unforeseeable, the odds are weighted heavily in your favor. Halloween can be a stress test, but the best relationships gain strength from adversity. When your relationship survives the long, crazy night intact, much like the Final Girl in a horror movie, you’ll totally be back for the sequel. Get ready, it’s New Years Eve.

Joe Berkowitz is making big plans for this weekend.

Photo from Flickr by Matthew Hoelscher.