Immediately after the most tragic breakup of our time — and maybe even before — Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande began covering up the multiple tattoos they’d gotten together in their brief but glorious stint as a couple. Several (though not all) of these tattoos were matching: a cloud, the acronym “H2GKMO” (which reportedly stands for “honest to god knock me out,” and the word “REBORN.” Getting a matching tattoo with a significant other is often frowned upon, considered a “kiss of death” for the relationship (see also: the name tattoo, à la Jax’s cursive, inner arm “Stassi”). Tattoos are (mostly) permanent, and most relationships aren’t, so what happens if you break up?
While this was, indeed, Pete and Ariana’s fate, it’s not everyone’s, and as tattoos become more and more mainstream, it seems unlikely that people will ever stop getting tattoos for or with their significant others. But why, even with not-great odds and amid so much cultural superstition, do we do it?
Viren Swami is a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, and has studied personality differences between tattooed and non-tattooed people (a hint: there aren’t many), as well as people’s motivations for getting tattooed. Among individuals, he says, the primary motivators for getting tattooed are the desire to impart a sense of uniqueness and/or to commemorate someone or something important. He suspects this logic can be extended to couples as well. “When a couple gets the same tattoo, or even when an individual gets a tattoo that is a marker of the relationship, they’re essentially saying ‘This is an important relationship for me,’” says Swami. “’This is an important, meaningful relationship, and I’d like to symbolize it in a way that involves permanence and involves pain.’”
This tracks with the couples with matching tattoos I spoke to — all of whom, notably, have been together for years, and still feel good about their tattoos months or years after getting them. “My girlfriend and I got [matching tattoos] after being together for seven years (throughout which we always said we would never get matching tattoos),” says Susie, who has a moon on her inner wrist to go with the sun on her partner’s inner wrist. “We got a little brunch drunk and our judgment went out the window. But we love them!” She says that both she and her girlfriend used to abide by a six-month consideration period prior to any individual tattoos, but they’re both happy they broke their rule (incidentally, six months after getting it).
“Even if we break up someday, I’ll still love the moon and she’ll still love the sun,” she says. “We’re celebrating eight years together this month and plan on getting married on Halloween 2020 — which syncs up with the full moon!”
Another couple says their matching tattoos were a way to cement the certainty they felt about each other. “I’m not naïve about how breakups happen — I’m in my mid-30s and I’ve been through a few big ones,” says Summer. “Since I never really felt confident any particular relationship would last forever, I never wanted to commit to a matching tattoo with a dude.” But with Peter, her now-fiancé, she says, it was different.
“All my normal protections and fears about my relationship ending were just … not there … with Peter. We bought a house together before our first anniversary. Three months after that, we adopted a dog. Six months after that, still as happy as either of us have ever been, we went to New Orleans and got engaged,” she says. “On that same trip, we got the tattoos. Matching magnets on our back shoulders, facing each other.” To Summer, the magnets represent their owners’ literal magnetism toward each other, but also a song that made her think of Peter before they officially got together — “Magnet” by NRBQ.
Like Susie, Summer doesn’t see a breakup in her and Peter’s future, but she says that even if they did split up, she thinks the tattoo would still hold its meaning. “Hypothetically, if we ever DID break up I just know we’d end up desperate to be around each other again, and the tattoo would actually be even more appropriate,” she says. “We’re magnets, man!”
More than just a powerful marker of one’s current feelings, Swami also suspects that tattoos might even improve the relationships of couples who get tattoos together. “One of the things we find in our research is that getting a tattoo has an impact on the individual. People who get their first tattoo have more positive body image afterward,” he says. “I suspect something similar might happen in relationships with couples who get matching tattoos. The fact that you share this experience, you’ve gone through the process of getting tattooed together, you might feel more intimate and might feel closer to your partner as a result.”
Allison and her husband of ten years have matching ouroboros tattoos, and though they got them nine months apart, they’ve become a source of shared family history for their children as well. “I got mine right before I got pregnant with our first child, and he got his right at the end of the pregnancy, so it’s become this sort of marker of that period of being pregnant with our first child,” she says. “Now that we have two kids we joke around that it’s the family crest, and the kids draw it in marker on their bodies.”
Perhaps, then, those couples bold enough to flout superstition aren’t so much impulsive as they are evolved; by getting matching tattoos, maybe they make tangible the belief that what makes a relationship successful, or important, isn’t necessarily how long it lasts.