This Valentine’s Day, I celebrate the love I have for myself, and the courage it takes to be alone.
It was 1998 when my very short-lived marriage ended, and I was devastated. Not because my marriage failed, necessarily (because that was a train wreck from the start) but more from the collapse of my own image of what it meant to be married. More so, what it meant to be one half of a couple committed for life. Or, supposed to be anyway. I thought that through partnering, there would always be someone who had my back, someone who would work with me toward shared goals. The reality for me was the socially enforced stereotype, which was miserable.
I had been raised to believe all the stereotypes. Women stayed home and took care of children. Men worked outside the home and controlled the money. Women needed to be associated with a man to have any value. It was an idea pushed on me from a very young age, when a common question became, “Do you have a boyfriend?” By High School, it was expected that I would always be dating someone, and shamed when I wasn’t. When I announced my senior year that I would be going to prom alone, my folks absolutely forbade it. What would people think if they saw me without a date? My childhood is punctuated with lessons of how important it is to be defined as a man’s ball and chain. His old lady.
Because that’s totally flattering.
So, I got married at the age of 21, and the disappointment grew quickly. All of my marital experiences were like a wall of expectations crumbling around me, crushing my spirit with each falling stone. When I got my paycheck, we would agree to save for a house, and the next day the money would be gone. I’d come home from work at 10pm to a house full of people playing games and eating our groceries. We had to go to his parents house every weekend and spend the night. Everything was a battle, and there were no winners, especially me. It didn’t matter what was said, or what was agreed to, he always did whatever the hell he wanted to do anyway, and I was expected to dutifully go along. I had no control over my own life. There was no working toward shared goals. Most of the time it was as if I didn’t even exist.
I was the only person in the relationship working to keep it together. The only thing keeping me in that relationship was the terror of being alone. I had convinced myself that normal relationships were supposed to be about constant communication failures and struggles between partners. I convinced myself that the stereotype was just a fact of life to be tolerated. I was supposed to just have fun with the fact that I was cleaning up adult pee off the bathroom floor and putting another grown adult’s dirty laundry in the hamper. I had convinced myself that all the frustrations were a price to be paid for coupling. Eventually I made the conclusion for myself that if that’s what relationships are supposed to be about, I’ll pass.
I spent the better part of three years asking for my needs to be met, listening to empty promises, and feeling like an after thought in the relationship. It was deeply saddening and utterly infuriating. The disappointment was crippling, and I often dreamed of running away in dramatic fashion. The fighting and constant struggle left permanent scars.
So when the fog lifted and I found myself alone for the first time, I realized that being alone wasn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, I had been going through the motions of two people for the past three years, now I could put that energy into myself. I was initially surprised by how much energy I had, now that I wasn’t in a constant state of marital chaos and disrespect. I forced myself to go out alone to restaurants and theaters. I went camping alone and took myself on vacations both near and far. And I had fun! I was able to do the things I couldn’t do while I was languishing in a one-sided relationship. I was ending each day feeling unburdened. I was fulfilling my own needs and it was glorious!
That’s not to say that I did not occasionally date, because I did. Unfortunately, I saw the same irritating traits in nearly all the men I dated – I could easily identify their relationship issues in the stories they told about their exes. It was a Groundhog’s Day experience of poor communication and attempts at mind games for several years of short-term dating before I grew weary of it. Was there such a thing as a partner who had my back and worked with me toward shared goals? I wasn’t finding it, and from what I heard from my girlfriends in relationships, they hadn’t either. I lost hope. Like a balloon running out of air, I let the dating lifestyle wane, like my youth.
I’ve been on my own for 23 years now and my biggest regret in life is once believing that marriage and partnering is about constantly giving, with only receiving an occasional, obligatory gift of flowers or chocolate in return (on a holiday, or after an argument, of course). I regret ever believing that it was my responsibility to take care of a man, much like a mother cares for a child. I regret not putting myself first. I regret ever trusting that a partnership would help me achieve my financial goals. My experience was that relationships that adhered to the traditional stereotypes were simply not enough for me.
Being single has far more positives than negatives for me. I don’t have to clean up after another adult. I don’t have to financially support another adult. I don’t feel like an after thought. I don’t have to convince someone to love me. I don’t have to compromise on anything. I could have saved myself a lot of time and heartache if I had embraced when I was younger, what my heart has always known. I do not need a partner to have a happy relationship. I can always be in a happy relationship with myself.