Alone Together: Being in a Relationship & Being On Your Own
I had this great little apartment in grad school. The floors were covered in beige carpet that was worn and lived in. The walls were paneled in the 70’s and painted off-white in the 90’s. I decorated with a mixture of hand-me-down furniture, my one good piece of art (a huge canvas painting of a wine glass being enthusiastically filled to the brim) and Willow Tree figurines I’d been getting as gifts since middle school. The entire place was a mash-up of warm furniture, pastel colors and soft lighting. As a metaphor, I suppose you could say it was the odd outfit you throw together on laundry day to find that somehow everything fits together nicely. It was cozy and simple and so very mine, which made it perfect. I get nostalgic about it now and then.
It was the last place I ever lived alone.
My therapist once told me that nostalgia is less about "missing" something and more about feeling connected to something. I instantly loved that definition because it sounded less sad, and nostalgia has rarely been a sad experience for me. Phrasing it in this new way felt less like “desolate longing” and more like…a bond. Less like something that I'd lost and more like something that was still part of me.
That is how I feel about my life back when it involved more solitude. I feel connected to it. I feel bonded with it. I did a lot of growing then, in those solitary, no-one-to-come-home-to-but-me years. A lot of learning and unlearning and relearning took place — about who I was, about relationships, about life. It was an expansion of self; a blooming, if you will. Not like a flower…more like a tree; something that buds then flourishes then wilts, producing wider branches and deeper roots as it comes back to life, time after time. I was in constant evolution, but it never felt hectic. Just fluid. Just...becoming. Evolving. That's what I'm on earth to do, I think.
That was three years ago. I haven’t lived alone since the summer of 2016.
Instead, I’ve lived with a man — Nick. The man that I love, the man that I’ll marry and the man that I’ll live with, decidedly, until one of us dies (or we manage to go out simultaneously, Notebook-style). I, presumably and optimistically, will never live alone again.
But this month I traveled to California, and for three full weeks, I lived alone. I lived alone again, and I didn’t hate it. I liked it, in fact. Very much.
As it turns out, the only negative part about living alone again was how ashamed I felt about liking it.
Right now, as I type this, I’m fighting the burning urge to write several full paragraphs about how much I love living with Nick. In fact, in an earlier version of this post, I’d written two — one about how we live very well together and another (lengthy) one about how much I love him. I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea, you see. If I mentioned how much I loved being alone, then I also needed to mention how much I also love being with Nick. I love Nick in deeply rooted, surprisingly intense, mostly unfathomable ways. He is essential. I couldn’t possibly have people thinking I’d rather be alone than be with him.
How odd, I thought to myself as a re-read the paragraphs that valiantly exclaimed my devotion to Nick. How odd that I felt the need to do that. That I needed to defend my appreciation for occasional solitude. Or, more accurately, that I needed to defend my love for Nick because I appreciate occasional solitude.
As if it would be simply horrendous to suggest that I, an engaged woman, actually chose to spend three full weeks away from my husband-to-be…and enjoyed it (I mean, the nerve of women these days). As if my love for Nick and my enjoyment of solitude couldn’t exist simultaneously.
And after much journaling, introspection, and talking to myself out loud while making breakfast (which is where I solve many of the world’s problems), I do believe I’ve figured out the roots of my mindset:
I’ve internalized a stigma.
We are told the story that once we find the right partner, we’ll melt easily and happily to cohabitation without a glance backwards or a hint of desire for our previous independence. Our societal narrative asks us to choose: love being with your partner or love being alone, because you couldn’t possibly do both at the same time (and if your partner likes being alone on occasion too, you should certainly take it personally).
Because the stigma is: if you truly love your partner, you won't miss being alone. And if you miss being alone, then you’re with the wrong partner. Or you’re a bad partner. Or you weren’t built for commitment with a partner.
Pick your poison, as the saying goes.
Our society subtly (weirdly) encourages a variety of relationship myths — like “if they’re ‘The One,’ they’ll just ‘get you’ and you won’t have to explain your thoughts or feelings to them” or “if you have the right relationship with the right person, the spark will never die out and things will never get boring” (*insert heavy sigh here*). The myth that “you won’t miss alone time or need alone time if you’re with ‘the right person’” is just that — a fairytale, a fallacy, a myth. Along with the myth that if your partner does value alone time, it’s because you are a terrible partner — because of something you did or something about you that they need to get away from. Mostly incorrect but unfortunately pervasive myths.
Because here is the honest, deepest, most authentic truth behind how I feel about my alone time here in California:
It has nothing to do with Nick.
My desire for alone time has nothing to do with how much I love him. It has nothing to do with how much time we spend together. It has nothing to do with “needing space from him.” It has nothing to do with how connected I feel towards him or how loved I feel by him. It doesn’t actually concern him in the slightest.
I came to California, determinedly alone, because of something an Irish dairy farmer once said to Elizabeth Gilbert when she lived in an Ashram in India:
“Imagine that the universe is a great spinning engine. You want to stay near the core of the thing — right in the hub of the wheel — not out at the edges where all the wild whirling takes place, where you can get frayed and crazy. The hub of calmness — that's your heart. That's where God lives within you. So stop looking for answers in the world. Just keep coming back to that center and you'll always find peace.”
Just keep coming back to that center and you’ll always find peace.
That is why I came here. I came to California because I needed to come back to my center. My hub. My heart. Where my inner wisdom (which I consider synonymous with “God”) lives within me. It’s been so long since I was truly in touch with those things — not just “in touch” with them, but embodied them. Not just embodied them, but trusted them.
Life gets so busy sometimes. You fall in love and you move and you work and you make plans. You move again, you change jobs, you wonder if it’s right but you don’t have time. You start businesses and see friends and visit family and pay bills, and if you’re not careful (and we rarely are), you get a little frayed and crazy.
I’ve been living on the edges where all the wild whirling takes place. Ever since I left grad school and realized, to my simultaneous excitement and chagrin, that I’m not quite sure where or how I want to fit into the world. So I’ve been frantically searching the same world for answers — for ways to come home to myself while the Universe spins circles around me. For ways to tap into that incredible woman in her grad school apartment…with her beige carpets and her self-expansion and her remarkable calmness in the midst of all of her becoming. She was incredible. A monument. A testament to the quiet and eloquent power of what it means to trust yourself.
(Silly me. I know by now that I never find her by searching the world.)
I am not the kind of person who can (or wants to) glide passively through life without sitting down to take inventory of whether or not I am who I want to be or where I want to be. Because both of those things change quite frequently, and it’s harder than you’d think to keep up — but it’s vitally important to me that I try. I don’t mind that my life changes direction with regularity…I simply mind when I feel out of alignment with it. I mind when I forget that I am worth loving even when (especially when) I feel frayed and crazy. That’s almost always when the magic happens, anyway.
I have an unfortunate tendency to sink beneath rivers of “should” and layers of self-important responsibility…to succumb to societal stigmas and measure myself by societal yardsticks. And as a result, my “monument” sinks beneath the surface sometimes. She gets overtaken by who I think I’m supposed to be or how I think I’m supposed to act or what I think I’m supposed to achieve.
But what I’ve discovered, after losing her and pulling her from the depths many a time, is that she is never truly lost — and when I get brave and quiet, she always finds me again.
And as much as Nick loves me, that is not something he can help me with.
And as much as I love him, that is not his work to do.
The best he can do is support me and the best I can do is let him. And vice versa.
Luckily for us, we both do both of those things very well. We both believe, as Oprah once wisely said (as if she says things any other way), “If you can’t be alone with yourself and be happy, then you can never be happy.”
And though I lean on Nick for support, when it comes to finding my center and regaining my internal balance, I do that best in my space with nothing but my own company. And yet, I still love him just as deeply, intensely and unfathomably as ever.
When I venture back home tomorrow, I’ll find smaller ways to return to myself on a more regular basis. I’ve learned from this trip…learned and unlearned and re-learned.
I learned that I don’t need to wait until I’m “frayed and crazy” before seeking out some solitude to breathe and center and reorient myself.
I unlearned a stigma that holds no truth for me, and certainly doesn’t apply to my relationship. I am currently (and forever) unlearning the guilt and shame that is sometimes heaped upon us as we express a perfectly healthy need for our own space even when we are in happily committed relationships.
And I relearned many things: my own effective, impressive self-sufficiency, for one (which is always nice to be reminded of). I relearned the importance (and relevance and health and beauty) of the “both/and” perspective. So often in life, we think it’s “either/or” — I can EITHER love being alone OR love being with my partner — and it so rarely has to be that way. Just like I can love being in California and love my home in Asheville. I can love myself when I’ve returned to the calmness of my own heart and when I feel like I’m lost or unsure. I do not have to choose. Both statements are true and can be held within me — within all of us — at the same time.
And most importantly, I relearned my one essential truth — the journey for which I was quite literally named: I will be reborn again and again. I have returned to my hub and I will get flung to the edges once more. My monument will sink and I will pull her from the depths. My life will have seasons where I bloom and flourish and it will have seasons where I wilt and withdraw. Sometimes I’ll have the wisdom to recognize this and other times I’ll think the world is coming to an end.
But over time, I don’t think I’ll get flung as far. And I’ll always find my way home — to my hub. To my endlessly-patient inner wisdom. To my monument. To my ever-expanding sense of self.
And — thankfully, magically, luckily, wonderfully — to my incredible husband. And my fabulous friends. And loving family. I may be alone in California, and I will need to be alone many, many more times throughout my life…but I am far from being alone in the world. ♡
“I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass, mother-fucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.”
- Cheryl Strayed