My ex-boyfriend’s parents have been married for years, but they sleep in separate beds. At first, I found this practice strange, a manifestation of a marriage that no longer had the sparkle, one that had become more comfortable and practical than anything else.
I was wrong.
His parents were, in fact, perfectly content, deeply comfortable and happy with each other. Theirs was a long-lasting and functional marriage that ran smoothly on a combination of the comfort of knowing someone very well for a very long time, and the glorious amount of independence they each shared. His mother, an avid fly-fisher and traveller, spent a lot of time out of the country, exploring the world in her retirement. His father disliked travel, and preferred curling up with a good spy novel and the 49ers. She went on her trips, he read his books, and they were happier for it. For me, they were an example of pure success, something to aspire to, the best way to be together and independent.
As I reach this point in my life where friends are starting to couple up, one after the other, falling into neat little relationships like salt and pepper shakers, I think of my ex’s parents often. I am happy for my coupled friends because their significant others make them happy. I am not resentful of their relationships because my life as it stands right now lacks the space for a relationship. I have, however, noticed that as these relationships blossomed from summer flings to winter boos to long-term entities, making plans has turned into a complicated algebra of schedules and flurries of texts, often cancellations. I attribute this to the complexity of having to manage two peoples’ schedules — something I understand to be a necessity, but don’t necessarily understand. Some friends are better at making plans than others. My best friend, for example, is in a relationship, a serious one that he is happy in, but I see him just as much as I used to when he was single. He has an innate understanding of the one thing that, in my opinion, keeps a relationship bobbing along: independence.
I’ve never been one for the kinds of relationships that engulf my entire being. That weird melding of personalities that sometimes happens, where you morph from being a “me” to a “we” makes me queasy. I’m not an inconsiderate person by any means, and I am always respectful of other people’s feelings, but to me, a relationship where you have to check in constantly with your partner about the smallest things, and keep their schedule in mind as well as yours for everything, from seeing a movie to getting dinner, to spontaneously meeting your friends out for a drink one night — that feels like a prison sentence. I’ve had it both ways, but I think it works best when there is a degree of freedom in the relationship, because that freedom lets you feel like you’re still maintaining your identity, still holding onto your sense of self. The best relationships are ones where you become a better person in concert with your partner. The hallmarks of a good relationship are growth, shared understanding, mutual respect and communication. These things need the right environment to flourish. I am a believer that two people can’t grow unless there are firm roots of independence for both.
Some people truly enjoy the mind meld that is getting all the way in to a new relationship, and I agree, that part is important. It’s fun to pack a bag and tromp off to Relationship Island for a while, because it’s in those months of constant contact and communication and being together where you make a decision about whether or not this thing is going to last. Once that overwhelming sense of complete and total immersion fades, you’re left with what you had before — your regular life, full of drinks with friends, work stuff, reading books on a quiet Sunday by yourself, just with one special addition: your partner. There must be a way to integrate this person into your life without making them the center of your life, because the key thing to remember here is that before they existed, you were a party of one.
Maintaining your independence doesn’t mean ignoring the person you’re with now that you’ve decided you want to be with them. In fact, you’ll probably want to make more time for them, because hey, you really love them. That’s fine! That’s normal. If you didn’t feel that way, I’d suggest ending it nicely but quickly and moving on. But this doesn’t mean that every weekend, every event, every waking moment has to be spent together. It’s OK to leave your partner at home for a night and go out like you used to, before when you were single. There’s a tension that lifts a little when you spend a night without your partner, because relationships, for all the good that they can do, are actually a lot of work. It’s okay to tell the person you’re dating that you’re just going to go out with your friends, to make those plans to live your life the way you used to, and it’s okay to breathe a sigh of relief when you don’t find yourself constantly managing the experience of someone else. Have your cake. Eat it, have seconds! If the person you’re with is mature enough to meet you on this level, you’ve found a keeper.
[Photo from Shutterstock]