On Selves and Space

So, we did it–therapy, that is. It wasn’t great.

We are, for now at least, okay. Probably–and mostly due to the (brusque, cold) personality of the therapist–we aren’t going back.

But the session did spark some good conversations, which have led to some efforts to adapt our relationship.

For one thing: trying to create a little distance. Aka: not see each other every day.

In our early (rather, earlier) stages, enabled by both our excess of unstructured time, living a half mile apart, and extreme infatuation, we slipped into a pattern in which we’d meet for dinner on Thursday, blink a few times, and then discover it was somehow Sunday and we’d seemingly done nothing besides stare at each other and fry up a couple of eggs.

“It’s kind of socially acceptable, right?” I remember asking Rob one afternoon in which I’d, again, made a last minute decision to blow off some professional or social obligation in favor of being with him. “You know, to be sort of recklessly irresponsible when you’re falling in love?”

“Of course,” he replied, looking down at me and some snow-dusted sidewalk edging Powderhorn Park. “Always.”

Except that, of course, it isn’t.

Not just acceptable, but desirable: in theory, at least, I am opposed to co-dependent relationships; I am in favor of maintaining independence and a full, dynamic life outside of a partnership, of spending solid chunks of time apart.

In practice, it turns out, I’m more complicated.

Among the traits that Rob and I share is a sort of unwillful transparency: it is very difficult to be around either of us and not know, immediately, what we’re thinking or feeling. As a result, when we’re together, I have the comfort of knowing where’s he’s at. Even when “where he’s at” is somewhat distant, I (because of who we are) can call him out on it, talk it through, get closer–and repeat. (The vice versa applies, too.) When we’re apart, I can’t. I don’t know what’s on his mind. And, due to an attachment style apparently developed as a toddler, this leads to speculation that can be, well, a bit irrational.

When I don’t hear from him for a few hours, for example, rather than picturing him absorbed in a book, sending emails or taking a walk, I am likely to leap directly to an image of him suddenly realizing me to be an anxious, unlovable narcissist with untamable hair, incurable insomnia and (eventually!) yellowing teeth.

Compounding the anxiety of such moments is the attendant shame: the feeling that I don’t want to be an insecure person–the kind of person who needs breathing techniques to survive three consecutive days apart. That’s not me! I want to tell myself. That can’t be the same woman, same self, who hasn’t just endured but thrived during long, intentional stretches of time alone, as someone who is (or, maybe, presents as?) confident, capable, strong! 

Except when it is.

*

I recently had the privilege of teaching a Personal Essay class at The Loft. Teaching this topic is among my favorite things to do in life, for a few reasons: for one, I spent three years studying them with a phenemonal professor; for another, the discussion of personal essays almost always boils down to a discussion of the search for some coherent sense of self–and what’s more compelling, and universal, than that?

Among the essays my class read was a favorite oldie of mine (introduced, of course, by that professor): Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive. It’s about the author, an accomplished feminist writer, recently spurned by a lover whom she “met in Marxist heaven,” taking driving lessons at middle age–the humiliation that occurs, in other words, when the vision of herself she’d like to have (a self-sufficient, independent, powerful woman!) is disrupted by divergent realities–not only does she need (significant) help in becoming a capable driver, she is also completely devastated by the breakup–and by her own complicity in the relationship’s painful end.

She is, in other words, human.

I thought of that essay in recent weeks. I thought of the ways in which how we’d like to see ourselves can collide with undesirable truths: how experiencing grief around a relationship’s end, or needing help learning a skill, or feeling some anxiety around a new relationship’s shifting shape, shouldn’t signal any sort of deficiency, shouldn’t represent a deviance from an identity as someone who is capable and strong–how these experiences are all part of the inconsistent, fluctuating, complex experience of being alive.

Put another way: our ideas about who we want or ought to be often come from a culture that elevates the secure, confident, independent person/woman in the same breaths as it diminishes us all for failing to meet standards that aren’t just unrealistic, but are often inhuman, that often don’t align with our messy, honest truth.

*

One day last week, after an early teaching morning, I came home and crossed a bunch of items from my to do list. Rob has recently started a new job, which means he’s not around during the day; it was nice out, and I had the thought that, if he were home, we might be walking his roommate’s dog through the park. I felt a tinge of sadness, but then, some satisfaction–a recognition that spending so much time with him had meant a neglect of my own stuff that didn’t feel great. And isn’t, ultimately, viable.

All to say: in the end, I don’t want a relationship that’s co-dependent. I’m too attached to too many things–friendships, communities, unfinished poem drafts–to let one person saturate my life completely.

But I’m also an unsteady, sometimes insecure person, for whom transitioning from a relationship’s intense, all-in beginning to something that can better accommodate normal, busy lives is not, and will not, feel easy.

What’s harder to remember: that doesn’t make me weak or lesser. It makes me who I am.

 

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