I used to consider Happily Ever After as the ultimate success.
My parents didn’t have that success. One of my strongest memories growing up is of how I’d position pillows over my ears to achieve maximum noise-cancellation during their shouting matches. Their divorce was brutal, and even though I knew they were terrible for each other, and was 20 years old by the time it happened, it almost broke me.
I swore to find the opposite of what they had.
At 32, after a whirlwind, Hollywood movie-style romance (also one of my previous definitions of success), I got married. We bought a house, worked our asses off in our respective careers, and eventually started trying to have a baby. I went traveling alone for a month, assuming I’d be a mom soon. Instead, a light switch went off and I saw how much of myself I’d sacrificed to be married to my husband. I saw how much pressure I’d unconsciously put on him to compensate for that, and how joyless and isolated my life had become.
We parted ways a few months later, and only then did I begin to understand how, in my quest for Happily Ever After, I had always turned to men for validation. Since puberty. Probably since before that.
I had no idea how to believe that I was beautiful without someone telling me. Or that I was interesting, or intelligent, or sexual. For my entire adult and teenage life, I had leaned on relationships - or obsessions with men - the way an addict leans on drugs: jumping from one to the next, knowing they were making things worse but still desperately hoping they would take my terrible feelings away. And I had cut myself off from vital parts of my soul because of them. My life, as they say in 12 step programs, had become unmanageable.
So, at age 39, I did the most terrifying thing I’d ever done, and walked through the door of my first Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting. Here’s the thing about the most terrifying thing you’ve ever done: a lot of the time, it’s also the best thing. In SLAA, I learned that day that other people, especially ones who’d had childhoods like mine, were struggling with the same things as me. Even though they might look totally together from the outside. Especially when they looked totally together from the outside.
I’d thought not being in a relationship would feel isolating and disconnected. And it did at first, because I was so used to turning to a man to fill me up. But I also started experiencing a new type of connection: a group of people I could talk about it with. Still, it took an immense amount of presence and forgiveness to turn the ship around - to admit how far down the vortex I’d gone, and be vulnerable and reach out to my sponsor and other recovery buddies, and, eventually, with some close and understanding friends. I had to practice those things every hour of every day.
But very slowly, almost imperceptibly, changes began to happen. I started accepting my neuroses as part of the imperfect human I was, rather than something I needed to get rid of, or paint over with a man’s affections. I began spending time with that human, and not berating her for her strong emotions. I started to learn about all the factors that had contributed to this situation – societal structure, parental influence, trauma. I began understanding how to turn away from addictive distractions, and accept the fear and discomfort that sometimes felt like they were going to swallow me whole… but never did.
I started a relationship a year after I began recovery. Happily Ever After, right?
Here’s the thing about relationships: they are mirrors for our stuff. My old patterns still rear their heads, along with—bonus!—new patterns I’d never had the chance to explore before, because I’d never been in a relationship that was emotionally safe enough to do so. I still edit myself. I still lose myself. I still panic about getting too close or not being close enough. But now, I choose, with compassion, to work on that stuff. No one can fix me, and the less I expect a partner to, the more at peace I am.
I’ve also had to acknowledge that I don’t want a relationship that looks like what I’ve been taught is “right”. I still need lots of time to hang with those parts of myself I’d shelved for so many years, and with recovery buddies and friends who are on similar journeys to mine. And although one day I might change my mind, right now, I don’t feel any urge to move in with or marry anyone. These are societal expectations, the same way we’re expected to want to be in a relationship, or be in one, or to have children.
I could say I’ve learned to be alone. The truth is, I’ve learned I’m not alone.
Our culture wants us to believe that, unless we are loved monogamously by another, we are broken. But what’s actually broken, what’s actually almost destroyed, is our sense of community. Whether we’re solo, coupled or part of a family, we can only find peace or purpose if we are supported by people with whom we can be real. If we can share our struggles and challenge our negative beliefs alongside others doing the same. If we can be vulnerable, and ask for help, and, eventually, offer support, too.
Self-love, self help and self improvement are all great byproducts of wholeness, but they can’t be our ultimate goal. Because it is not the “me” that needs to heal - it’s the space between me. And you. And all of us.