The Myth of the Better Half, (Part Two)
My coach Kimberly
Says I should write a haiku
For each post! (Nailed it.)
Three months ago, I returned to my childhood home in Ashland, Oregon, with the intention of visiting my parents for the fall and winter and also cleaning out my childhood bedroom. I sought to consciously close the chapter of my first two and a half decades of life. In addition, I had the hunch that some of the missing threads in my book might be found there, stored away in the boxes of school papers I had stowed away under my bed; tucked between forgotten hats and outgrown snow boots in the back of my closet; or slipped between the pages of my favorite childhood books, left behind and gathering dust in my improvised fruit crate bookshelf.
It felt a bit cliché to be a young aspiring author and artist returning home in my late twenties seeking closure and/or clarity in some combination. I think this trope—the pattern of returning backto one’s place of origin while also acknowledging that one can never quite return to that original place because it has already changed, it is already gone—is certainly a cliché, but it exists for a reason. Because how could the roots of who I am not stretch back into the place of my origin, the soil and the air and the walls and the roof in the midst of which my earliest days unfolded?
I am writing a story of my experiences leading up to my decision to take a gap year between high school and college. I have felt for the past eight or nine years that I had somehow left my gap year unfinished. I deferred my freshman year at Harvard for one year, and so much happened within myself during that time that it will likely take my whole life to fully integrate the lessons of those few brief months. And then I went to college, and part of me was just not on board with going back to the academic grind at a particularly intense institution as if nothing had happened. I wanted to do college in a new way, and yet I didn’t know how to do school in any other way besides buckling down and putting my nose to the grindstone.
The long-term relationship that ended last February began my freshman year of college, and—looking back—I can see that I found it difficult to be a girlfriend and a college student at the same time. How could I be a present and loving partner while simultaneously juggling schoolwork and extra curriculars? Although I did alright academically on paper, my scholastic record at Harvard was by no means extraordinary, and I spent my four years of college feeling generally mediocre and as if I wasn’t living up to my full potential. And all the time, I continued to feel as though college was taking me away from the work I had begun during my gap year. After a period of time, my relationship began to feel like an equivalent detour. This is neither fair nor really true in any objective sense. All I know is that, despite great effort on both my part and my partner’s, I found it extremely difficult to get clear and stay clear on my own individual goals within the context of our partnership. I found myself feeling bitter and resentful when my partner’s life looked more in order than mine, and in turn feeling ashamed of this pettiness in myself. (And, as you all know, the combination of resentment, frustration, and shame is a perfect recipe for a super functional and harmonious romantic relationship!)
In the midst of my boyfriend and I parting ways, I was convinced on some days that we were making a huge mistake and on other days that we were doing a very brave and right thing for both of us. And as the dust has cleared over the past year, I have become increasingly clear that we made a difficult choice that ultimately left us both feeling freer, braver, and more alive. We were best friends for seven years, but at a certain point, we started leaning on one another and digging ourselves a nice, narrow, cozy rut to stay safe and stuck in. And the parts of ourselves that liked fresh air and unlimited horizons were starting to find it difficult to breathe.
This is not to say that being in a rut in one’s relationship means you have to end the relationship. But I feel so clear that it was the right decision for us. And I am learning that part of my journey is about letting go of the last shreds of the illusion that I always know what’s best for everyone I love (and also that it’s my job to make sure they get what’s best for them!). This illusion has kept me very busy these past 27 years, because I have had to stay on top of my own life while simultaneously supporting everyone around me. (And I have worked really hard at both!) I’m super capable and smart, so I should probably sort out my life and also be responsible for everybody else’s life, too, right? It’s a big job, but someone has to do it!! Right?
Letting go of my relationship last February opened up the floodgates for me in terms of growing into my own life. There was a sense of grounding and safety that both my partner and I got from staying in our relationship for as long as we did, and I do not regret the relationship at all. I learned so much from him, and I think I was a good partner for him for the years that we were together. And then, we started to feel stuck, and we did a really brave thing and followed our hunch and let each other go.
To me, romantic partnerships are about walking side by side, not about holding one another up. (There is a word for holding one another up. It’s called co-dependency, i.e. “If you trip, I fall.”) The idea of a romantic partner being my “better half” perpetuates a story line straight out of every romantic comedy ever about how my life can never truly begin until I find the right man. I know that story so well, and I am sick of that story. As an aside, I received some good feedback when I posted “Part 1” about how there might be a more positive way to interpret the “better half” phrase, and I recognize that mine is just one interpretation of the saying. When I think of the kind of partner I want to be, it boils down to this: I want to be a grounded and well-balanced human being who feels whole and complete unto herself. When I feel this way, I am more able to walk my own path in life with integrity and clarity, and I bring this clarity and integrity and groundedness into my romantic relationship. I can walk my own path and still share in all the ups and downs with my partner.