[At the bottom of this post I’ve included a song that was playing when I wrote it. I like to include this sort of thing because I love the synchronicity of you listening to the same song while reading. It’s like you’re here with me!]
One thing about life that always makes me feel good is that no matter how much my life changes (and good lord, it has changed a lot in the past few years), there are a few essential components that remain the same. Some are very small things like mass quantities of cheese, scalding hot baths, and books piling up on bedside tables. Others are much bigger.
Of the larger constants, one of the most vital (especially recently) has been a search for meaning. It’s a slightly eye-roll-y phrase, but seriously it’s what we’re all doing, isn’t it? We’re all constructing a life for ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. We choose jobs, places to live, partners, and things to fill our days. We are constantly standing in front of forks in the road – large and small – and being asked to pick a direction.
Making these choices is one of most exhilarating things we are asked to do. It can also be slightly terrifying because after you make a choice you have to live with it. Sometimes forever.
Choices used to throw me into paralysis. I’m very research-oriented, and even the smallest decision like choosing a type of chapstick would throw me into days of research. I need to ensure I was making the best choice. As the years passed, however, the choices became far bigger than chapstick and research has become less and less useful. The choices I had to make became deeply personal, and there was no blog post or set of statistics that could help me make them.
The decision to have a baby. The decision to leave a marriage after infidelity. The decision to move to a different city to sink into the deep safety net of family. The decision to trust my writing to support my daughter and me. The dozens of decisions I make each day about how to respond and react to Olive.
I still research the hell out of everything because I am fascinated by collective wisdom and the stories of people who have lived common experiences, but when it comes down to it, I’ve realized that choices become much easier when I focus on how they make me feel, rather than listing out pros and cons.
This might not work for everyone, but for me, it’s become an essential step in drafting a plan for what my life will look like, especially because I know the individual components can change so unexpectedly.
I’ve written about this before, but five years ago I had a fairly strong idea of what I wanted my life to look like. A husband, a dog, a baby, a house. These are completely reasonable goals, but the way I made these decisions eventually created two major problems:
1. I was focused on the picture, rather than the feeling. For example, my goal was a husband, a person standing beside me in a family portrait. I wanted this because I love relationships and I thought being in a stable one would make me happy.
The problem was that I ignored the way I felt, in favour of chasing what I thought I wanted. And unfortunately, my marriage often made me feel like shit. And this feeling, which began as a slight, dark undercurrent, only grew as the years went on. I felt like my work was often belittled, conflicts between us were rarely resolved, and the way we lived our lives – everything from what we ate to how clean we liked our home – resulted in clashes at every turn.
Our values were different, our personality types were different, and our communication styles were very, very different. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and clarity, I don’t think either one of us is wholly to blame. We were simply woefully mismatched. And I think if I had focused on how that relationship made me feel, rather than how the relationship would lead to what I wanted if I could just stick with it long enough, I would have made very different decisions.
I don’t regret my choices, not only because I now have the worlds most wonderful kid, but also because I spent almost fifteen years learning difficult lessons about life, love, and failure. My marriage (and my divorce) were skilled and persistent teachers and the lessons they taught have helped me immeasurably in every relationship since.
2. Perhaps the biggest pitfall of this way of this way of thinking, however, is that when you attach your life to a set of external circumstances your life becomes incredibly unstable. The funny thing is, it didn’t feel that way at the time – it felt the complete opposite.
I thought owning a home would bring me stability. I thought having a relationship with someone for over a decade gave me certainty. I thought owning a dog and having a baby was evidence of trust and commitment. It all felt so permanent.
Of course, it wasn’t. Nothing is.
All of those circumstances I listed above – except the baby, obviously – flipped within a period of months. Months. I was married and then I wasn’t. I had a house and then I didn’t. My dog was alive and then he died. And losing these things felt like losing life itself.
I lost myself in my marriage. I ignored my day to day feelings in service of a larger goal. I’d always heard that relationships took work, so I worked. And when it faltered, I just worked harder.
I ignored the fact that the work didn’t actually make me feel good – it made me feel empty. And lonely, too. The truth was, I was the only one sitting in that counsellor’s office. It was intensely difficult to reconcile that reality with my goal of partnership.
Even now I struggle constantly with losing myself in motherhood, especially since Olive is with me full-time. Every parent out there knows the push and pull of presence versus absence; giving your all versus saving something back for yourself.
The difference now is that I feel there’s an inner thread to my life that exists independent of external circumstances. And I’m writing about it because I think it’s been one of the biggest factors in creating a life I truly love.
It’s not that things in my life don’t bring me joy or sadness- it’s that I am also content without them. I don’t make decisions based on hoping to be happy if I do. I’m already there. Without that panic of checking off a long list of components I need to assemble to have a happy life at some mysterious point in the future, I can focus on how those things make me feel while I’m choosing them.
It’s not about becoming an island, either. If you’re isolating yourself from meaningful relationships, I truly think you’re missing the meaning of life. Loving someone fully and allowing them to love you the same is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever experience. But in the handful of relationships I’ve had in the past few years I’ve noticed a growing trend toward independence and growth, and a corresponding increase in happiness.
I mean, I love being in relationships. I love crawling into bed with someone at the end of the day and resting my head in their cozy armpit nook, smelling their warm, familiar scent, and feeling the stress leave my body. I love doing kind things for someone and watching their face light up, I love the rewarding work of deepening your understanding of someone, increasing connection, and growing as people.
I don’t need that one partner to survive, though. And that’s a crucial difference. They’re a want, not a need. Being happy by yourself before getting into a relationship is one of those things you hear all the time, but I’m not sure I truly understood it until this past year and I feel like my understanding deepens constantly.
What this means is that instead of being with someone because I need them – their warmth, their comfort, the familiar feeling of their presence propping me up – I choose them because they complement an already whole life. A whole person.
It has been so much easier to choose a good partner when I want them, rather than using their presence to fill a hole or reach a goal. It’s easier to let them go, too, if you realize that the relationship isn’t working. Rather than falling apart, you just return to yourself. And if you’ve remembered to continue growing during the relationship, you’ll be sad, but you won’t feel like you’re losing your life because your life – that wild, beautiful, shifting thing – will still be there.
I’m not sure if this makes sense or if it’s just been a 1300 word rambling examination into My Thoughts on Relationships, but I felt like if I had read this in my early twenties it would have done so much to help make sense of things.
Bottom line? Know yourself. Grow yourself. Don’t stake your life to someone else’s, don’t lock yourselves in a cage together and throw away the key.
If you’re dating, remember that finding someone is not simply the means to an end of happiness.
You will absolutely always find each other when you’re both ready – in the meantime, find yourself instead. Focus on becoming strong and free and healthy and driven. Focus on falling in love with your life before you add someone else into it, or you’ll still be chasing that feeling even after you do.