Photo by Jessica Branstetter Photography
A couple of months ago, I was out with friends and we were talking about the then-current trend of “Dear Younger Me” letters going around the internet. Years ago, I composed a series of letters to myself at various ages, leading up to a birthday (which, I can’t remember). In the bar that night, however, I distilled my reflections to one curt line: being in love is not the best thing.
Lest you hear that advice with a bitter tone, let me first say that I am rather deeply in love with a man who I am set to marry in less than five months. I honestly cannot imagine another person who I would rather be partnered with. I love him; I like him; I trust him. My love life is peaceful and happy. This last, and best, love, however, is my seventh relationship. Partly, I am reminded of the delightfully bad TV-movie Lucky Seven. Mostly, I know that I have clocked plenty of hurt hours to get to where I am today.
As my life as a single woman comes to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting often about what this period of my life has meant to me, what makes me happy, what quirks and habits I need to keep through the transition, and how I got here. Sometimes I will be reminded of past boyfriends and, overwhelmingly, my thoughts land on, “how the heck did I think that would work out?!” For the most part, I have no ill-will toward any ex-boyfriend, just laughing wonder at the lack of self-knowledge that went into particular pairings.
The conventional wisdom would suggest that with each relationship and subsequent breakup I was supposed to learn something that would help me in future romantic endeavors. First, I think that’s shortsighted and fails to account for the importance of non-romantic relationships. Second, I don’t love the mantra that everything happens for a reason, because sometimes that reason was that I made stupid decisions. Yes, I have made many, varied, dramatic mistakes in my dating life. I have learned from them and, I think, earned a black-belt in monogamy. But, when I think about the times in which I have grown the most, they have more often than not been times when I was either single or at a 2,000 mile distance from my partner.
Living alone for six years has been one of the most important experiences of my life. Two thumbs up. I know how to fix toilets and sinks and how to imperfectly hang things on the wall. I have moved furniture and changed tires and worked out while drinking wine. I know that I can take care of myself. And I’ve had the time and space to really enjoy being on my own. Being single or long-distance for so long has also provided me with the time and space to nurture my friendships. Years ago, my mother cautioned me against putting boyfriends ahead of my friendships. I scoffed that I would never do that, feared that I did, and made it a cardinal law of my life to nurture my friendships. My friends are a treasury of generous life-knowledge and love. Thank you, Mom. I’ve also been able to enjoy my family as an adult single person, spending more time than is probably usual at my parents’ house, enjoying the company of my family, making peace with past hurts, and getting to know my mother woman-to-woman. That has been an enormous gift, teaching me about growing up, atoning for past idiocy (by which I mean ages 13-17), and becoming my own woman without necessarily eschewing my mother’s influence. Just as with boyfriends, in family and friendship, I had to let go of the desperate need of approval to maintain healthy love. Thank you, dear therapist. In short, although I am still at times an angsty brat, I know that I am surrounded by other angsty brats who love me. (That is the best thing.)
So, being in love is not the best thing. And if I could go back to 15 years-old, on the precipice of starting to date, I would tell younger Kasey not to worry a lot about romantic relationships. That it is okay to need a great deal of love, but that it doesn’t have to be romantic to be fulfilling. That the fear of being alone is a trap. Being alone can kick ass, but single =/= alone. That it’s easier to find love by caring for those around you than to chase it down like the heroine in a romantic comedy.
It would be dishonest to suggest that having someone who I respect so much, and who is under no obligation to love me, think that I am the bee’s knees didn’t do wonders for my relationship with myself and with love in general. It has. A lot of the good this love has done for me, however, stems from Julio not engaging much of my angst with much more than, “I’m here for you. Please be kind to yourself.” The peace in our relationship, and his peaceful response to my relationship with myself, has given me some much needed quiet to grow that maybe I wouldn’t have given myself. I also know that I speak from the secure place of being in a loving, accepted-by-our-kin, hetero-relationship.
Being in love can be wonderful, yes, and even transformative. It can also really suck and bring out the worst in people. Before you start quoting the Bible, or C.S. Lewis, or Carrie Bradshaw to me, I know that what I’m saying isn’t particularly philosophically complex or even original, but for what it’s worth, in my experience these are the things that are as good as being in love (in no particular order):
- Deep, respectful partnership of any kind
- Long-term friendship
- An evolving relationship with a higher power
- Being alone, in the quiet, and enjoying the minutia of the life you’ve made for yourself.
- Sitting with the mystery of what is yet to come.
- Working hard at something you enjoy
- Filling your bed with books, or pets, or whatever you want.
- Spending time with your family and getting to know them, on your own, as an adult.
- Traveling alone.
- Learning to at least know yourself, if self-love and acceptance prove elusive.
- Going to the movies by yourself and eating the whole box of Mike and Ikes.