I am going to come right out and say it. I am an only child. Only children get a bad wrap, in my opinion. Yes, it’s true that we like having it our way and may be a bit more reluctant to share than non-only’s. But at least some of that it counterbalanced by the fact that we have a certain sense of “something’s missing” infused into our very souls that prompts us to seek connection with another human being. We may not be super great at knowing what to do with that other human being once we have found them, but we try. We try pretty hard.
Starting at around age fifteen my evolutionary desire to be partnered kicked in and so began a series of relationships that have generally lasted around two to three years. This is not a pattern that I am proud of or that I particularly enjoy. It kinda sucks actually because pain is always part of the deal. But it’s legitimate and I understand that it takes a while, at least a year or two, to really know someone. To be totally present in the absence of distractions and to get a feel for the particular ebbs and flows of the pairing. If it feels right, you keep going. If not, you don’t. If you want partnership, you brush yourself off and process what you learned, and get back on the horse and try again with someone else. And I will say that I don’t regret any of these relationships and am thankful for every one of the people who were willing to share a period of their life with me. I know that I have grown tremendously through each of these relationships and I hope that the people I have loved would say the same. I know that letting yourself love and trust someone is always a risk and for the most part, it’s a risk worth taking.
Talking to folks both personally and professionally about my experiences and theirs, I began to understand how deeply complex and richly varied views of partnership are. And that it isn’t just me that struggles to find the right fit and create the right balance and further that that most likely had nothing to do with the fact that I am an only child and presumably less flexible and able to compromise then non-only’s, a fatal flaw in relationships.
At this time in the United States, the percentage rate of single people (52%) has, for the first time in history, overtaken the percentage rate of those married (48%). While this doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage is a dying institution it does mean that fewer people now then ever before are deciding not to marry or are divorcing. Why? The answer to that question is hard to pin down. I think that at least part of it is that the generation of my parents (I’m in my thirties) were the baby boomers and a product of the sixties. The idea of free love and the concept of happiness had taken root. Mothers started to teach their daughters not that they the choice of either to marry and raise children or to take up a career in teaching or secretarial work but that they could do anything. Anything they wanted to do, anyone they wanted to be, and they could love and make love to whomever they chose. The value of independence was infectious and women grabbed on to it and held on for dear life.
Suddenly life became more about the process then the product. Relationships shifted accordingly, marriage no longer being the assumed product of a successful period of time spent investing in getting to know someone. Women started to become less fearful, no longer judging their worth as human beings on their relationship status. They started to not be afraid of taking care of themselves or enjoying their lives. They started to end bad relationships and leave unsatisfying jobs. They started to choose rather than be chosen.
Many clients come to see me due to failed or failing relationships. Many of the women come in because they are unhappy and trying to end a relationship and most of the men come in trying to regroup after being left. I watch the women gain clarity and strength over time, I see them end their partnerships, and then I watch them struggle to understand their own conflict about wanting a life partner but just somehow not being able to deal with the reality of one. And then I listen as they describe meeting someone new and doing it all over again. It would be utterly fascinating to me except that I have found myself more than once in those ill-fitting shoes as well.
I believe that I want a life partner. I really do. I believe in love and I believe in working on the love you share with another and I believe that human beings are relational. I want to know someone over time and for them to know me. I want to share family and friends and travel and food and experience and a home with someone. I want to be supported and I want to be challenged and I am willing to do the work that happen. I want to grow with someone who is growing just as much as me. It’s lovely to have that. Of course it is. But I don’t depend on it or assume it will necessarily happen or hang my self-worth on it. I would love to find the right person-fit for me but I’m happy being alone, too. And I wish they were but “fine” and “comfortable” are just not enough for me. In order for it to really work for me, I need more.
We live in an interesting world at an interesting time. We are creating and designing and building things at breakneck speed in the technological realm. And in the personal realm too we are pioneers, creating our own paths from maps not yet drawn. The couples I know who describe themselves as happily married and have been together for more than five years are often on their second marriage or have other less traditional marriages then in the past. One partner travels often or both speak a different primary language or they openly have other lovers or they went to counseling before marriage to address past relationship patterns or they had a come-to-Jesus make-it-or-break-it moment where they got their shit together, buckled down, and worked their asses off to save their relationship and increase happiness within it.
Of course I live in Portland. And the people I speak of also live in Portland or in other comparably progressive cities. So I admittedly have a biased sample. But the U.S. marriage statistics clearly confirm that this is a challenging time for partnership and marriage. I don’t think that it is a question of whether or not people want to connect and partner with other people. I think we do. It’s just that the “lifelong” part of it and the “how important is it” seems to be in question more then ever before. I don’t know if it’s a good thing. I imagine that it is but regardless, it’s a reality. So rather than beating ourselves up over the fact that we can’t seem to be happy in the ways we think we should with the life we thought we were supposed to have, we adapt. And we figure it out as we go, being as authentic and as kind as possible. What else can we do?
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog – “To Partner or Not to Partner, That is the Question. And it is Just That. A Question.” – on October 14, 2011.