By Danielle Guldin.
(a reader’s submission for Love Project.)
When I say “I”m single,” people tend to look at me like I have four heads. There’s a little smirk like they’re waiting for me to get to the punch line, inevitably followed by a sudden sobriety and a question to the tune of, “But how?,” as if I’ve just been diagnosed with an exotic disease attributed only to Amazonian natives – and I totally understand why. In this day and age, it’s unexpected to meet a confident, intelligent, attractive person approaching his/her thirties who isn’t either already involved in a long-term relationship or looking for one. In fact, before this past year, I even went so far as to attribute “success”, along with happiness and self-assuredness, to the success of a relationship, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Having a successful relationship is a pleasant little side-effect of becoming a successful adult – or so I used to believe. The thing is, I am successful, happy and self-assured, which I believe gives context to people’s confusion when they hear my admission. In the summer of 2014, prior to the point I began to feel quite so “successful” on my own, I used to laugh off people’s inquisitions simply because I didn’t feel like getting into the long-winded explanation of my complicated personal investigations. The truth of the matter is that although 2014 has gone down in history as the most transformational and intrinsically rewarding year of my life, in the thick of it, it felt more like someone bought me tickets to the gun show but forgot to tell me there was a target painted on my forehead.
When I first became single last year, I legitimately thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Not that I didn’t see my break-up coming, but it was the end of a relationship I thought would end in marriage – you know, “success” – so it’s dissolution was difficult to say the very least. Not only that, but I was 29 years old and hadn’t been single in nearly six years, and I really, really, didn’t want to be. So I did the only logical thing any self-starting, romantic millennial approaching age 30 would do in my situation…and shotgunned directly into another seemingly promising relationship. This time I fell arguably harder than ever before, and the whirlwind was thrice as intense as my previous relationship. Of course I wouldn’t have entered into it in the first place if I didn’t think it would also result in “success,” which only added to the catastrophic meltdown that ensued when it, not surprisingly, also ended.
While still very much in the midst of mourning the abrupt flop of my second relationship, the wildest series of events began to take place. I kid you not, literally every single man I’ve ever had unrequited feelings for, five of them in total, introduced themselves back into my life, virtually simultaneously. It was ridiculous. Men I hadn’t heard from in close to a decade were suddenly knocking on my door like, “Hey, It’s been too long. You look amazing. I’d love to see you.” Naturally, the romantic optimist in me wanted to believe that at least one of them was showing up as the highly anticipated “successful” ending to this year of emotional upheaval; to be the knight in shining armor, the magical answer I was looking for. But alas, one by one, date after date, my plight remained unchanged, until at long last there were no romantic prospects left in my life, whatsoever. I had reached absolute zero. No more unrequited loves to come back from the dead, not even an exciting new crush. The universe had staged a fucking reaping and literally strong-armed me into the most necessary period of personal growth I’d ever encountered. It seemed that in order to stop being the target of failed relationships, I had to stop handing people ammo; a lesson I was learning the hard way.
The simplest lie in the world to tell myself would have been that all of the men I was meeting were the problems; that they were ignorant buffoons, and that it was all their fault our relationship attempts were “unsuccessful.” Nothing would have been easier to believe. I mean I’m the PERFECT girlfriend! The doting and wonderful kind. The kind of girl who genuinely enjoys treating you to dinners and taking trips across the country for visits, who digs that you’re into video games, supports your “guy-time”, and is confident enough to acknowledge that yes, the waitress is INDEED super hot and we should definitely check her out together from across the room! But the much more difficult answer to swallow, the subsequent correct answer, was that the reason why none of these relationship attempts had been working out…was me. Clearly I was the only common denominator amidst the various disasters, and therefore, it was me who warranted the investigation and repair. After all, vampires can only come into your life if you invite them, so I benched myself from the dating game, indefinitely, in order to do some much needed work on myself.
Even before I began consciously investigating my relationship patterns, there was one practice that stood out as noteworthy ever since I began dating as a teen; I had always been the one who went super far out of my way for my lovers’ happiness. As aforementioned, I’m a true romantic and a natural born lover. Little gifts and fun surprises are the ways in which I’ve always enjoyed showing affection. I wanted to see my partners so happy that I habitually sacrificed my own personal time, comfort, funds, and even work projects, to express it to them. I made myself the ultimate giver, so it shouldn’t have come as such a shock when I inevitably found myself depleted after prolonged periods of time. As I became aware of this well-intentioned pattern within my past relationships, I realized that I had been unconsciously making my relationships more worthy of my love and generosity than I had been making myself. How unsustainable.
Boom! There it was. The trip-wire had been located and the answer was clear; the only person I really needed to fall in love with me, was me. Not that I was in any way aware of the fact that I didn’t love myself – certainly I thought I did! At least, I told myself that I did. I patted myself on the back for jobs well done and celebrated certain strengths, but when I put my patterns under a microscope, I noticed one major discrepancy; that I was operating on the mere intellectual concept of self-love – nothing more than an idea. I realized that the actions I associated with self-love were in fact far removed from its actual practice. In truth, I was operating on 200% bullshit. For whatever reason, I’d been putting myself in the position of proving my worth in every relationship I’d ever had, which could have only meant I wasn’t fully aware of it intrinsically. I gave and gave and gave in my relationships to the point of breaking because, deep below the surface, I needed the validation of someone reciprocating all that energy right back to me, therein saying “You’re worth it, too.” Clearly I was the person I really should have been dating all along.
Thus, after a bunch of seemingly endless weeks filled with tough personal analysis, I was finally armed with the shiny, new awareness of my most complicated flaws. Perfect. But how to actually begin the process of correcting these things; to love thyself? I read some funny articles in major women’s publications which basically boiled down to confidence-boosting practices like taking myself out to dinner and spending quality time alone. It wasn’t totally unimportant advice, but I was trying to correct a major, lifelong habit from within, not put a band-aid on lightly brush-burned ego. I began to realize that the purest practices of self-love had very little to do with silly superficial concepts like sending myself roses, repeating blind compliments, or abundant masturbation. It was so much deeper than that… If I wanted to change the way I treated myself, I’d have to begin with changing my perception of myself. So I got old-school and started the process by loving myself exactly the same way my parents had loved me; by setting clear boundaries and recognizing what was best for me; by saying “no.” Granted, this was not always – or rather almost never – connected to what I wanted in the short term, but as the old saying goes, what comes easy won’t last, and what lasts won’t come easy. I quit dating and began self-soothing, and that is when the major changes began to take place.
It didn’t take long at all before I discovered a subtle, but life-changing concept; that there is a fundamental difference between what “I need,” and what “I want.” “I need” is the category of things in life which I require to function and survive, while “I want” refers to any additional perks which simply contribute to my already fully-functioning self. Since I was previously operating from the platform of “I need” in my relationships, I was automatically pursuing “success” from a position of depletion. Out of the gate, I was already betting on my own loss. Learning how to operate from the platform of “I want,” conversely, would mean operating from a position of power; I would already have everything I needed, therefore I’d be free to choose whatever else I might want without connecting it to my self-worth. Amazingly, in learning how to give myself all the great things I’d been giving to everyone else, I slowly stopped needing anything at all. My glass was beginning to fill up from within.
There was no grand epiphany. There was no “Aha!” moment when I magically solved the puzzle once and for all and was able to move on right away. This process took whole-hearted, full strength, 24/7 effort, and it was not always graceful. There were a thousand ups and downs; wildly empowering mornings I woke up singing “Break Free” by Ariana Grande in my living room with full abandon, only to be followed by panicked afternoon phone calls to my friends like “OMG! When will this get easier already?!?” I pressed on. I had no other choice. Day in and day out, I was aware of my thoughts and underlying intentions. My subconscious gradually became conscious, which finally put me in control of my circumstances, not the other way around. And then one day, without bells, whistles, a celebratory parade, or a Self-Actualized People’s Club welcoming committee, I suddenly realized I was free. Without warning, I became cognizant that I felt lighter for the first time in probably over a decade. Somewhere in between the disaster and the oasis I managed to break all my detrimental patterns, and there it was…”Success.” Apparently I’d had it in me all along.
In the last few months, I’ve eased my restrictions on dating, though I admit, my desire to date at the moment isn’t exactly overwhelming…a funny and unexpected side-effect of my amazing relationship with myself. Yet another pleasant side-effect is that when I do go out on the occasional date, it’s so much less complicated than before! Since I no longer need anything from a prospective partner, I can enter into a situation without any preconceived expectations or grand hopes and dreams. Perhaps we click, perhaps we don’t, but it’s not a personal tragedy if it doesn’t work out. All that meaning I imposed on dating in the first place has been removed. If our respective wants happen to align, great! If not, it’s no big deal. We can move on, self-respect and dignity fully intact, without a flurry of tears or any other harmful parting gifts. There is no loss to cut because I haven’t lost anything at all. As good as any relationship of mine has ever been, I’ve literally never felt the level of freedom and peace of mind that I feel right now. I have multitudes more energy, and when the occasional bumps and hurdles arise – because they do – I can simply deal.
So am I single? Yes. But am I alone? Oh my goodness, no. The single life that I’ve designed for myself is sex positive, love abundant, and filled to the brim with real happiness that is entirely self-maintained. What’s more is that the moment I exorcised the ghosts of relationships past out of my present, I was blessed with the most impossibly loving, gifted, supportive, generous friends who reflect exactly the same light as I do. The positive results of my choices are so much more than I ever anticipated. Now, is the love I currently have exactly the same as love from a romantic partner? Well, no. But honestly, what I feel is so much better than the bi-product of any romantic relationship I’ve ever had, because what I’ve got is stable, transparent, unlimited, and totally unconditional. With or without someone else’s contribution to my life, I’m already happy. And since no one else “made me” happy but me, no one has the power to take it away. To me, that’s so much more “success” than I ever bargained for.
If you’d like to participate in the Love Project please submit a one page essay to firstname.lastname@example.org