I started planning this post many years ago. I was single at the time, and since then have been partnered and then become unattached again. Initially I called it “The Cult of Coupledom” and intended to rant about our society’s backwards views on singlehood. I’m glad I waited, because I have a lot more to say these days. I am on the path to disillusionment.
It’s interesting to me that that’s a negative-coded word. An illusion is a trick, a deception, or a false belief. Dis-illusionment, then, is the process of stripping these fallacies away, of becoming aware. Judging by the synonyms – disappointment, dismay, letdown – it’s clear that we generally prefer to cling to our illusions.
These things are true: I’ve had my heart broken; I’ve been through a period of despair; I’m not sure if I will ever want to share the entirety of my time and living space with another person again; I no longer buy into the conventional model of romantic love. But it isn’t because I’ve become a cynic. I’m happier and stronger than I’ve ever been. My heart is wider open. And I still believe in the limitless might and beauty of love.
The illusion of perfection
Let’s get back to that conventional model. Its features should be familiar – there’s the meet-cute, the spark of attraction, the discovery of a true soulmate, the boastful exclusivity, the prescribed progression from dating to sex to marriage to children; the promise of something permanent, secure, and wholly, passionately fulfilling in a lonely and unpredictable world. I won’t say that nobody ever finds this. There are people who win the lottery too. I just think that our cultural assumption that this is how it should always go often leads to the kind of immense, suffocating pressure that causes so many relationships to implode.
Think of how it feels to be under pressure to do well on a test. Then imagine that the test is of you as a suitable lover who can understand and respond to all the complex needs of a person you desperately want to impress – and that you’re both stuck performing this test together forever, because if it ends up not working out it means there’s something wrong with you and you’ve failed as a person. How can any of us possibly be at our best under such conditions? It’s no wonder people are generally so much more contemptuous and impatient with their partners than their friends – there is so much at stake.
The illusion of security
After coming to these conclusions, for a while I decided that the best perspective to take was a pragmatic one. The thinking here goes like this: Relationships are hard and full of unrealistic expectations, but you are still better off in one than not because being alone is worse. The best approach is to lower the bar, be realistic, mentally prepare yourself for disappointment; find someone with the same sensible work ethic as you, and prepare for a comfortably tepid future together. It may not be exciting, but at least it’s safe and predictable. Until something or someone comes along to shake things up, of course – and then suddenly it isn’t anymore.
Notice that nowhere in either of these scenarios is there room for the apparently radical concept that happiness and wholeness might be possible outside of a romantic partnership.
The illusion that happiness can exist outside of yourself
We’ve all heard variations on the idea that you have to be happy on your own before you can be truly happy with someone else. But still, there is always that adjunct – before you can be with someone else. The ultimate goal is always to find another person. I don’t know about you, but that advice never did much for me. If I’m still conceptualizing my happiness as being about someone else, I’m not really getting in touch with myself. How about this instead: you should be happy on your own because everybody should get the chance to know the delightful liberation of true emotional independence. You should be happy on your own because it’s amazing, and you deserve it.
It’s not easy, I’ll admit. It’s taken me 40 years to even come close. But I have made it my job over the last year to love myself and take care of myself first, and it’s working. I’ve learned that, as an innately anxious person who has a strong tendency to be influenced by other people’s moods, it’s much easier to maintain a healthy equilibrium, both mentally and physically, when I’m not in a conventional relationship. I’ve learned that I become resentful when I’m expected to act in ways that don’t feel authentic for me because I’m supposed to be playing a role for someone else. I’ve learned that the only way I could consider getting seriously involved with someone again is if we are both prepared to offer each other the same kindness, respect and generosity of spirit that we freely offer our closest friends. And I’ve learned that I don’t ever want to stake my happiness on another person again – because that’s too much responsibility for them, and too dangerous for me. I hold my wellbeing in my own hands.
The illusion of permanence
I’ve thought many times that as beings who fear change and crave stability, humans seem psychologically unsuited to the actual world we live in. We put so much effort into building institutions that seem strong and durable, like governments, religions, corporations, and marriage contracts, that allow us to ignore for a while that even the ground we stand on floats and rises and collides with other pieces of land. Nothing is permanent. We ourselves are not static beings – we are living processes in flux over time and through ever-changing environments. How can two such inconstant entities be expected to come together and create a solid, permanent fixture?
I want to deeply enjoy things while they last, knowing they will eventually come to an end. When you eat a gourmet meal, you know the experience is finite. You know you may never taste anything like it again. Does that diminish your enjoyment, or increase it? Do you plunge into despair when it’s over, and swear to never try haute cuisine again? No, because you had no other expectations.
Heartbreak is essentially the grief over a shattered illusion.
Every occurrence of love looks different for every conceivable pair (or more) of people. I believe that the healthiest approach to relationships would allow for that. For me, that means realizing that relationships don’t have to be based on a competition-fueled scarcity model – that two people’s connection doesn’t have to take away from anyone else’s. It means acknowledging that relationship dynamics will change over time, which often means there comes a point when it’s best to let go. It means understanding that even these beliefs I hold right now might evolve again in unexpected ways, and allowing myself to be open to that process.
I want to build love from scratch, with no preconceptions about what it should look like or how it should progress. And whether or not I find that with anyone else, I will continue to build a rich and fulfilling life with myself.