For some people, couplehood is the end all be all of their existence. They have no need to be an “I” because they are perfectly happy (or at least content and willing) to be a “we” always and forever.
For others, maintaining an individual identity is paramount to being happy within a relationship.
I use to be the former.
I have become the latter.
I was a husband hunter from the minute I uttered the words “I like men” and, probably, before then, even if I didn’t realize it. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted and needed a partner to make my life complete. I fell into the common habit of trying to become whatever a man wanted me to be to snag him and keep him. As you can imagine, this lead to many relationship bungles and a lot of personal heartache for me. I found myself wanting to be in love more often than actually being in love, or meeting the right guy at the wrong time and, sometimes, the wrong guy at the right time. I struggled between trying to be everything a guy could want and being who I really was, because I did not like who or what I was, what I looked like, how I sounded, what little I had to offer, etc….so I could not believe for a moment that anyone would want me. Hence, my well honed ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic) skills kicked in and I became (or tried to
become) the ultimate people pleaser to make men happy and keep them interested…give them everything they want so they would be happy and stay with me.
The problem is, despite telling myself this would work, my subconscious knew otherwise and, invariably, I’d start acting out or pulling away or getting frustrated from the emotional cage I had trapped myself in. But I hated breaking up or dealing with friction, so a lot of what I thought and felt I kept hidden from others (i.e.: my partners) and trudged along trying to make it work. And despite being unhappy, I still dreaded the worst of all fates: being dumped. Because I would rather have been with the wrong person than be alone.
Fortunately, most of the men I dated were more mature and aware than I was; they knew things weren’t working and broke it off. Even in my relief of being “let off the hook,” I hurt terribly at another lost relationship and felt guilt for not making the men I dated happier and not being a better partner and lover.
Then I had my first real love and I learned the hard way what love was about. That the old saying rang true: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” Letting go that time was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I believed with all my heart that walking away would help more than staying, and I hoped he would see that and recognize that I loved him enough to leave despite how hard it was for me. I was growing up and learning that we can’t always have what we want and need and that, sometimes, letting go is a greater act of love than holding on, for both ourselves and others.
After a failed string of relationships and many years of carrying a torch for “the one I let go”, I met my current partner.
This one started off so differently from the rest, because I was unaware of his interest, so I freely let go with a stream of honesty unlike anything I had every spewed before. I talked about my life, my loves, my losses, my frustrations and anger. I let it all hang out for him to see, because I was not trying to date him, never suspected he was interested and believed I had nothing to lose. I was done trying to find “Mr. Perfect.” My sole purpose was in developing myself as an individual and focusing on getting my life together. I didn’t care if he knew that because I’d never get him anyway. He floored me when he asserted otherwise and, in a very short time, I realized (and I KNOW how cliche and corny this is going to sound) as soon as I stopped looking for Mr. Perfect, I found Mr. Perfect-for-me.
We have been together for 11+ years.
We did the honeymoon phase, wherein our relationship was new and, despite being broke and directionless, we were happy to have each other and struggled together to carve out a home life and social circle together. We talked and discussed and considered each other along the way, trying our best to honor our vows and remember that we were together by choice, a choice we made anew each morning we woke up together and each night we went to bed together.
In that time, I have grown and changed in ways I could never have imagined, some for the better, some…well, not so much. My understanding of myself, of him and of our relationship has evolved. I don’t necessarily believe in “bad change.” Change is what it is: something becoming something else. It’s natural and part of life. Almost nothing stays the same. Ever.
In more recent years, we have begun to explore the differences in each other and our relationship from when we first met. We realized that, in order for us to stay together (happily,) there had to be room for each of us to grow. We wanted to avoid all the traps we had seen so many unsuccessful couples fall into: Trying to keep things and each other the same. Controlling (or trying to control) each others thoughts, emotions and actions. Refusing to discuss things that could be potentially volatile or “scary” to consider. Avoiding honesty to avoid hurt feelings. Pretending to be happy about something when we were not, and/or accepting the way things were instead of trying to fix them or understand them. We started to break away from the shackles of what we were taught was the “right” way to have and keep a relationship and from other people’s expectations of us: where we lived, where we worked, how we spent our time and money, how we related to one another and others, etc. We had spent so much time doing things the way we were supposed to/expected to do them that we never bothered to consider how we wanted things to be for us: two grown adult men in a relationship we chose to be in together in the way we wanted to.
We re-explored our feelings and needs, our wants and desires. We discussed our finances and dreams, our past, present and future. We let go of “we” and started discussing “I.” We re-committed to giving each other the freedom to be who we needed and wanted to be and reminded ourselves that we only wanted to be with each other so long as we wanted to be with each other.
When you are in a long term relationship, one of the struggles can be to find a balance between fulfilling your own needs as an individual and the needs of someone else as your spouse/partner. This is especially hard when you have a supportive partner who gives you the freedom within your relationship to be yourself , because you have to be careful not to overindulge that freedom to the point you disrespect or neglect your relationship and become selfish in your own endeavors. After all, if you want to be free to live your life and make your choices without consideration of another person’s wants and needs, then you should stay single. Choosing to be in a relationship means choosing to take another into consideration for the duration of your time together.
This is not always easy, especially for an emerging “free spirit” like myself.
As I have been shedding old ideas and behaviors that no longer fit who I am and what I want to be, I struggle with putting myself first over putting our relationship first. When should I compromise? When should he? If we don’t accept others’ parameters how and should we develop our own? What makes a relationship? Cohabitation and co-mingled finances? Sexual and emotional exclusivity? Familiarity and longevity? How do you define love? And do their need to be any rules at all, or are you just two people, stumbling through life together, making it
up as you go along? Is it ever OK to take each other for granted, accepting that your both in it for the long haul, trusting that you will survive together as a couple no matter what anyone throws at you?
I am finding that the longer we are together, the more I realize how little we know about the “right way” to make a relationship work. Just when I think I have everything figured out, that I know him and myself as thoroughly as possible, one of us surprises the other or life throws us a curve ball and we are forced to explore new ground and make new choices.
The irony of all of this questioning and concern is that it does not make me less sure about my commitment and marriage to my husband. It makes me more sure, because I know we have the kind of relationship in which we can ask these questions, discuss these ideas and answer honestly. We do not tailor our answers and responses to gratify each other. We share openly and honestly, for better or worse, and go from there. We ask for and allow absolute honesty, and any time that’s missing, it is due to our own insecurities and shortcomings. We screw up, we get angry, we hurt and get hurt, we get scared and we get needy. We allow each other to be two individuals, sharing a journey together and figuring out the rules, such as they are, along the way, knowing each step we take together is a choice. We stay together knowing that tomorrow we could choose to walk away from each other, but believing in our hearts we never will.
And maybe that is our “secret” truth…that, despite our freedom to be an “I”, we naturally gravitate back towards being a “we.” Even when we are struggling or at odds, we know that it is not a desire to be apart, but to be together that makes it difficult, because we always want it to work, to be right and good and happy and fun, even when it’s not. Because that’s what love is about for us: finding our way together.
Through it all, the only two questions we ever really need an answer to are:
Do you love me?
Do you want to stay with me?
That’s the foundation from which every other question and answer can and will spring, and as long as the answer to both of those questions is “yes, ” then everything else will work itself out. When I look at him, I see our past and our future and I am grateful for our present, as if we always were together and always will be. Not because we have to be or should be, but because we want to be. And what can make me feel more loved than to know that, for 3,970 days in a row, he has chosen to be with me? It doesn’t ease my struggles, but it reassures me that he’ll stick by me as I work my way through them, just as I will do for him. That’s love for us, as we define it.
When some people say “I love you” it’s often out of habit or expectation. There may be no meaning behind it, the words are empty, and it’s said robotically. In the movie “Love & Sex” (released in 2000) a couple discusses saying “I Love You” so much that it becomes routine and almost meaningless, as much as saying “I cheese sandwich you.”
We feel the exact opposite – that it is not the words but the meaning behind them that matter, so we have taken to saying “cheese sandwich” to one another (or saying various other foods) to express the same sentiment – “I Love You.” It is just another of our many idiosyncrasies that we have developed through the years together. Part of our private language and secret knowledge that helps fortify what we have and feel for each other.
So, as I continue to struggle to find my “I” voice, sometimes becoming introverted and introspective, sometimes pulling away and even running away sometimes asking myself the scary question “Do I still want to be with him? Do I still want to spend the rest of my life with him? Am I happy with him? Can I be myself and be his husband at the same time?”
The only honest answer I can give is yes.
Because my “I” voice is special and important, but so is my “we” voice; and I really believe I can have both with him.
You might even say…I can have my cheese sandwich and eat it too.