My college girlfriend and I were exact opposites. I was always an indoor kid; Dee was outdoorsy. While I listened only to whatever I could sing along to, she loved and knew about all kinds of music. She had a drive to explore and experience everything—in short, Dee challenged me. Unfortunately, rather than being inspired by her to explore new things, I just wanted to co-opt her qualities for myself.
Having been raised by a doting, single mother, I turned that same kind of single-minded attention toward my girlfriend. Her approval, like my mother’s before her, meant everything to me, but my constant affection nauseated my girlfriend's independent sensibilities. At the time, I thought our conflicts only made the relationship that much more thrilling. I used to look at her and think, "She's my world." I was right, for better and for worse.
In your early 20s, you should really be sussing out your own identity and purpose. But I’d made my whole identity out of Dee, and what’s worse, she made me feel whole, well-rounded, and accomplished, just by being with her. In my mind, I had the love of an unusual woman. What could I possibly be missing from life that was more important than that? Turns out, quite a lot.
When the inevitable finally happened and she couldn't handle my codependence anymore, Dee put an end to it. At the time of the breakup, I was interning for what is now a major Hollywood production company. Being in that office was a childhood dream come true, but 90 percent of my attention was focused on my missing half. I squandered great opportunities, dropped the ball at work, and pretty much made all the mistakes you make when you're not fully present.
When the internship ended, I hadn’t made any contacts in the industry or connections in college (socializing outside of my two-person world hadn't exactly been a priority). So I moved back in with my mother. At first, the experience was just a series of heartbreak cliches. Here's the montage: sleeping alone on one side of the bed, flipping through photos stored in an old shoebox, drinking too much at a bar, waking up next to whomever.
It took time, but eventually I realized that I was missing something much more fundamental than an ex. The hole she'd left behind wasn't a hole she should have ever been filling—what I felt missing was my identity. I had no idea who I wanted to be.
I spent most of my time waiting tables at a couple of restaurants and hitting the bars afterward. I perceived the world around me as a cage, and I felt limited, certainly by money, but mostly, by a lack of direction in life. I also wasn’t doing anything to try to solve these issues. I just wanted to find something that would make me feel remotely like I had when Dee and I were together.
The hole she'd left behind wasn't a hole she should have ever been filling—what I felt missing was my identity.
Eventually, it finally occurred to me that having no definition meant that I was now free to define myself. In fact, I had to—or risk repeating the same mindless cycle of codependence over and over. This wasn't exactly a simple process, but it was the start of the biggest change of my life. While self-examination can be useful, once you get started, it can become difficult to stop yourself from examining everyone and everything at all times. Other people begin to feel transparent. While this stems from a heightened perception of human behavior, it can (and uh, did) lead to an egotistical series of presumptions… which made dating unromantic and tricky.
Now that I’m so aware of codependence, whenever someone shows interest—however harmless their intention—it can be off-putting. It leaves me with the distinct feeling that the person in front of me is missing a half and wants to try to squeeze me into its place. These days, I don’t miss being in a relationship. I don’t feel like I’m missing that half.
In relationships, the goal is—as far as I can tell—a sense of well-being, connectedness, intimacy, support, and a million other tiny slivers of positivity that all add up to that difficult concept: love. But when we attempt to construct our sense of well-being and purpose from our relationships with other people, that's where we fail ourselves.
Right now, I'm single and I don’t know if my life is “better” or “worse” off for not having someone to call a partner. I think it would be very nice if someone were to come along whose own brand of “crazy” matches my own. This way of thinking about relationships certainly hasn’t opened any doors for me, but it has unburdened me of the that nagging, unconscious cling of desire for an abstract notion of "romance" or worse, a surrogate parent. It seems to me that people who don't examine these tendencies within themselves can end up repeating the same patterns of projection, attachment, and disappointment from one glazed-over interaction to the next, and I choose not to be part of that.
So for now, I’ll take being alone and the opportunity to know myself better. I might have ignored this critical part of growing up if I'd always had someone else’s life as a primary focus, and while it's been hard at times, this has been a good opportunity to learn overall.
Besides, I don’t live with my mother anymore, so… progress!