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The expectation—the standard you might call it—is that we are all looking for a partnership.
We, as humans, all desire to find our match to build our lives with, build families with, or build our own selves around. Much emphasis has been put on finding “that” person and not settling until we have found them.
Of course, while we are in the searching process, we are improving ourselves, becoming more self-aware, and learning how to communicate because we recognize areas in ourselves that need growth from the last relationship.
However, what if we’re in a healthy place, the person we’re dating is a good fit for us, but something still feels off? What if every time we reach a certain point with a partner, that “off” feeling always tends to rear its ugly head? Possibly there is another force at play than just us and our partner.
When I was 27, I married my partner of five years at that point. I had damn near zero self-worth when we met and applied the concept of “beggars can’t be choosers.” We weren’t made for each other, we weren’t even a decent match, but he was good at making me feel physically attractive, which made me feel as though I had worth.
He also made me feel feminine, which was something I always questioned if I could be. Our marriage ended two and a half years in when our daughter was one and a half. It boiled down to a complexity of issues, but amongst those was my discomfort with the weight of maintaining a marriage when it felt like more than I was capable of giving.
I started dating someone else soon after the separation. I knew I wanted to build intimacy with someone who was a better match for me. We got to know one another through phone calls and texts for three months before meeting in person and waited a year before he met my daughter. He consistently revealed himself as reliable, dependable, and a true partner—all areas where my last relationship had lacked.
After he and my daughter met, plans began forming toward us all living together. I trusted him as a caretaker for my daughter and knew without a doubt that he would partner in all areas with me, which I was not wrong about. I could not have dreamed of a more present and willing parental figure for my daughter than him. We ended our relationship after one and a half years; however, he still remains a present person in my daughter’s life because of the deep and beautiful relationship they built.
How did I fail with such a wonderful partner? He was all of the things I thought I needed, and I still wasn’t able to make it work. That all too familiar feeling of discomfort arose with him the same way I had felt with my ex-husband, even when the circumstances were so different. I circled around a few theories of it being my own inability to be truly intimate, as well as the theory that they just weren’t “the one”—neither of which felt fully accurate to me. I decided to see my therapist again and followed his advice to enter into a phase of dating exploration.
I started that dating phase trying to push every connection into a partnership. I felt impulsive about finding my next someone to prove to myself that I wasn’t the problem and that I was capable of being a great partner. Granted, I’m a single mother who works two jobs, so my availability to date has always been quite lacking. I would date people for a month or two, and then it becomes too much for either them or for me.
I dated mostly great people. At one point, I thought dating a married polyamorous man would be a good fit because I wouldn’t be his one and only. He was truly capable of multiple loving partnerships, but even he needed more than I could give.
I have only ever dated with one track in mind: partnership. However, partnership has always, even in my marriage, felt like way too much for me. I felt unrest and discomfort within each of my partnerships. What if I’m not capable of being a great partner, but what if deep connection is possible along a different track other than partnerships?
It hit me while I was driving home from work one day that I didn’t actually believe I wanted a partner, and I didn’t actually want to be a partner. I broke down what I wanted into three simple pieces: I wanted to be wanted, respected, and known. If I attempt to put labels on what this could look like in terms of a romantic connection, I want a lover and a friend and to be someone’s lover and friend.
I have tried the various mixtures of friendship, sexual partner, and someone to deeply emotionally connect with, typically only finding two in each person. I was dissatisfied with each combination, driving me to question if I should just give up on dating. It’s only in a newer relationship where all three elements are present that I have felt safe to explore the possibilities of having a dynamic where our time together is limited in quantity but filled with passionate, quality connection the few times a month we see each other.
There no longer is a progressive goal attached to the trajectory of the relationship, such as living together, making a time frame commitment, or deciding on family goals. The only goal is deepening the knowledge of each other and keeping the lines of connection open. There is freedom to live our independent lives without sacrificing intimacy. Although my natural instinct is to think of this kind of dynamic as less than a partnership, it certainly does not feel like less. To me, it feels safe, intense, loving, and deep. I feel cared for, even in light of my limitations—my boundaries feel safe to be held without causing separation.
The dynamic is not without its own insecurities and struggles—I think due especially to old patterns still having deep roots in my brain of how a partner is supposed to act. I’m learning to let go of obligated communication and only reach out when I want to and to trust that more limited communication doesn’t mean a lack of interest.
I also feel safe, at this point, admitting that I need time for myself without feeling selfish. I am learning how to deeply connect without enmeshing. There is also the ever-present and achy loneliness that comes with the choice to continue parenting alone instead of seeking someone to partner in that as well. It feels unbearable at times and gives me the urge to impulsively obtain a partnership, which I’ve made the choice of giving into in the past. I was left overwhelmed and dissatisfied once again, unable to let go enough to feel any positive impact of sharing parental roles.
Maybe this dynamic is only relevant to me on a temporary basis, and maybe in years to come, I’ll truly yearn for a partnership. I’m not opposed to that. For now, I’m content to partner in life with my daughter and appreciate romantic intimacy when it comes around.
There’s me, there’s the person I’m dating, and then there’s also the dynamic we build our connection around. For me, realizing that the third component may be adjustable has given me a bit of hope that I may be able to build intimacy in a way that fits within my boundaries.
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