By Elana Luban
I’ve always wanted to live the life of someone in a relationship. I didn’t just want the relationship; I wanted everything that came with it. The lifestyle seemed glorious, even the parts of it that happened when your significant other wasn’t right next to you: the anticipation of seeing them again, daydreaming about them, planning for the next date, buying them gifts…
When I actually got into a relationship, however, I realized my boyfriend was single when he wasn’t with me. Let me explain — he wasn’t literally single. He wasn’t cheating or going to strip clubs with his friends. He just…lived his life. The same life he had when he used to be single. The moment I realized this was the moment I recognized the disparity between how the two of us were trained, from childhood, to respond to relationships.
He quickly learned on the job, without any prodding from me, how to be an exceptionally attentive, caring boyfriend. There were no moments when I remember thinking, “God, I wish he’d seen more rom-coms!” He calls me, sends me little poems even when he’s at work, and does countless small acts of kindness that never cease to surprise me and put a smile on my face. But the difference between us is that he learned to do these things at the beginning of our relationship, while I had been storing these skills — garnered from all the movies and novels of my childhood and adolescence — in my back pocket for years. It’s not that he didn’t come across romantic movies or literature; he just hadn’t been taught to take notes. I had been.
Once I realized there was a vast gap between us, I was able to accept it. Knowing that you and your boyfriend were likely raised differently is important for communication and feeling satisfied in your relationship. My boyfriend recently told me that, throughout his childhood and teens, “there wasn’t really a message passed down to me of ‘you should look forward to being in a relationship.’” Surely some guys do look forward to dating, but there are many reasons boys may not be taught to eagerly anticipate “boyfriend-hood” — ranging from outdated definitions of masculinity, to religious and societal upbringing.
Not all girls were taught this value of independence the way our male counterparts were. Personally, I was raised on a combination of Disney movies and 1970s Russian classics (my parents are pretty old-school immigrants) whose messages basically culminated in “life will be perfect when you find a guy to love and/or he kisses you.” If there was one piece of advice I could offer my five-year-old self — yes, five, because that’s the age when the “find a prince to save you” mentality was first planted for me — it would be not to wait until a boy comes along to start living. As Dr. Seuss says, “All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.” I never realized, as a kid, how much of our lives we spend alone, and how that is totally okay. I never treated my “alone” years, before my relationship, as something normal — I treated them as a problem, a deficiency, something to be cured or solved. It’s not wrong to look forward to a relationship, but I spent so much of my life hoping, planning, daydreaming, waiting.
So, if boys can learn the boyfriending skills they“missed out on,” then we women can learn what we missed out on: how to truly be single. What I needed to work on was living my independent life when I wasn’t with my significant other — just like he does sometimes when he’s at work or with friends. This didn’t come from from a place of jealousy or vengeance; on the contrary, I saw how healthy it was when he spent time focused on his own life and later came back even more excited to spend time with me. So I decided to do the same. If, as a young girl, I wasn’t taught that I can or should do this, all the more reason to teach myself.
Even if you’re far from needy or clingy, even if you’ve know how to give your boyfriend space, it might be worthwhile to ask yourself: are you giving yourself space?
On a day when I’m practicing being “single,” I study, grocery shop, see friends, and don’t text my significant other. I remind myself — and there’s no shame in my needing reminding, since this doesn’t always come naturally to me — that my studying matters, my grad school plans matter, my hobbies matter, and now is not the time for planning dates. It might seem crazy that even someone who considers herself a feminist needs this kind of reminding, but I do — I need to acknowledge my tendencies if I plan on combating them.
It seems counterintuitive, but it took being in a relationship for me to finally learn how to live single — how to focus on myself and my own life. Some of you might be thinking, “Easy for you to say, now that you have a boyfriend!” And you would be right, it is easier to practice independence once you’re already cocooned in the safety of a healthy relationship. But with this newfound independence, for the first time in my life I know that I can handle being alone. And that security within myself is worth a lot more than the security any relationship could offer.