How common is the experience, after the end of a relationship, to look at the other person a little while later and think, “You’re not the person I thought I knew.”
I’d wager, pretty common.
And thinking about it in my own life at least, I’ve realised why this is.
Because we don’t really know them. What we know is Us. Us is a separate entity to you or to me, built on everything shared that takes on an identity of it’s own. You know, “We loved that movie.” “We aren’t sure we can come.” “We’re pregnant!”
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Intrinsically, it’s probably neither. It’s just a thing. When you decide to entwine your life with someone, you do end up holding a lot of things in common, and the pronoun is just a matter of convenience.
Or is it?
As a culture we are pretty obsessed with taking two people and turning them into one. Marriage is predicated on this – “two become one.” We give celebrity couples monikers to label their shared identity. And because what’s good enough for Brangelina is good enough for Us, we do it to ourselves as well, perhaps mostly as a joke — but one of those jokes that covers up that we are serious about this.
Once you are in a relationship — The Relationship, the Us, the We — it’s its own thing. And chances are, the boundaries are going to get a little blurred when it comes to who you are on your own anymore.
But I’m still not saying this is intrinsically a bad thing. We all have a longing for deep connection that has been with us since humans began. If Greek mythology is to be believed, humans began as beings with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Perfectly complete and never alone. Until Zeus, fearing the power of the ultimate Us, the We, split all humans in two. And now we roam the earth, most of our lives consumed with the desire to be put back to gather with our literal ‘other’ half.
It seems this longing for finding completeness might be pretty universal. We like to think it is. We like the romance of it.
Or do we?
Before I left my marriage, my Us, I thought it was the rightness of it keeping me there. That it was right to stay and work things out, that it was responsible, a universal understanding that love conquers all, and love means staying married, staying a We. And I thought I was bonded to that, irreversibly. (The fear of the peril to my very soul if I dared go back on my marriage vows and get divorced, that is injected into your bones if you grow up in most Christian circles.)
But after I left my marriage, the Us — I looked back and realised I wasn’t ripping myself in half to leave, like I had thought it would be.
It was more like stepping out of one of those two-person horse costumes. Nobody was the arse-end though (and when I’m tempted to think that way, I realise that would only confirm that I was it!) It was more like a Pushmi-Pullyu from Doctor Doolittle. Two heads trying to go in different directions.
There were rips in the seams long before I actually left. The costume, the Us, was on it’s way out.
And it was realising this, that the Us was a seperate thing to Me, that helped me heal so fast from things that I thought would take me years. In a matter of months, I had shed the old costume. Of course, the life around you takes a little (a lot) more detangling.
But in the middle of it, there was a seperate me that had always been there, I’d just forgotten. I’d bought into the construction, the costume, the entity that was The Relationship, and started seeing that as my identity.
And that’s the danger of it. And not just because of the thing we all profess to know, that you’ve got to keep from ‘losing yourself’ in a relationship. That’s true, if tritely understood and applied.
What is more dangerous is that we see this construction of our own making, and decide that because of that we know someone. And the day you decide you really know someone, is a bad day for both you and the object of your ‘knowing.’
Because as a whole, we don’t truly know anyone. We are familiar with them, we get to know their behaviours, their habits, their personalities, their peculiarities, their moods. We can know enough of these details and expressions of a person to get a pretty good handle on how they might think or act in various circumstances, to know we like to be around them or not, that our particular peculiarities gel or don’t.
But these are all just signifiers of the signified. The Signifier is one expression or representation of the inner, central meaning – the Signified.
Take a chair, for example. There are many ways to express the meaning, the central Beingness of the concept of Chair. The word written. The sound of saying ‘chair’. A painting of a chair. A physical construction of a chair.
But if you think through all of those to the central concept of Chair – what is it? The real meaning is something beyond all its labels and representations – something that hurts your brain if you think about it too long, something that you’re not sure what it is fully, because you can only think about it in representational terms in your mind; you can only dance around the concept with the signifiers. And yet you can feel it there, just out of reach, the essence of Chair.
And of course, still, this is not an intrinsically bad thing. We do the best at communicating through language and these commonly understood symbols and representations, to get as close as we possibly can to coming together on shared knowing of things. Sometimes things like art and music will feel like they transcend something for a moment, go beyond, connect with the Thing behind it all and we connect. But that is fleeting.
But if that’s all hard enough to comprehend when it comes to an inanimate object, then why are we so quick and so eager to feel we know another human being?
We don’t even know ourselves.
To say we do, of ourselves or others, traps both of us into limits and boundaries and labels that aren’t meant to be there. We take something infinite and undefinable, and slap labels on it and say “There, you are defined. Now we can all know you.”
But I think this is changing. This is what many would call ‘awakening.’ The coming to see beyond the signifiers, to the signified. Beyond the labels of culture and tradition and society and representation, to deeper and deeper glimpses of the divine, eternal spirit within all of Life.
Career definitions are becoming more fluid. Gender definitions are becoming more fluid. Relationship definitions are becoming more fluid.
Some fear this, some see it as the demise of moral, civilised society. And maybe it is, of society as we know. But society as we know it is pretty fucked up already, so I wouldn’t call this a bad thing.
And neither do many other ancient cultures and religions. Drawing on my own heritage growing up Christian as one example, beyond all the noise about marriage and sex and relationships and nuclear families etc etc etc, there is something that has always stuck with me. The idea of heaven being a place where all of those human, physical bonds dissolve. (And makes me wonder if all the ‘Christian’, ‘biblical’ ideas about marriage aren’t mostly tradition born of governmental desire to keep us all in order. You’ve got to at least question it.)
Some people fear this idea. They don’t like the idea that they aren’t going to ‘care’ about their mother or their husband anymore. But I think this misses the point. As the bonds of those relationship definitions dissolve, it isn’t so we don’t care about those people anymore, so that we are adrift and alone instead of connected.
It is actually quite completely and beautifully the opposite. We will be connected to all. We will return to the Oneness we were seeking all along. (This is what Heaven is.)
You see, this is what we are all looking for. It is true — we have this inner desire for connection that makes us seek out mates. But it is not because we started out two halves of a whole and need to join back together with that one special person. It is because we are one part of an infinite whole. We are like a water droplet alone, when we used to be part of an infinite ocean.
No wonder we feel lonely. No wonder we try to find someone we feel knows us and we know them.
The problem is not that longing, and is not the seeking, and it’s not even seeking it within relationships — it’s the way we expect to receive it. It’s the way we expect one single other person to fulfil this desire and longing within us. (This need, for it is a soul-deep need, to be connected.)
And so we keep the constructs of our relationships, the Us we create, the image we hold up and protect and extol — even when the reality is practically killing us — because we are desperately afraid of being alone.
Or are we?
When I was a teenager, I told my mum that I was an ‘independent family member.’ “Yes, I am part of the family and want to be. But mostly leave me alone, please.”
I said it in jest then — but again, one of those jokes that hides the fact that actually I was serious about it. And maybe some would take it as teenage arrogance or the push for independence. But I think it held a more profound truth that is only just becoming clear to me. And it is somewhat of a paradox.
This desire to be alone has been with me my whole life. And mostly life has told me that it’s wrong. You should want to be with people. You just want to be alone because you are afraid of the commitment and compromise that comes with connection.
And I believed it, I believed I was wrong. I believed it so much that I got married to prove that I could be right, even though it wasn’t what I wanted. But what I wanted was wrong, right?
And I did have barriers up, barriers to connection. Barriers I now realise I put up to protect myself from being influenced and forced into being someone I was not — barriers that actually protected me well. (Even though I ended up in a life that wasn’t right for me, I did manage to get out of it, and I did manage to get out relatively unscathed and with Me still intact beneath.) But I didn’t know that then, so I kept trying to push through the walls everyone told me shouldn’t be there.
Then a couple of years ago, in Peru, I had a profound experience of feeling my own aloneness. It pierced through the barriers of self-protection. It made me realise something that shocked me – “I don’t want to be alone.”
It shocked me because even though I’d been trying all this time to not want to be alone, since I thought that is how a sane, normal human being would feel, I knew deep down that it wasn’t how I felt. I still liked being alone, though I’d tried my whole life to stop feeling that way.
So to realise I felt a longing to not be alone shocked me.
And so I came home from Peru and persisted in my marriage, still not grasping the truth of it.
I thought something had just come down around my heart, that I would return and find giving and receiving love easier or something. That it would just work, now, like I’d been missing a piece of my humanity and now I’d found it.
But it didn’t. The opposite happened. The facade crumbled even further, the two-headed horse costume unraveled until one day I looked around and realised it had fallen away.
And it was only by seeing that it was gone, that I realised it had even been there.
As I stepped from the remnant threads around my ankles, looking down at my own self, the real truth started becoming clearer.
I was an independent family member.
Like one molecule of water in an ocean. Separate and yet One.
I can want to be alone and I can not want to be alone, all at the same time.
I can like to float alongside particular other molecules of water in this ocean of Life, but it is not an Us against the world. Relationships should not distance us from Life. That is the total antithesis of what relationship should be.
And yet it is all too common – marriage, families, groups turn insular and self-destructive by very nature of the fact that we are not designed to live that way.
I don’t know exactly how to live this out. And maybe the marriages that work are the ones who have instinctively figured this out and make it work within the confines of the traditional model.
Or maybe not.
Maybe we’ve just been making the best of it. Maybe a lot of it was cognitive dissonance, because we didn’t think there was any other possibility.
Even if you are happily and traditionally coupled up with no desire to change that, things are beginning to change around us. And as momentum grows, more and more people are rejecting what was when they realise they have the freedom to do so.
I don’t think that’s a fad. And it’s definitely not a disease.
It’s an invitation.
I don’t know how it works from here, what it means for romantic relationships, for friendships, for families. I’m just figuring it out as I go too.
But I do know we don’t need to be afraid of it. The ‘breakdown’ of the traditional roles and bonds and roles in society is not a sign of the breakdown of humanity – it is a sign of a collective waking up.
We are stepping out of the costumes we have lived behind.
It takes courage, because it is a whole new way of living that we haven’t had the freedom to explore before. We need to relearn to hear our own intuition, the inner voice of Life that we are all connected to.
We need to have the courage to let go of judgment and labels and neat boxes, for ourselves and for other people, even when – especially when – that means letting people express themselves in ways that are so far from neat and defined.
We should be thanking these people for their profound courage. To step out and follow what calls to them. To admit they don’t know. They are pioneers of this new world.
And how do we stop trying to know people? How do we stop the compulsion to get a handle on who someone is, so that we can recognise what we are really doing is trying to keep them in the box that we’ve grown accustomed to?
By knowing ourselves first? I don’t think so. That’s just another attempt at boxes for the sake of comfort.
I think it is by realising we don’t know ourselves. And by being okay with that.
Being willing to let go of the construct, the bunch of signifiers that we’ve grown used to attributing to ourselves.
And then just sit with that for a while until that elusive, just-out-of-reach thing in our minds that tells us who and what we really are, what our essence is, has room to come forward.
(And we are far more complex than the concept of Chair – this is going to take a while.)
The concept of Me.
This is the way to the true Us.
Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day. 😉
I have to admit, when I started writing this, I thought I was going to be giving some ‘How to’s’ or Relationship tips to avoid the downfalls of the ‘Us’ construction.
Clearly it didn’t go that way, and I’m not sure what I was thinking, because what do I know? I’m to new to this.
Plus, it goes against everything I believe in to even suggest there is one way, or some formula to follow for a ‘healthy relationship’. I want to gag just writing those words.
(It was 6am when I started writing, okay, after waking up a 2:34am and not going back to sleep. It’s a miracle I’m even comprehensible. So lets all just be grateful my writing tends to go where it needs to go, whether I intended to take it there or not.)
BUT… if you are curious about the ways the world is changing when it comes to relationships, I will suggest one thing to look up: I started reading about being ‘Single-at-heart’ when I first separated. Initially I thought that was what I was. It made so much sense to so much about me.
If you are feeling any inkling that traditional coupledom is not your thing in some way, it wouldn’t hurt to read up on it. You don’t have to subscribe to it. I don’t necessarily agree anymore that it’s a ‘thing’ — not meaning that it’s not real and valid, but that I’m wary of creating just another label.
(Case in point: after having decided, joyfully, Yes! I am single-at-heart! — when I later met someone and found I wanted to be with them in some form of a relationship, I felt guilty!! Like I was betraying myself or entire concept, until I realised it doesn’t have to be either/or. I don’t have to be in ANY box.)
I don’t think that is the spirit in which Bella DePaulo treats it, to be fair. But we love our labels so much, we turn everything into one, whether it was meant that way or not.
She wrote How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. And she writes other things, as a sort of activist against ‘Singlism.’ (The way society is set up to discriminate against people who are single.)
Whatever you think of that, I admire and am grateful for her passion on the topic to be another agent of change in loosening the suffocating chains we’ve been held in.
The more people standing up and saying, “There’s isn’t just one way to be!” Is good by me.
Also read A New Earth by Ekhart Tolle
(FYI: Book links are Amazon affiliate links.)