“The trick, I’ve found, is not to fear losing my partner, but to fear losing myself.”
–Kate Newburgh, PhD
[Bella’s intro: After reading something I wrote recently, Kate Newburgh got in touch to tell me a bit about her life. She was single for a long time and is now in a committed romantic relationship. She said that she has a mantra that helps her stay centered and strong within her romantic relationship: “What would I be doing/saying/believing if I were single?” I was intrigued by that – enough so to invite her to write this guest post, even though I usually offer such opportunities to people who are single. One of her themes is freedom. I’ve written about freedom in the lives of single people; Kate tells us what it can mean if you are coupled. I always wonder, when people talk about romantic relationships, if the same themes apply to other relationships, such as close friendships. I suppose that is a topic for another time. For now, I’ll just thank Kate Newburgh for this thoughtful contribution.]
“What Would I Do If I Were Single?”
By Kate Newburgh, PhD
I recently fell into the Mary Oliver poem:
Not anyone who says “I’m going to be
careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible
and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.
On the surface, this poem sounds like a singing ode to romantic love. I believe, however, that it gestures toward something darker, elemental, and overpowering in relationships. Lately in my own intimate partnership I’ve been grappling intensely with the shadow side to this poem.
I know this is a blog about being single! And I’d like to explore the importance, the necessity, of being single within the context of a romantic relationship.
By this I do not mean that all romantic relationships should allow for multiple sexual partners or create a sense of non-commitment or irresponsibility. I believe the things we commit to (and not just relationships) are often our greatest source of strength and self-knowledge, and furthermore (god knows) I am in no position to create a list of rules for functional relationships. No, what I am talking about is maintaining a sense of self in the roaring, “powerful and uncontrollable” energy that comes from existing as an infinite being in relation to another infinite being. I’m talking about the struggle to maintain a solid sense of self when I’ve felt chosen and moved by “something invisible” that acts on me. I am working to recognize this maelstrom as an opportunity I can lean into for clarity and awareness instead of a killing storm to run from.
I am in a relationship now after being happily single for a long time, and Dr. DePaulo’s work helped me realize how my challenge has been to maintain a sense of self while standing in relation to another. With roots in the Midwest, where women are taught, both explicitly and by untold subtle reinforcements, to be pleasing, compromising, and malleable, I find it all too easy to be subsumed by the various karmic influences of my partner. Recently in a flash of uncomfortable realization I was shocked to find myself reverting to this self-effacing role, as for years I was a proud, determined, self-sustaining woman who found great pleasure, freedom, and independence in living by my own rules.
Dr. DePaulo’s work helped me develop a new mantra: “what would I be doing/saying/believing if I were single?” I’ve found untold power in this mantra because it reminds me to stay true in my own skin, brain, heart, and soul. It is a reminder that I am my own woman, and I can be as expansive and free as I choose even, and possibly especially, in relation to another.
But how can a relationship enhance freedom? For many, freedom and romantic relationships are anathema, and rightly so. It takes a unique partner, a truly exquisite universal choosing, to even begin to reconcile this paradox. In thinking about freedom, and in going back to the original disclaimer that this essay is not about the abdication of responsibility, I am reminded of Maxine Greene who defines freedom, not as we “feel entitled to do as [we] please,” but instead as “the capacity to surpass the given and to look at things as if they could be otherwise.” Jean-Paul Sartre, who spent his life cogitating on human freedom, notes that until someone is impeded, the search for freedom will not occur.
If you believe, as I do, that there is freedom in becoming the most full, expansive expression of your self, then a relationship can act as a powerful tool for achieving that, but only if you are willing to fully engage with the obstacles it presents. If not, you will most likely become some sketched outline of yourself living by the agreed-upon constrictions, routines, and conferred roles of daily life.
What many do not fully embrace, given our steady childhood diet of Disney princesses and happily-ever-afters, is that romantic relationships are not a panacea for life’s challenges but a microcosm of life itself. My intimate relationship, which is beautiful and loving, has still exposed every one of my self-imposed limitations, fears, and sources of imbalance, and has reflected these back to me with unflinching clarity.
My mantra, “what would I be doing/saying/believing if I were single?” has helped me to “look at things as if they could be otherwise.” As such, I’ve been able to approach each exposure with self-compassion, courage and confidence. The relationship is not creating these issues, it is merely a catalyst that enables their surfacing. I would, of course, prefer not to see them, but that “something invisible” with all of its power and uncontrollable energy, often leaves me no choice.
However, if I were single, I wouldn’t feel shame or fear at seeing these qualities become visible in the same way I have no shame standing alone and naked in my own living room. My mantra reminds me of the strong, unbroken woman I am. It has helped me bring truth and courage to the relationship and find the gifts in what can sometimes look like flaws when viewed through someone else’s eyes. Through the invocation of my mantra I remember not to let myself be defined by my partner’s perceptions, but to hold his perceptions gently and then make up my own mind. The trick, I’ve found, is not to fear losing my partner, but to fear losing myself.
Keeping the mindset of “single” while in a committed romantic relationship has pushed me to engage with myself at a level of unprecedented openness. Through that process I’ve forged a new awareness of who I am, what I value, and what I want for myself. I’ve become better at recognizing what is mine to grapple with and what is not mine to carry. These lessons of selfhood, while sometimes excruciating, have served me in every aspect of my life. Thanks to my relationship and my mantra, I’ve noticed myself growing stronger and more resilient as a way of being in the world.
Dr. Kate Newburgh is a writer and consultant. She received her Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and works with schools and businesses to develop transformative practices and human-centered organizational cultures that foster renewal and growth. Learn more at www.deeppractices.com.
Greene, M. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Sartre, J. P. (1966). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.