Some time ago, Somali poet extraordinaire Warsan Shire tweeted, “My alone is so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” That tweet has become the ultimate meme used to explain how amazing, and even life changing, it can be when one learns to sit quietly with herself and savor her aloneness. This isn’t a skill we are often taught, after all, as women, because we are generally socialized to believe that our value is determined by whether someone else wants us—and rarely by whether we want ourselves. Learning to savor solitude, and beginning a long love affair with oneself even, can make reentering a relationship very difficult.
Being single can spoil us. There is little compromise necessary; no requirement to overlook someone else’s bullsh*t; no commitment, either, in helping others carry all of their mental and emotional bags (especially when you are barely able to lift your own). Everything in your life—and your apartment—is just like you left it, and you do things your way, like, all the time. If I regret anything about my life as a young single woman without a child, it’s that I didn’t enjoy that space and time enough, when it was all about me.
I am grateful for my partnership, and I wouldn’t give up being a mother for anything in the world. But many times, it seems as though my life is consumed with caring for everyone but me. In hindsight, I realize how important it is to stock up on self-care when we can. Buy it in bulk. Because there will be a deficit at some point; it’s a requirement for adulting.
And we don’t want to spend our lives alone, right? We enjoy warm bodies to cuddle with under cold winter sheets and someone to talk to about our day. Many of us also want the kinds of partnerships that lead to long-term commitments and families, so we have to acquiesce to the never-ending work those kinds of commitments require.
But how? How do we learn to appreciate and enjoy someone else being in our space—physically, mentally and emotionally—when we’ve been on our own for a long time? How do we stop being so self-absorbed? The first step is both parties involved understanding that entering into a relationship after being single is going to be challenging. Talk about those challenges as things progress and become more serious. Spend a lot of time (intimate, crust in your morning eyes and flu-inspired bed sweats time) together before considering life partnerships or marriage. Life (and things you don’t like about a person) comes at you fast when you get past the Netflix and spooning stage of the relationship.
Writer Kristin Wong believes that couples should begin with a talk about expectations early on. The first set of expectations to discuss should define the type of relationship you want and your understanding of what the relationship is at that point.
Are the two of you exclusive and monogamous? (This isn’t necessarily a given, and should be established.) What are expectations around communication? What kind of time do you expect from your partner? What kind of dating and romance do you require? What is your love language? Where would you like to see the relationship go?
The biggest issue many couples have is not being explicit about their expectations and what they require. When we don’t have these kinds of clear conversations, we make assumptions and force our partners to as well. (Add the fact that people make allowances in the beginning of relationships that disappear once the honeymoon stage has worn off.) Date night being an in-house movie and pizza may be suitable when you’re getting to know each other—but real planned out, romantic dates might be necessary for you to keep the fire lit.
What are expectations surrounding money? Who will clean what? Will you both assume traditional gender roles in the relationship, or are those roles unimportant? Many times, we assume we know the answers to these questions, but we often don’t. And nothing can be more frustrating than believing a relationship will be one thing, and discovering it to be something else.
We must make space for exactly that, however. What we believe our relationship will be, even after countless conversations on what we want, is often not what it will become. The key to the compassion necessary to share a life with someone is remembering that they are human and flawed. So often we want others to recognize our humanity and our capacity to get it all wrong, but we struggle with accepting that this is everyone else’s story as well—even the people we love and are counting on most.
When we understand that everyone is going to make mistakes and have a plan on how to move forward after those mistakes are made, our relationships win. And we have to remember to celebrate when things are good.
It’s also important to continue to practice your independence, as that may be one of the things that made your partner come to love you. Find moments to spend alone, still. Don’t abandon the life you have before your relationship. When we practice being individuals in our relationships, we remain interesting, self-possessed even, which is very, very sexy.
Let’s talk more! What tips would you give someone entering a relationship after being single for a longtime?
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.