Being my authentic self in relationship – particularly in relationships with men whom I find attractive and with whom I want to be in relationship – is my biggest challenge, according to well-placed sources (my therapist).
Because being myself carries huge risks, risks in the present but also risks that are associated with painful memories from my past: if I speak my truth, there’s a chance or a fear I might be rejected, abandoned, ignored or ridiculed. I might not get my needs met. I might not be loved. And that hurts.
But not being myself in relationship, trying to be something I’m not or hiding my true self to avoid rejection, abandonment and so forth, is more painful in the long-term, for both of us. Because the relationship I get myself in will be based on a lie or a version of the truth, but not the whole truth.
What am I talking about exactly? I’ll try to be more explicit, while also being mindful of the fact that writing about relationships inevitably involves other people and that I really value my relationships with others, even when they’ve ended. I also value other people’s privacy and hope I always manage to respect that in my writing, by keeping the focus on me.
So a fledgling relationship – if you could call it a relationship – has just ended. It’s probably more accurate to say I’ve split up with the guy I’ve been dating for the past eight weeks (two months, really? I hadn’t realised it had been that long) as we’d never really established whether we were in a relationship or not. In fact, it was my desire to establish whether we were in a relationship or if we were heading that way that brought it to an end.
I liked him, a lot, and we clicked on a number of levels. In many respects, we were a good match. But I had a sense, early on, that I might be at a different life stage to him, that we might be looking for different things.
What life stage am I at? Well, when it comes to dating and relationships, if I meet someone I get on well with, I want to give it a shot. I want to put two feet in, as opposed to one foot in, one foot out, which I used to do in my past. I see now that my previous half-hearted attempts at relationships disguised a fear of intimacy, of getting too close, in case he left me or in case he actually loved me, which would then bring the risk of him leaving me – the pain of which felt too much to bear in my younger years.
Having learned from my mistakes and having understood that the magic I’ve been seeking in so many other places for so long actually happens when I risk my heart and allow myself to get close to someone, I tried a wholehearted attempt at a relationship last year. It was a wonderful, rewarding experience, even if it did end. It also helped me define the kind of relationship I’m looking for.
So I’m at the stage where, if I click with someone, I’m going to want to nudge things forward after a while, to spend more time together, make a few plans, for days out or weekends away. I’m going to want to put some fun in the diary and make space for spontaneous stuff too. I guess I’d like to know I have a boyfriend, even if that word still makes me cringe a little.
Am I looking to ‘settle down’? It’s an interesting question and one that I had to ask myself recently. If I’m honest, I loathe the phrase and I reacted quite defensively when it was put to me. It seems to carry connotations of monotony, sameness and trips to B&Q on weekends (not that there’s anything wrong with B&Q on weekends, particularly if you work a five-day week and your home is in need of repair). It runs contrary to what I like to think I am, which is a bit of a free spirit.
What I’m looking for in a relationship, at least in part, is adventure, laughter, camping trips, days at the beach, weekends spent in foreign climes and, in time, potential discussions about a joint investment in a VW campervan and a couple of surf boards (I realise some of this is weather dependent and nor is my surfing the best).
I guess I want to continue doing what I’ve been trying to do in recent months and years – the stuff that makes me feel alive, which generally involves the great outdoors, exercise and amazing scenery, but I’d like to be doing that with someone I’m getting to know and learning to love.
I’m not set on dating a carbon copy of myself (that wouldn’t be much fun). He doesn’t have to want to swim in the freezing cold sea (I swam off Cornwall last weekend, albeit for about 3 minutes) or share my love of salsa dancing, but a desire to try out some of my interests while I try out some of his would be great.
But I also appreciate that it’s difficult to find adventure and some sort of stability in the same person or the same relationship and there’ll have to be some give and take – I’m ready for that. And I realise that B&Q trips, home repairs and a more stable existence can be really fun if you’re with someone you love (apparently).
But I digress – this wasn’t meant to read like an online dating profile.
Back to authenticity.
In the relationship that just ended, I took a big risk, made myself vulnerable and was my authentic self. At a time I deemed appropriate – not too soon (I hope) but not too late that I could end up really hurt – I verbalised what I was looking for – a ‘two-feet-in relationship’ – in as clear a way as I could. I spoke my truth and I think I did so in a way that was gentle and considerate of the other person’s truth, feelings and potential uncertainty about what he was looking for. I did this while knowing that I might be inviting rejection. In fact, I was pretty sure that, despite all the good stuff, a break-up was on the cards.
That break-up took a little while to happen, but it did happen.
It’s only two days on so, inevitably, lots of questioning and second-guessing is going on. Did I speak up too soon? Should I have just gone with the flow and seen where it went? Should I have behaved differently, kept my cards closer to my chest, silenced that side of me that always wants to share her feelings, not worn my heart emblazoned on my sleeve? Was I too much? And, ultimately, should I have ignored, for a few more weeks or longer, that still, small voice inside that was telling me I might not get my needs met here?
I can question, second-guess and beat myself up as much as I like but these behaviours are part of my default setting that dates back to my childhood: to blame myself when someone decides they don’t want to be with me or when something breaks down. As the psychotherapists say, when we’re children, we think it’s all about us and we can carry that sense of everything being our fault or of not being good enough into our adult lives.
But when I look at it rationally, I’m proud of myself for speaking up and for taking care of my needs. I did things imperfectly – I may have shared some feelings that I could have run by a trusted friend on the phone first. But it was good enough. More than good enough. I was myself. And on this occasion, as it turned out, my authentic self and the other person weren’t the best match – for reasons of timing, age and stage in life or whatever else.
But what I deserve to remind myself of in the moments of grief (because grief follows every loss, especially if we’ve experienced a lot of loss before and even if we know the ending was for the best) is that my authentic self is enough and there’ll be someone who’s a better match.
So I can tell those ‘if only’ voices – the voices that tell me I messed up – to pipe down and I can turn up the volume on the ones that tell me I did really well, that I was courageous and brave, took a risk, shared my vulnerabilities and honoured my hopes and dreams rather than ignoring them for the sake of extending, probably only for a little longer, that wonderful sense of possibility and the delights of being affectionate with someone I really liked.
For a little while, it’s back to basics: self-care, self-love, work and fun with my friends. And then, when I’m ready, it’s back on the dating scene with a renewed sense of hope and a greater confidence in my ability to tackle my biggest challenge: to be my authentic self in relationship.