My boyfriend and I have for the past several months (and for another string of several months before that) lived anywhere from 100 to 2,000 miles apart, so for the most part, leading independent lives has never really been a problem. Instead, we've faced the opposite problem: figuring out how to lead completely separate lives while maintaining a sense of togetherness. As of last weekend, though, Kellen moved in, and my concerns about being an independent woman have set in.
There's a common story that goes something like this: girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, girl ceases to exist as an independent entity. This usually results in the girl ditching her friends (Katie at Otherwise Optimistic describes the friendship fallout in painful detail), her hobbies and interests, her favorite activities, and spends most of her time hanging out with her boyfriend.
I'm sure guys do this to, to some extent, but girls are honestly the worst offenders when it comes to being subsumed by their relationships. I don't say this as a slander to women, either. We've all been so trained to believe that a man and a functional relationship are integral to our value as women (every princess has to have her prince charming!), and that they are prizes so highly sought-after we must do anything to get them and keep them, I can't really blame women for forgetting there are things outside of their relationships that are worth their investment of time and love. After all, centuries of social programming can't be undone overnight. (Note: Yes, I'm a feminist.)
At the same time, this phenomenon creates some pretty serious problems for women. For one, the older women get, the more frequently their friends, and consequently their social networks and support systems, begin to drop like flies. Particularly if a woman remains single for a long time, she can find herself being the odd girl out more often than not, with few good friends who are as devoted to her as she is to them. Just think about Sex and the City. A large part of the fantasy of the show, perhaps even moreso than finding the right man, is the idea that a woman could get to be in her mid-30s and still have friends who haven't completely sacrificed her in the name of a relationship, a husband, or children. The way we women abandon our friends creates, I think, a culture of believing all of our friends will abandon us and makes us distrust our female relationships. Instead, we rely on our male relationships...perpetuating a vicious cycle of abandoning both our friends and our individual selves.
For another, there's the entire fact that when you do these things yourself, you lose your own support network, your own emotional and creative outlets, your own ways of coping with stress, and, yes, a little of your own identity. And it's not just the fact that he might not always be around that should concern women. It's the fact that you lose a lot of the things that help keep you centered, that help you cope, that help you know who you are and what you want from life. While he might be able to supply some of those things for you, you'll never be able to completely replace a healthy relationship with yourself.
Beyond that, there's also the problem that so much togetherness often makes people crazy. (Note: If you haven't found that out yet, I'm guessing you haven't been dating your SO for very long.)
Which brings me back to where I started: I need to find a way to ensure I maintain my separate identity and my independent live, while he maintains his, too.
When Kellen and I lived together before, we tended to spend a lot of our time together. I defended the behavior in large part because, 1) Kellen and I had barely seen each other at all before and were sort of binging on amazing togetherness after months of deprivation, and 2) I was new to Portland and still hadn't made a lot of my own friends here. Kellen was pretty much my entire social network, which, really? Kind of sad. Don't get me wrong. My boyfriend is awesome. But a girl can't live on a boyfriend alone.
Over time, what I started to notice was that when we spent every spare second together, we started to get on each others' nerves a little. Every couple has small differences that, when put under the magnification of constant and intense togetherness, can quickly become big problems. The biggest problem we had was that I prefer to go to fewer social gatherings, spend less time at them, and need more downtime between them to recover than he does. He's much more social and just likes to be around people more.
By trying to exist on the same social schedule, we were kind of making ourselves miserable, with either him sitting around the house wanting to go out, or with me at social outings where I was just pooped and ready to go home. Eventually, I just started staying home on some of the occasions when he went out. And things improved quickly. I got my alone time. He got his social time. We spent less time together when one or both of us was irritable, and I think we both enjoyed our time at home, and our time out, all the more because we weren't forcing ourselves into situations we didn't really want to be in.
Another thing I noticed, though, is something I'm still going to need a lot of work on. I've mentioned before that I'm kind of introverted (or downright shy, depending on how you want to look at it) and that I struggle to make new friends. I have always been the sort that once I have a friend who serves as an "in" for a social group, I make friends quickly with the entire group...but I need that "in" person first. Kellen is the guy who always becomes an "in" person, almost instantaneously. I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but half the reason I fell for him is because he's insanely charming. No matter where he goes, he manages to fit in and make conversation and make everything not awkward—skills I don't possess.
Kellen is, in short, my choice social lubricant—much like vodka, minus the whole "I'm going to regret this later" side effects. This sounds bad, but I use him a lot as a social crutch. If there's a party, I prefer him to come with me, even if it's a party being thrown by people I work with. It's easier if he's there. In general, and I think a lot of couples find this, having someone else who is always with you helps to deflect some of the pressures experienced in social settings. You've got someone to share the responsibilities of starting conversation, keeping conversation going, and delivering a graceful exit when the time comes. Even if Kellen and I don't find anyone to talk to, at least we can talk to each other, and I don't end up lingering awkwardly by the punch bowl...alone.
So, yeah, I use my boyfriend as a social crutch. And the thing is, it can't continue like this. It keeps me from forcing myself to get out there and cultivate relationships with other people and from developing necessary social skills. Plus, I'm not proud of the fact that I rely so much on my boyfriend for something any reasonably self-confident grown woman should be able to do on her own. Part of the great thing about being in an LDR and spending so much time alone, of course, is that over the past year, I've started to get out more on my own, if for no other reason than pure necessity. There have been times when Kellen couldn't be there, and so I've had to go it alone. So...it's improving. I just worry I'm going to relapse now that he's easily accessible again. (He really is starting to sound like my drug habit, rather than my boyfriend, isn't he? Precisely why I'm telling all of you, it's not healthy to be so dependent on another human being!)
For all of you girls out there who are in relationships, especially those of you just getting started, I encourage you to hold on to your own interests and your own friends. Don't be that girl who ditches a friend in her time of need just because your boyfriend wants to hang out and watch movies. Don't be that girl who only calls her girlfriends when she's on the outs with her significant other. Don't be the girl who gives up all of her own interests and activities to spend all of her time with her boyfriend and become interested in all the things he's interested in: he won't appreciate that you've given up so many of the things he loved about you, and after a while, you will probably realize you don't appreciate that you've given up so many of the things you once loved about you, either.