“What too many people don’t realize is that life has an “I” in it. What that means is that you are the central character in your life, [and] others play an important supportive role. Therefore you cannot go through life thinking only of yourself without having a devastating affect on others, just as you cannot go through life only doing for others without regards to yourself.” ~Sonya Friedman
What does it mean to be an independent woman in a happy and healthy relationship? That is a question that many of my friends find ourselves asking, and not really knowing where to look for answers. Feminism has so many different flavors that it is hard to know where to start, especially when some flavors are bitter. However, looking at traditional models of relationships don’t seem to allow women room to have an identity in a relationship beyond the men we are with.
I am an independent woman. I can live life without a man and remain complete. I have well defined likes and interests. I am at the beginning of a blossoming career. I have lots of friends of both sexes. I’ve found that certain things, I really like a certain way. I’m opinionated and expressive. What I want is a relationship with a man who I adore and adores me. In our relationship, we acknowledge and accept the roles that independence and interdependence play in the relationship.
To me, this means we are mutually supporting individuals that choose to be together. We are okay giving and receiving with each other in ways that may be counter to what society says our roles should be. I want me to remain me, and him to remain him, under the umbrella of our relationship.
If I chose to, there would be no need to have children or a relationship and our society won’t chastise me too much. I could also have a child on my own and support myself without a man, although I’d rather not put myself in that situation. The choices I have exist because of feminists thought their sisters, daughters, mothers and selves should be treated not as chattel, but as people.
The paradigm shift in romantic relationships seemed to change among the masses in my parent’s generation. Women had fewer examples of how to be in a healthy and happy relationship with their newfound possibility of independence. Men received mixed messages from women, further confusing things. Some people pushed too hard for what they wanted, not realizing that equality of people and celebration of differences cannot be achieved when pushing one side down or away. Chaos resulted in relationships.
Consequently, when I was a child few examples existed of functional relationships with independent women in them. Even when the socio-economic status was equal between partners, it did not necessarily make for happiness within the relationship. The old power dynamic was often in play and at times, didn’t fit. The power and respect remained with the one who earned the most money. Traditionally, that role fell with the man, the breadwinner, but if a woman filled that roll, it meant trouble internally and socially for the man. However, if the man earned the same but the man still had all the power, then that made for an unsatisfying relationship for the woman.
I started kindergarten as one of a few children who had divorced parents. I entered middle-school thinking that married, happy and stable couples were scarce, because my friends’ parents were all divorced by this time. I watched my mother subsume herself to the men she dated and I watched my father date women who were economically equal, demanding and entitled women. Demanding and entitled women mistook that for being independent and interdependent.
From television and other media outlets, I did not see the keys to sustained happiness. Drama and discord formed the basic plot and themes for popular television shows, such as soap operas. Movies failed at modeling independent women in happy relationships. There were happy beginnings, wretched endings or fable upon fable of women being rescued by men. Rarely did we find women rescuing men. For a while, movies with leading women bombed, and some television shows were pulled before the season was over, removing the media’s rare examples of strong, attractive, independent women. Despite this, modern times may be changing for better and worse.
Additionally, we come from a cultural legacy where women were told repeatedly that if they were to do the work of men, they’d become like men, and then no one would want them. The counterexample of Émilie du Châtelet comes to mind. She held the intellectual respect of men, and held the interest of multiple lovers more than 200 years ago. One of her lovers was none other than Voltaire who later declared that she was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.
On occasion I hear a snide remark from power-house women about how worthless stay-at-home moms are. I’ve heard attacks on the femininity and mothering ability of women who are career-oriented. If women are too successful in a traditionally male role, men find that intimidating and reject those women. Traditionally feminine women are sometimes not respected by other women. What a bind! What happened to the freedom for women to choose their adult roles? Why don’t men deserve to have more freedom in their adult roles too?
All of that to say, in terms of independent and feminine role models, I was out of luck.
In my experience of dating, I’ve tried on many identities. I’ve worn the Über-Bitch “My Way or the Highway” pants and found that there isn’t much room for an adult in those, much less a relationship. I’ve subsumed my identity to the man du jour, and I resented not existing as myself. I’ve been the open-legged open relationship girl, and learned that I really do prefer monogamy. I’ve dated men twice my age and men up to 7 years my junior. I get why older men like much younger women—less bullshit. But the younger guys aren’t in the same life cycle stage I’m in. I want someone who knows who they are; most guys younger than I am at this age are still figuring that out.
I’ve been in relationships where we do everything together, which doesn’t leave me with enough time for myself. I’ve dated guys where we see each other once a week, which is great for retaining who I am, and not so great for building a relationship together. I’ve been the provider and the protected. When one person takes on too much of one role or the other, it takes on a parent/child dynamic. You can’t have an intimate romantic relationship unless you have two available adults.
I’ve also been with the “My way or the Highway Guy”, which has the same problem as the Über-Bitch, no room for adults or a relationship between them. The reason I found relationships like these appealing was because I didn’t know how to retain my identity while dating an emotionally available man. While I get to keep myself in relationships with “once a week” guy or “my way or the highway” guy relationship, it isn’t really a relationship unless we’re both involved.
Of the people I know that have the kind of relationship I want for myself, most of them are my peers. We have to look to each other, our partners and ourselves to figure this out. Because of inadequate role models, it has been trial and error. I’ve learned that it is my responsibility to keep the “I” in my life and to be supportive to those that are supportive of me. Relationships really are people growing machines .In the next post, I’ll talk about how my friends and I help make that happen, and some of our stumbles in trying to make it so. In the mean time, if you have stories to share, I’d love to hear them.