How a traumatic breakup made one writer realise she had lost herself in her relationship.
A few months after I ended my last long-term relationship, I received a spreadsheet from my former partner cataloguing our life together.
The spreadsheet had several rows listing all the things we had bought together. Cutlery, crockery, sofas, kettles, toasters, outdoor furniture for the balcony of that last apartment, the one that felt the most grown-up and held the most promise but also the one we knew from the beginning wouldn’t last. The spreadsheet aimed to calculate what the relationship had cost us.
It had four columns. The first one was called ‘item’. The second one ‘full cost’. The third ‘half cost’. And the fourth: ‘depreciated half cost’.
A truth crystallised then. No matter what appears on that list, these years have cost me more than they cost him.
After my partner moved out, the apartment haunted me. Our cat was confused. Every night I got home from work exhausted, crushed, hungover, spent.
The pain of it was almost unbearable. It was unlike anything I had ever felt. The trauma of separation tore at me. I missed him. I wanted him to come home. Sometimes I still do. After all my intellectualising of my role in the world, after all my rethinking about structures and agency and love, I regress to my most fundamental desire: I just want to fix it.
I stopped sleeping. I lay awake all night watching the Sex And The City movie and thinking about how I would never fall in love again. I drank red wine and I swallowed temazepam, but still I could not sleep.
The truth was I had been alone for a long time. The truth was I had been wholly invested in something he had never quite committed to, not really. The truth was I had lost myself in him.
The truth was I wanted to put my needs before anyone else’s, for the first time in my life.
What I discovered after leaving my relationship was that caring energy is finite. Once I had stopped caring for him, I became able to care for myself for the first time. Sometimes I am still ashamed of this, but mostly I am proud of it.
Briallen Hopper’s essay Hard To Love (from her essay collection of the same name) is about how she learned to pry herself away from a love that drained her, from a man who emptied her. She offers the Japanese fable of the Crane wife (made famous in CJ Hauser’s 2019 short story of the same name published in The Paris Review)
In their stories, both Hopper and Hauser draw on the original fable. Hauser writes “about a crane who tricks a man into thinking she is a woman so she can marry him. She loves him, but she knows that he will not love her if she is a crane, so she spends every night plucking out all of her feathers with her beak. She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with a creature’s needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.”
Hard To Love is about dependence, about this promise women make that they will not depend, about the emotional test designed for them to fail, about the hot shame women feel when they do.
She describes all the effort she goes to just to seem detached and un-needing to someone who considers himself too good for dependence. For someone who considers himself unbothered by human needs.
She writes about her own boyfriend, for whom she performed this not-needing. She describes how he aspired to be like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote about the self-reliant man, who wrote this three-word manifesto for the independent male hero: insist on yourself.
I have never read a phrase that better captures every romantic relationship I have ever been in. Men who, when faced with any decision, repeat this phrase like a prayer: insist on yourself. Insist on yourself. Insist on yourself.
Emerson believed that emotional dependence is the birthplace of shame. There is shame in being an object of empathy, he thought. There is shame in capitulating to requests for help. A man ought to be able to withstand any degree of pain without the need to be soothed.
Reading this, I realised that Emerson’s self-made male archetype had seeped into my own belief system. Ever since I could remember, I had been convinced that there was shame not only in watching another person capitulate to my requests for help, but that there was shame in making the request in the first place.
In my romantic life, I learned not to ask for help because I believed, without ever being told, that in all likelihood the men sitting opposite me would see this as weakness. Eventually, I started to see it as weakness too. I was wrong. Asking for help is a formidable display of strength.
Being taught that we must suppress our emotional needs is toxic, it bleeds. Before long we believe that we must not need help in any aspect of our lives, that we must fashion ourselves into hyper-competent, unshakable superwomen in order to be worthy of love.
I don’t need anything from anyone, I’d been saying, again and again, for months, because I was tired of not having my needs met and I wasn’t brave enough to expose myself to the same chasm of compassion again and again. So I retreated from love, and I told anyone who would listen how brave that was. How I just didn’t need help from anyone.
I decided some time ago that I was someone who could withstand any degree of harm without the need to be soothed, because it was the only way to protect myself from the people who refused to soothe me. From the men who insisted, again and again, on themselves, and who thought that capitulating to someone’s need for help was the same as giving a part of yourself away.
And so women learn to lie. Women learn to perform self-reliance in his image just so that he will not leave them as punishment for the fact of being human, the fact of having human needs, the fact of not being an emotional island. Hopper perfectly captures how absorbing this project can be: “I depended on his demand that I not depend. I leaned on not leaning on him. The irony was he left me anyway.”
The paradox of dependence is that men tell women in big and small ways that they cannot bear the thought of themselves depending on their female partners, so women perform non-dependence because it is the only way they can hold on to that human need for connection. For women, this performance is a prerequisite for love. And because women are human, and because they have needs, they need love just like everybody else does.
I use the phrase ‘non-dependence’ here because I need to make desperately clear that we are not talking about independence, not really. ‘Independence’ is the wrong word for this evasive quality women are taught to chase. It is not independence at all because true independence is inward-looking and self-defining. What is being asked of women here is wholly dreamed up by others.
Performing non-dependence is not about women at all, but rather about reading him carefully enough to know exactly what kind of un-needy-ness he – ironically – needs.
The work of becoming a woman worthy of this particular kind of heteronormative romantic love is itself a paradox. You work for years building something, not outwards or upwards, but inwards: building yourself smaller and smaller, with erasure as the ultimate goal. All to become something you never really wanted to be.
And what’s worse, you will always fail, because pretending to be unhuman, with no human needs, is unsustainable. And when you do, he’ll be waiting to punish you for splintering his fantasy.
Hopper writes: “Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.”
And so, I decided when I finally left my relationship, that I am tired of being the ‘cool girl’, the dream girl, the crane-wife, because she is a lie. She is a straw-woman in a field full of hungry ravens, and I am done with her. She’s not worth it, and neither is he.
My Body Keeps Your Secrets by Lucia Osborne-Crowley is published on 2 September 2021 by The Indigo Press and is available to buy on theindigopress.com
Image: Nikolos/Getty; author portrait by Robin Christian via Indigo Press, book cover via Indigo Press.