I knew better, and still, somehow it happened: a breakup made me reconfigure almost my entire life.
For the five and a half years we were together, I was intentional that my boyfriend and I maintain our own identities. To nurture the balance between intimacy and independence, we followed the guidance of poet Khalil Gibran: “Let there be spaces in [our] togetherness.” We didn’t abandon our separate friendships, hobbies or schedules. We prioritized each other while still honoring our individuality.
But breaking up ruptured my illusion that we hadn’t become intertwined. As family helped me move out of the home he and I had made and into a house with two strangers, I realized our split had disrupted far more than my living arrangements; it also shifted my place in adulthood. By having a long-term partner, especially one with whom I cohabitated, I had adhered to society’s guideposts: Find a significant other and form a serious partnership. I hadn’t graduated to engagement or marriage, but by staying in my relationship, I was on the right path.
To be clear, I wasn’t with my boyfriend simply for the sake of saying I had someone. I loved him, and loved a lot about our relationship. But losing him didn’t distress me solely because I’d miss him ― I was also terrified of being single. What would it say about me that I was alone? I had tangled the vitality of my relationship and my value as a human being.
I have a history of being hard on myself, so maybe others going through breakups are spared these doubts of self-worth. However, virtually everyone recognizes our cultural obsession with weddings. We’ve all seen, or been, the people who shriek, cheer and cry when our loved ones get engaged. We’ve bought expensive gifts, or paid for flights and hotels, to commemorate a couple getting married. Though we focus more on the ceremony than the actual marriage, it’s an expensive excitement: enough to fuel the $76 billion wedding industry.
For a long time, I subscribed to this frenzy — happily attending and participating in weddings of numerous loved ones, and anticipating my own. I recognized, and wanted to meet, the societal expectation of pairing off and procreating. At the time, though, I didn’t consider if I wanted those things because they’d make me happy, or because they’d make me feel normal.
Losing [my boyfriend] didn’t distress me solely because I’d miss him ― I was also terrified of being single. What would it say about me that I was alone? I had tangled the vitality of my relationship and my value as a human being.
When becoming single at 30 immediately made me feel worthless, I realized how much I’d internalized this expectation. More than missing my boyfriend and struggling with the transition to my new lifestyle, I felt profound shame. Given my previous issues with self-esteem, I’d even anticipated feeling unlovable because I was alone. I didn’t, however, prepare to stop believing I had value at all. But with the end of our relationship, I felt void of any meaningful contribution or achievement I’d ever had. The discipline to complete the long-distance races I ran, the boldness to move alone to a new continent (twice), and the compassion to thrive as an educator in Baltimore City Public Schools meant nothing. All that mattered was that I was single.
Even when we were together, our failure to reach engagement felt like exactly that: a failure. About a year into our relationship, people began interrogating us about our plans.
“Why aren’t you engaged yet?”
“When are you getting married?”
“What are you waiting for?”
Though I became skilled at deflecting these questions, I never stopped wondering if something was wrong — with me, him, us. When we eventually broke up, it made our relationship feel like an exercise in Play Pretend. It hadn’t progressed to include rings or vows. We hadn’t made it last like we’re told we should have. The entire experience felt illegitimate.
While my subsequent leap in logic — that without a relationship, I was without value — may seem dramatic, it’s not a belief I formed single-handedly. Culturally, we prefer people who are married, or at the very least partnered. This has been true for centuries; single women not only had less social, but also economic, power, than their married peers. Because so many unwed women spun thread for a living, they became known as spinsters. Married women, meanwhile, had access to more lucrative and higher-status occupations.
Although remaining unmarried is far less countercultural than it was a generation ― let alone a century ― ago, marriage continues to be a widespread social norm. “Our culture says to be a real adult, to be successful as an adult, you get married and you have kids, and that’s just how it is,” licensed clinical social worker Rick Levinson explained in a recent podcast. When people fail to meet this expectation, we think less of them, as noted by social psychologist Dr. Bella DePaulo, who specializes in studying single life. Her research finds that, compared to married people, single people are perceived as “less happy, less secure, more immature, more fearful of rejection, lonelier, more self-centered, and more envious.”
Between my preexisting issues with self-worth and the cultural messages that told me I was on the wrong path, my breakup splintered my sense of self. It took months, maybe over a year, before I began to feel whole again. I healed from the pain of missing my boyfriend well before I recovered from the shame of being single in my early 30s. I don’t know when or how I began to feel better, but as soon as I began to recognize value within myself, I knew I had to protect it fiercely.
And that’s when I decided to stop indiscriminately discussing my relationship status with other people.
I realized that I must learn how to unconditionally honor, appreciate and respect who I am; until then, I don’t want my relationship status to have anything to do with how I define myself. This breakup taught me that I needed to learn to establish how I feel about myself without the interference of cultural influences.
To form this foundation, I’ve stopped talking about my relationship status — not entirely, but certainly not on social media or among acquaintances. I’ve even minimized the number of loved ones with whom I share this information, as well as how much of it I feel comfortable divulging. For the most part, this has been as simple as not initiating the topic with anyone. If it does come up, my response varies: sometimes I answer questions vaguely, other times I thank the person for their interest, but say I’m not interested in discussing it.
The advantages of this approach to my personal life have been abundant. When I’ve been single, it’s meant sparing myself the “encouragement” toward coupledom I so often received, which only perpetuates the idea that being single is inferior to being in a relationship. “You’re too smart and pretty to be alone for long,” people used to tell me, or “It’ll happen when you least expect it.”
However, being in a relationship would come with its own hazards, namely the type of inquisition I’d gotten in the past: “Is it serious? Do you think you’ll move in together? Have you talked about marriage?”
It’s been over three years since I started keeping my personal life personal and it has been one of the healthiest life changes I’ve ever made. It has eliminated unwelcome and unnecessary pressure I’d always felt surrounding my relationships. Now, because I don’t make the topic available for discussion, I don’t feel like I’m disappointing anyone, nor do I feel the need to defend myself or my choices.
I love that people can’t even subconsciously project their perceptions onto me because they don’t know if I’m single, or dating, or in a relationship. Instead, they know the things about me that are true regardless of my relationship status: my passions, goals and concerns.
Deliberately defining myself outside the parameters of my relationship status has shown me how confined I felt for all the years that I did openly disclose that information. I love that people can’t even subconsciously project their perceptions onto me because they don’t know if I’m single, or dating, or in a relationship. Instead, they know the things about me that are true regardless of my relationship status: my passions, goals and concerns.
While the effects of this decision thrill me, I know that it hasn’t been an easy transition for some of my loved ones. They’ve been gracious as I’ve started withholding information, and understanding in the instances when I decide I’d like to talk about it. If they’ve questioned my trust in them, or wondered if I’m trying to distance myself from them, they haven’t shown it. Instead, they’ve supported me ― even when it might have been uncomfortable for them to do so ― as I’ve learned what works best for me. At the beginning of this process, one friend helpfully commented, “I don’t think people will ever stop wanting to talk about it, but you don’t owe any of us anything.”
Of course, this decision also affects anyone who I date or form a relationship with. So far, no one has felt slighted; either they’ve had a similar mentality, or they haven’t minded that I’m selective about sharing this type of information. One man, for instance, explained why he doesn’t share details of his relationships on social media: “That part of my life is too sacred to tell just anyone about it.”
I recognize, however, that not everyone would feel comfortable with this arrangement. Potential partners might feel that I’m embarrassed of them or our relationship; alternatively, they could suspect that I only want to keep what we have private so I’d be free to maintain simultaneous relationships. While I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling this way, and would be open to talking through it with a potential partner, it doesn’t make me reconsider my choice. The driving force behind this decision has been to do what is healthiest for me; conceding to another person’s comfort defeats the reason I chose to do this in the first place.
I certainly recognize that this shift is possible in part because of my privilege. I’m a heterosexual, cisgendered woman; my preferences in a partner are not scrutinized or criticized by anyone. For some people, keeping their relationship status or sexual identity private isn’t a matter of choice, but safety. Every time I’ve reflected on how grateful I am for the benefits of opting to keep my personal life personal, I also resent that this isn’t a luxury afforded to everyone.
I don’t know how long I will continue to essentially keep my relationship status a secret. On the one hand, I recognize that the firmer my self-love and self-worth, the less people’s opinions of me will matter. On the other hand, the emphasis we place on relationship status concerns me; keeping my personal life personal is one way I can resist that cultural message. I don’t want anyone to feel unworthy because they’re not married, or for people to stay in unhappy, or even unhealthy, relationships just to avoid the stigma of being single. I’d love to live in a society where people partner because a relationship brings fulfillment, not social status. Hopefully, each of us will acknowledge our own value, and the value of one another, independent of the presence of someone by our side.
In the meantime, I will continue to answer only to my own preferences and expectations, not the ones society wants me to follow.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes and runs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Gravel, and Role Reboot, among others. Kerry runs a weekly collaborative newsletter called In This Together. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to learn more: @mskerrygraham.