Learning to be alone, but not totally.
July 30, 2009 12:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I walk the fine line between being alone and working on myself and not throwing away a potentially great relationship? Also: how do you learn to be alone?

I broke up with my partner of 2+ years about two and a half months ago and moved across the country with the intention of being alone for at least a year to work on what I want out of life and what sort of person I want to be. I'm almost 28 years old and I've been in one relationship or another for most of the last decade, so I don't really know who I am outside of the context of a couple.

That said, a few weeks ago, I met someone. Someone who shares my ideas for how we want our respective futures to be and likes me as much as I like them and all that schmoopy stuff. I don't just want to discard this potentially amazing relationship for the sake of randomly imposed "alone time". I know I need to have a conversation with this person about what I need and that I want to take things slowly... I just don't know exactly what to say. I've been in serious relationships for so long that I don't know how to be "together, but not". I'm used to being me + partner and I'm still learning how to live as just "me".

So, hive mind: how do I word this so that it's clear that I want some sort of relationship that is more than friends with this person, but that I also want the freedom to live my own life and not rely on them to be my everything? And how do I live my own life to begin with when I am so used to having someone else around all of the time?
posted by youcancallmeal to Human Relations (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'd just say that you want to take things slow. You just got out of a relationship, and he deserves to know that -- that situation just automatically carries a yellow caution sign with it, and most people understand that the sands are shifting in your case a bit, and that you can't promise your head or your heart are going to always be a constant.

I'm about where you are now, and I know that it'd take a LOT for me to be swept off my feet again because the last relationship did a number on me - my last boyfriend was a hard act to follow. So I just decided I wasn't even going to TRY following it up, and just focusing on having fun and frolic at the most right now. And if i do run into someone who wants something of me, I plan on saying it exactly like that -- that this is what I can do at present, and I don't know how long I'll be in that stage, and if he's down with that, then great.

And then, you DO take things slow. Don't promise each other anything above and beyond date to date ("you want to see a movie this weekend?" "Okay, sure!" is the extent of the long-term promises right now), until you're ready to. Find things to do with people who aren't him. Don't shut the door on the possibility that this will develop into more, but don't go into it PROMISING that it will develop into more either. Focus on being in the moment and don't think too much about the future, and....you'll figure out what you want from your future in time, and whether he fits into it.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:42 PM on July 30, 2009

Q1: "I've recently left a relationship, and now I want to spend some time working on myself and working out who I am and how I fit into the big scheme of things. However, I really like you and who you are, and I'd really like a relationship with you. Do you think we could work together on forming a compromise on this?"

Q2: Do the things you enjoy doing. Just do them alone. Do you like cooking? Then cook a meal for yourself, something that you either really enjoy eating, or have wanted to learn how to cook for ages. Going to the cinema? Go on your own, sit where you want to sit, and if you get bored, get up and go see another film. Going for coffee? Find a small table, enjoy your coffee, and sit and people watch.

Doing things alone isn't really that different to doing them with someone else. The main difference is that you can do as you please, instead of how both of you please.

I found great value in a book called Love 101, which talks mainly about how romantic relationships aren't always a panacea, and how you can learn to love yourself (and by extension, your own company). Be prepared to spend some time thinking about what you like and dislike.
posted by Solomon at 12:48 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think there's any sort of specific time frame for "working on yourself" after a break-up. I think it depends on the break-up, and your feelings about how it was resolved. If you are hesitant about starting this new relationship because you suspect you would only be doing it out of fear of being alone, and having to do some lonely soul-searching, then I would suggest waiting a bit. But if you are hesitant simply because of some vague generalized idea of what you "should" be doing, even if you feel healed enough and ready to take on a new relationship, then I say forget it and don't pass up a good thing. It all depends on how well you feel you'd be able to handle it.
posted by np312 at 12:58 PM on July 30, 2009

I've been on the receiving end of someone like you..and it didn't end well (I'm a guy and she was a girl)

I spent months respecting her self-discovery, tiptoeing around making any plans beyond the weekend ("Should I invite her to that wedding in three weeks..no, no, that would not be right"). One day...she was ready for the full-on relationship, the self-discovery was over, to the altar we march! By that point, I realized I didn't want to be in a relationship if/when and only if/when she were ready.

So..tell him/her you'd like to take it slow, but don't be surprised if he/she doesn't hang around.
posted by teg4rvn at 12:59 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't just want to discard this potentially amazing relationship for the sake of randomly imposed "alone time".

That's kinda the point, though:

I broke up with my partner of 2+ years about two and a half months ago and moved across the country with the intention of being alone for at least a year to work on what I want out of life and what sort of person I want to be.

By skipping this alone time and jumping into a relationship, however slowly, you're discarding what you set out to do and potentially repeating old patterns. So you have to ask yourself, "is this relationship that important?" Learning to be alone is hard, having another person around complicates that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:08 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tread carefully! With my last boyfriend I was explicit: "I have plans, I am leaving this city in 1.5 years, I have career goals, I do not want long-term." He was all, "Yeah, that's cool, sounds great!" 3 months later he told me he was in love with me. 3 months after that he told me that if I won't be his wife then he doesn't want to date me anymore.

And in between it was always "When can I see you?" and "What are we doing this weekend?" (emphasis mine, because when did we become a we?) "Come meet my parents at Thanksgiving!" and "Are you sure you want to move to NYC alone?"

Ugh! I should have run the other direction the second he sent me the be-my-girlfriend request on Facebook (Facebook, for crying out loud!) but I didn't. And while I learned a lot about boundaries and what I need in a relationship from the experience, I still feel like I wasted 6 months dating him when I could have been journaling, or taking karate or, I dunno, knitting or something.

So spell it out for him/her. Tell him/her you'd love to date, but you're looking for friendship & sex & fun but not a whole lot more right now. Explain why. And the SECOND they start to push for more, run away, far far away. If this person can't respect your boundaries they don't deserve you anyway.

Learning to be alone is CRUCIAL if you ever want to be truly happy. And from what I've heard, successful relationships are only possible if each person is happy on their own. That whole "you complete me" line is bullshit.

Good luck!
posted by philotes at 1:26 PM on July 30, 2009

Response by poster: Clarification: I can see this relationship being The One. I'm totally not interested in the dating / fucking thing with anyone right now. That's a distraction that I don't need. I just need to work on me before I can really be with anyone right now in any capacity. But because I could see long term potential with this person, I don't just want to throw things away. I really wish I'd met him about a year from now. Sigh.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:30 PM on July 30, 2009

...except that your idea of The One is in flux right now. That is, depending on your transformation or whatever, he may no longer be The One in a year, even if you didn't meet him until then. Your idea of him, and you, and you two are inextricably tied up in the drama you are currently trying to untangle.

I'm quite a bit older than you, but I'm going through something similar, and the thing that has struck me the most about the relationships I've had over the past several months is that I can't really tell whether my desire in them comes from my ideas of relationships from my past or from my goals thereof for the future. None of us has perspective when we're on the inside.
posted by rhizome at 1:46 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I challenge you to reconsider the idea of The One. Just for a couple days, think about all the ways this might be true, and then all the ways this might be false. Then decide for yourself if this is an accurate or useful or emotionally authentic lens through which to view the world. Maybe you already have already thought about it. But if not, consider giving it a thorough thinking-through.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2009

Best answer: This - I met someone...who shares my ideas for how we want our respective futures to be... - does not compute. Aren't you taking a year to figure out what your future will be? How is it possible for you to share that which you have yet to discover?

Tell them "look potentially amazing relationship, I want some sort of relationship that is more than friends with you, but I've committed myself to being alone for at least a year to work on what I want out of life and what sort of person I want to be. I broke up with my partner of 2+ years about two and a half months ago and moved across the country to accomplish this. I want the freedom to live my own life and not rely on anyone to be my everything until I can fully commit to a relationship with them. We can be super-duper-great friends until I figure all this out, though."

Don't be surprised if/when potentially amazing relationship doesn't hang around, though.

...how do I live my own life to begin with when I am so used to having someone else around all of the time?

As Nike advertises - Just Do It! That's the cool thing about discovering who you are - what you like & dislike - you just start doing stuff and figure it out as you go.

I don't just want to discard this potentially amazing relationship for the sake of randomly imposed "alone time".

Now I, personally, don't see why this discovery period has to carry the cost of excluding all others from intimate relationships in your life. The best part of life is actually living it - not figuring it out and planning your future.

In the words of the inimitable John Lennon - "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Can you figure out a way to do both at the same time? Enter into a period of purposeful self-examination for a year (or more - why not make it a life long habit?) while simultaneously engaging in a "potentially amazing relationship?" Chances are you'll learn a lot from both endeavors. Good luck!
posted by torquemaniac at 2:03 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Clarification: I can see this relationship being The One.

Of course you can. Every relationship is possibly "The One" in the first few weeks, when the other person hasn't proven they aren't perfect yet. If you truly don't want to be in a relationship, you're going to have to push them off a little and stand strong. And that could ruin things forever, but if you have to sacrifice yourself to get The One, will it be worth it? From what I've seen in friends who are always in relationships, that only happens because they make it happen; it's a pattern of behavior, not a series of relationships magically falling into their laps.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:04 PM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In all your previous relationships, have you ever thought that your then-partner was The One, but had turned out to be mistaken? You might be mistaken this time again too.

Anyway, if this person is really The One, even if you say to yourself that you're not looking for any relationships and even if you try your humanly best to keep yourself from falling in love again, you're going to fall in love regardless, despite your best efforts to be alone. If this person isn't The One and you are attracted to the person because you are (subconsciously) wanting to be in any relationship, this feeling of I-need-to-be-in-a-relationship-with-him! is temporary will dissipate.

So, continue being friends, but say no to a relationship with this person. Because if it is meant to be, it will be. I know this sounds very Zen and all, but, IMHO, The One should really *want* you enough to pursue you at all costs. So even if you say, "No, thanks, I need to figure out myself, and I can't be in a relationship with you right now," things will happen (eventually). The reason why I say this is because if you have been in a string of back-to-back relationships, my guess is that you have been settling for mediocre relationships from guys who are only mildly attracted to you and would have faltered at any obstacle.
posted by moiraine at 2:22 PM on July 30, 2009

Oh, yes, that's quite a different question from the one I thought you were asking. So here's an entirely different answer.

You said, "I'm almost 28 years old and I've been in one relationship or another for most of the last decade."

Do me a favor. Take a moment to think about how each of those relationships started. Did you think they could be "potentially amazing"? Did you see "long term potential"? Did you think each one could possibly be The One?

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the answer to all those questions is probably "yes," at least in most instances.

youcancallmeal, it's not him, it's you. This is your pattern. You know, the one you ran across the country to get away from. Be strong. Just Say No.

Don't even try to be friends with this person until you've spent a little time completely on your own, otherwise it'll just be way too tempting. Take deep breath, count to ten, and back away from the loaded relationship.

You've set a wonderful healthy goal for yourself. This is your first big obstacle on your path to that goal. You can overcome it!
posted by philotes at 2:24 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Do me a favor. Take a moment to think about how each of those relationships started. Did you think they could be "potentially amazing"? Did you see "long term potential"? Did you think each one could possibly be The One?

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the answer to all those questions is probably "yes," at least in most instances.

Actually, no. I didn't think there was much potential with any of them until later into the relationship and I learned to love them. This is the first time that things have fallen into place like this so quickly, which is why I'm hesitant to let it go so easily.
posted by youcancallmeal at 2:38 PM on July 30, 2009

Best answer: Oh, Jeez, another swing and a miss!

You're really in a pickle, youcancallmeal. If you're truly feeling things for this person that you have never felt before then, no, that's not something you want to turn your back on.

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot to offer you in the way of advice now. Your predicament does not fit easily with any experience I've ever had. I guess the best I can do is to say take it slow. Real slow. Make sure you two don't spend all your time together - maybe even put a cap on the number of nights per week you can spend with each other. Set some personal goals for yourself (learn to cook, go scuba diving, get CPR certified) and work towards those goals alone. Do not invite him to classes or even feed him your new recipes. Keep these things as your own. Make sure that there is a clear delineation between your life and his, and keep them separate.

Hopefully this will allow you the space you need to explore your fear of aloneness, without driving him out of your life.
posted by philotes at 3:02 PM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have friends who do not know how to be alone and are serial monogamists. They go through boyfriends through the years (each one a little bit better than the last, and yet still the same in some ways) and after the next breakup, they say that they want to figure out who they are, not who they are when they're with someone. And it's hard, but they start working towards things they want. But they don't know how to be alone.

And then ... they meet someone. And this person is great! And so thoughtful! And the bonding hormones start working hardcore even if they're going to "go slow". And then another year or two go by and the cycle repeats itself again only the older they get the more painful it gets because wasted time and repeated mistakes get more painful.

Part of being The One is timing and you are more important that the potential of this relationship right now. Being in a relationship is much, much easier if you know what you want and you know what you don't want because you can define what is a deal-breaker for you and what you can compromise on. I've been in several failed relationships where I gave up too much of what I really needed or stood to strong for something that ultimately isn't important and they way you figure those things out is by really knowing who you are.

I really admire what you've set out to do. Give yourself the chance to find yourself. If this guy is The One, things will align when you are actually ready. If he's not, then the right person for you will appear. We don't miss out on the things we want when we're actively taking care of ourselves.
posted by Kimberly at 3:14 PM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

There is no The One. If you pass on this one, there will be another one.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:19 PM on July 30, 2009

Best answer: My situation was quite similar to yours in many ways, and it turned out very well. Not to say for sure that this new person is good for you, but in my case:

I ended a 3-year live-in relationship that I had felt wasn't right for me for quite some time prior to the end. One of the reasons I realized that I got into that relationship and stayed for so long was that I didn't really know what I wanted out of life, and therefore in a partner.

I took a trip across the country (2800 miles) for a week to the town where I grew up to clear my head for a while right after this happened, and had fully intended on staying single for a year or so while I figured things out. I was also up there with an eye toward possibly moving back to this town.

During the trip I arranged to meet up with a few old friends, one I'd seen only once since high school and had a little phone and internet contact with for a couple months. It became obvious to me fairly quickly that she was everything I ever wanted. I went back home, and we kept talking over the phone for hours every night. Within two months I had leased an apartment up there in addition to keeping my house down here. Several cross-country flights and drives (somewhere between 20 and 30 one-way trips) later, we were married. We've been married a year and change now, and I've never been happier or found anyone more perfect for me; and I've been married once before.

I fully expected to get that year or so to take care of my demons, and yet I still have a lot to work on over a year later. But I have the loving support of my wife to help me through things, and help me direct my attention to them - she makes me want to be a better person just through her presence. Yes, I feel bad that I couldn't make myself "perfect" for her before she came along, but I can't ever be perfect and this would've been a huge missed opportunity. Trying to solve your problems first may very well lead you to never getting there - it's like someone trying to remove all stress from their lives before they quit smoking. Life happens, and you will ALWAYS have more going on while you're working on yourself - you can't focus on just one thing, nor would you want to. If I had spent that year alone, I wouldn't have made any progress but instead distracted myself from my problems and let them get bigger.

I have a tendency to be very head-in-the-clouds about relationships that are just beginning, and was trying my darndest to watch myself carefully before I stuck my neck out. I ended up approaching this whole situation with what you might call cautious abandon. PLEASE don't read this and think that I'm validating YOUR situation or YOUR relationship, just trying to show you that these things CAN work, and to get you to question how you're approaching this work.

If you can't jump into a relationship with both feet, don't bother. You'll only get out of it what you put into it. Also, if the relationship isn't helping you make these changes, and make them seem ALMOST effortless, don't settle. It can be better, when you find the right person.
posted by tkolstee at 7:40 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not to be smug, but you start out:

how do you learn to be alone?

and wrap up:

it's clear that I want some sort of relationship that is more than friends with this person

Sorry dude, but I think you can't have your cake here and eat it too. If you're going to pursue something more than friends with this person, its going to be *very* difficult (just this side of impossible) to really, truly focus on learning to be alone.

The way I'm reading you, its really the latter you want more than the former, so I'd say go for it. If that's not the case though, I'd recommend seeing my previous question on being alone - I got some excellent and spot-on answers there.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:43 AM on July 31, 2009

I had a somewhat similar situation, and started dating a guy after another long term relationship ended only 3 months before. Overall, it's a very confusing experience for me - but has made me really skeptical of the person I'm with, maybe for the first time, and unwilling to accept someone who isn't right for me in certain ways. Basically it raised my standards so I was much more ready to reject people. And, I've found someone who is living up to the higher standards, and who loves me, I think, more completely than I have been before and with far more potential for lasting happiness. I definitely relate to tkolstee's story, especially in approaching with "cautious abandon" - in my case to going in full-steam ahead in terms of spending time and getting to know the other person and opening up, but in refusing to compromise in certain ways and keeping what I hope is a healthy skepticism about me while I explore this new person and our potential together.

So, I had a few short relationships, followed by a 4 year relationship followed by a 2.5 year live-in relationship. Now I'm 28. None of the guys were right for me, in retrospect. I didn't think any of them would be at first, either, but the 4-year guy seemed like an interesting challenge or maybe the best I could get at the time, and in the 2.5-year guy was really hawt (and, I realized later, a controlling ass - live and learn). For the two longer relationships, the brain chemicals took over once we were together, but especially with the 2.5 year controlling relationship. The 2.5 year one ended this past Thanksgiving in a very traumatic breakup that was a long-time coming, but that was still unexpected for me at the time. It took a month of crying, followed by a 1.5 week trip to Japan, to get over the worst part of it. I felt like I'd wasted a lot of time with him and in general. But I wrote things out to myself and learned a lot about what I didn't want in someone. When I got back from Japan, I felt like I was more "me" than I had been since the 2.5 year relationship, and I've felt that way since then.

For January and February, I focused on going out and meeting new people and having fun all the time. I kept my eyes open and dated around, and it was easy and fun. I felt a little residual sadness sometimes, but mostly, I just felt happy to be free and be myself.

Then, in late February, I met a really sweet guy. I was distant from him at first, and made it clear that I didn't want to get too close. But I liked him a lot and kept inviting him out or accepting his invitations, and within a few weeks we were spending most nights together, and I got to know him pretty quickly. He's the first person I've been with who actually scared me a bit when I first met him - he was so gregarious, yet seemed to have this wounded aspect to him. I was afraid he had had some deep emotional turmoil, which is something I wanted to avoid because I had a lot of that going on and didn't want to deal with someone else's drama. Turns out he did, in some sense, but that it's something that I can relate to and that doesn't interfere with him having fun.

In fact, it seems like he is better for me than any of the guys I had dated before in a lot of ways. He challenges me intellectually, and to develop more, and to examine myself in new ways. It's actually helping my self-development by taking it in a bit of a different direction than it would have gone if I were on my own (and in this, I relate to tkolstee's story too). He can relate to some of the loneliness I had as a kid, yet he also overcame isolation as I did. He's dealt with being poor but isn't anymore, like me. He has a ton of respect for a ton of people, which is good, because it means he will continue to have respect for me down the years, and even as he gets to know me more and I become familiar to him. He even has a certain mild anxiety about things, but is still very outgoing - like me. And he has an outlook on life an progressiveness that is different enough that it's a challenge to me. And he grew up with a good family, which is also important to me. He loves me, and I love him, and I love his family. So there's a lot there that is very special. He also probably wouldn't list traits like I have here - in some ways it shows that I'm always looking at things critically and evaluating him. Which leads to...

I have a lot of doubt. The last relationship did hurt me, and that I wasn't over it when I started dating Mr. February, and that I'm still not over it. A lot of the doubt is from not having had as much time to date around and see who else was out there as I originally wanted, or to explore myself more on my own time to make sure I do exactly what is right for me. I'm wondering if I did myself a disservice from going ahead with it. Yet, I'm also happy with the man I have in front of me. So I have the question - is the doubt from thinking I should have done things differently, or from the person in front of me? I think it's basically the doubt outlined in np312's comment, and it's unresolved for me. Some of it could also be from having been through this before, now - from having felt certain emotions before and been hurt by it or feeling like it was a waste in the end, and being insecure in the reality that those emotions seem to convey. Kind of like "once bitten, twice shy" - I've gotten burned so I'm extra cautious this time around - despite having many positive signs from the person that I'm with.

Then again, the doubt and constant evaluation could be a strength in some ways. First, Mr. February knows why I"m doubtful and is fine with it. Not pretend fine. Not "I guess I'll wait till you're sure" fine. He's okay with doubt as a constant. I probably wouldn't be, but that might be why Mr. February is much better for me than someone more similar to myself would be - because he's flexible. Anyway enough of his virtues :). Second, I reserve a lot more of myself, and am always focused on staying "me" and not giving up on things that are important to me. I'm focused on that, and I figure if he's the right guy he will be happy with me as I am. And, he is happy as I am. And I am focused on not wanting him to change either. I'm forcing myself to evaluate him as he is, and decide if it's right and either accepting him as a whole or not.

So. There is a long story. Basically it comes down to, I was in a somewhat similar situation, and I jumped in, am still not sure I did the right thing, but am learning a lot and am approaching this relationship entirely differently from past ones, which in itself is a good thing.

I also wanted to say that I really relate to tkolstee's statement: "I still have a lot to work on over a year later. But I have the loving support of my wife to help me through things, and help me direct my attention to them - she makes me want to be a better person just through her presence." I feel like Mr. February is there to push and prod me to look at myself from angles I wouldn't have if I were all on my own, and it's a very interesting and rewarding thing. And it comes from a place of love, respect and curiosity on his part.
posted by lorrer at 10:43 AM on July 31, 2009

To the OP: it's a choice. It's unfair to be alone with somebody else. Rather, it's unearned. The issue here is the other person...is, in fact, another person. They have needs too. You can want whatever you want, but you can't feel owed it. Basically, you're coming from a place of 'well, look, I want to be in a relationship with this person in a way that makes them extremely insecure, and I won't even state exactly how it is our relationship will be different from others.' He didn't break your heart. He doesn't owe you anything. It's not how you ask the question, it's what the question implies. You want him to deal with you, because someone else wouldn't. Do you mean, you want a relationship that's loose enough to date around, but he shouldn't? Do you want to play the field? Do you want just a friendship, plus sex? It sounds like you want this person to agree to all the rules of a relationship, as vague as you would let them be, but still ensure him an absolute and constant distance. Maybe clear yourself up first, and just be friends with him. Or, say, 'this is something we're going to do together.' But don't put the weight on him.
posted by happysurge at 11:45 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

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