How do I best build relationships when being alone comes naturally?
August 6, 2018 3:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm 30, trying to figure out what "Adult Phase II" will look like, and find myself bristling at the usual relationship/marriage models that typically come next.

I feel like I've been fighting my natural inclinations lately in regard to relationships, because I find myself needing space and independence, but when I assert that need, I feel like I'm letting my partner down, and almost denying the realities of how human relationships function. Is it something I can/should embrace, or does that make me a selfish person doomed to chase people away? Details are best summed up by this quote I came across in a book ("The Nest"), which really resonated with me:

"This was the part she hated, the part of a relationship that always nudged her to bail, the part where someone else's misery or expectations or neediness crept into her carefully prescribed world... She was so much better at being alone; being alone came more naturally to her. She led a life of deliberate solitude, and if occasional loneliness crept in, she knew how to work her way out of that particular divot. Or even better, how to sink in and absorb its particular comforts.

...She was open to love, but she was best at managing her own happiness; it was other people's happiness that sunk her. She realized (abstractly, she knew) that parenthood was nothing more than being responsible for someone else's happiness all the time, day after day, probably for the rest of her life, but it had to be a little different. It couldn't be the same as feeling responsible for another adult who came to the party full of existing hopes and behaviors and intentions. She and her lovers had always managed to break what they built between them. She never figured out how to nurture the affection so it grew; it always ended up diminished. She knew parents and children could break each other's hearts, but it had to be harder, didn't it?"

I'm wondering how other people who might feel this way have built relationships. Is there a way to come to terms with and adapt to the typical structure where you're intertwined with someone's "existing hopes and behaviors and intentions"? Are there alternative setups (i.e. separate households) that help provide that sense of space? Is it about meeting the right person that doesn't make you feel burdened by these things? And IS it different with parent-child relationships? I would like to have kids in some form, but is that impossible when this is my M.O.?
posted by thoughtful_ravioli to Human Relations (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
My closest friend and her partner have lived 1 mile apart for 25 years. They have never married (that I know of) and they have a child together. He's now 22 but he's had a bedroom in each house and gone from one house to the other, like... whenever. He's a perfectly adjusted human and was a delightful teen. Both parents seem happy to have their own space some times and also happy to have their son when he's individually with them.

They do eat dinner as a family every single night.

But whatever. Do whatever you want. Absolutely nobody's marriage operates on the inside the way they look on the outside, so what you think is typical or traditional is mostly an illusion anyway. Don't worry about it.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:53 PM on August 6, 2018 [20 favorites]

I'm late 40s and unmarried, but partnered for ~2 years with a woman a few years younger and 50-50 custody of two teens and feel like I've finally met my person. Have been through a lot of relationships - so I may not be well-suited to counsel for success, but I can definitely give tips on avoiding failure here.

If you don't feel well-adapted to the "usual" relationship & marriage models, then don't seek them out. Get rid of the idea that you have to fit into that mold. It's the expected path, and society is set up to put you on it - but if it's not what you sense will make you happy, do not get on it.

Seek out relationships on your own terms and figure out what is and isn't negotiable. Maybe living with someone and sharing space isn't on the menu for you - there are people who also don't want to completely entangle their life with yours.

Find someone who will give you space - but don't expect needing time alone to be an excuse to let the other person down. I am firm about needing X amount of time to myself to ... just do whatever. But if I make plans, I keep them barring sickness or emergencies. Saying "I need two evenings a week to myself" is reasonable. Canceling plans on the regular is not. Some people will tolerate that better than others, but it's still not really a reasonable ask. (I'll insert an asterisk here for people who have anxiety issues, etc. that may mean canceling plans frequently.)

We have separate households and plan to for the foreseeable future. I used to live in St. Louis, which has an abundance of duplexes. One of our possible futures is moving back to St. Louis and buying a duplex, with a side for each one of us. I love seeing her frequently, without the feeling that we have to share living space 24/7. (Also, we each have 3 cats - which ... man, that's just not gonna work in a shared home smaller than a mansion.)

I would really, really ask you to soul-search before considering having children, though. You can negotiate your needs and their needs with another adult. When you bring another person into the world, you are responsible for whatever they show up needing for the next 18 years.

You should show up not just willing to put them first, but excited to do so. Seriously, if you don't love the idea of being entirely responsible for somebody else and dealing with all the stuff that entails - and it entails a lot if you do it right - please don't have kids. It's totally OK not to have kids, and never let anybody tell you otherwise.
posted by jzb at 3:56 PM on August 6, 2018 [17 favorites]

So... the above quote doesn't entirely resonate with me, but I am definitely an introvert. In terms of relationships, having a living situation where there is some physical space that I can go for alone time is really helpful. Living in separate houses can be really nice (but comes with its own disadvantages). When my partner and I bought a house, it was really important to me that it was big enough for us and our two kids to be able to splinter off and find a nook to recharge, alone, without someone yelling or thumping just on the other side of a wall. Beyond physical environment, I think trying to be self-aware and communicating when I need alone time is really helpful. If you have a partner who respects your needs, they should accommodate your need for solitude and help you find that balance. Personally, I could not be with someone who was needy, super extroverted, or did not validate my need for space when it arises and help me carve it out. I have a good friend who takes trips by herself (or a female friend who is also very independent) every now and then, which she finds very regenerating in terms of her need for solitude and relationship with her partner.

In terms of parenting.... Yeah.... kids need A LOT. And depending on your child/ren, they make a lot of noise and just generally interact in ways that can be stressful and overwhelming if you are feeling overstimulated and require space. That's not to devalue all of the wonderful things about those relationships, just to say that they can require a lot. I found this to especially be true with young kids who are in the Question Everything and Boundless Energy phase, and during breastfeeding. Again, having a supportive partner who can help you carve out time that is just for you is very helpful here. If you have a broader support system and/or grandparents nearby, this can also help you recharge when you feel that you are reaching your limit.

Ultimately, I do think that you can be an independent and solitude-loving person and still have fulfilling relationships, both partner and parent. It might just take some extra communication and boundary setting to find a right balance, and I think it does also require a compatible partner who will respect this need and has a healthy level of independence themself.
posted by DTMFA at 3:59 PM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah so this quote resonates with late 20s me. Emotional presence and support wasn't really a thing in my family of origin, and I generally didn't find comfort in other people. I learned in my late 20 and early 30s to be more present in the moment and how to choose people that talking with felt good. Having a child let me experience a more secure attachment to a person than I had previously, and meditation and multiple rounds of counseling got me to a much better place. I feel a real sense of joy and expected happiness when I talk to (some) people, that I had never realized was possible before I did some of this work.

I am still an introvert. I am not saying my experience is universal - and some people may find having family around draining no matter to some extent despite being 100% emotionally healthy. But my feelings around other human beings have drastically changed in the last five years. So it's possible to change your feelings (disclaimer: I did not set out on this journey intentionally and I am totally not all the way there yet).
posted by Kalmya at 4:12 PM on August 6, 2018 [11 favorites]

This feels a little abstract. Could you give some examples of what space and independence what look like for you? People's expectations of what's a normal relationship dynamic, and what's reasonable or unreasonable to ask for, can vary quite a bit based on the own experiences. I don't think there's a wrong answer here, but it would help shape the advice folks can give. (Needing alone time each day vs. separate bedrooms vs. living in different states.)
posted by serathen at 4:14 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just as a datapoint, my partner and I have been together for six years. He moved in with me after a year, and we lived together from years 2-5 out of economic necessity, then I moved out last year and into my own place. Moving out wasn't prompted by any relationship upheaval, just the opportunity to live by myself without courting economic catastrophe. It's been really lovely, and though I was apprehensive at first, we argue less (and almost never have silly household squabbles anymore), treasure our time together more, and have more of a sense of solitude. In all honesty, I'd prefer if we lived a block or two apart, instead of 2mi--mostly because I'd be at his place to mooch dinner all the time, since he's a better and more motivated cook than I am!--but in any relationship there are compromises. For most, it's relinquishing a sense of solitude and individuality. For us, the compromise seems to be being less entangled than we'd like to be.
posted by tapir-whorf at 4:17 PM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Speaking specifically to having children: I’m only 6 months into this parenting thing but as the primary caregiver and nursing mom, babies take so much. They take everything you have and ask for more. Keeping a human alive with your body for 9 months of pregnancy plus however long if you choose to breastfeed is HARD. I’m introverted and even though my baby can’t talk yet, I talk to her all day long and I’m drained at the end of the day. I can already tell that this: “It couldn't be the same as feeling responsible for another adult who came to the party full of existing hopes and behaviors and intentions...” is not true. It’s so much more than feeling responsible for a partner because you owe the best to a child that you chose to bring into the world. Ultimately having children is selfish to the utmost degree but then requires you (especially if you’re the mother, sorry I know we pretend here that we’re post-gender roles but this is biology not gender) to devote all of said self to keeping this person alive and happy and smart and well-adjusted and clothed and fed and and and. If you value your own space, do not have a child.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:32 PM on August 6, 2018 [10 favorites]

I knew a woman whose partner lived a few miles away. They met late in life and were really clear about what they wanted. She adored him but also had to have her own space.

Another thing is "togetherness styles." I can hang out for hours without talking much - reading or working or whatever, and with a good friend or close family member it feels very natural and easy for me. Some people seem to find it natural to talk a lot all the time, and those people probably wouldn't make good partners for me.
posted by bunderful at 4:40 PM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

For inspiration, you could read about how queer and polyamorous couples (and triads, etc) have negotiated their living and childrearing arrangements.

For instance I know a married couple - two men, both rather solitary by nature, but very much a couple - who have lived in separate apartments in the same building for years.

I also know a married woman-woman couple who co-parent a child, live in separate but nearby apartments, and have other secondary romantic and sexual partners. They've been together for over 10 years and seem extremely happy.

This article has profiles on a few families, including some coparents who aren't romantically involved.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:06 PM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

This feels a little abstract. Could you give some examples of what space and independence what look like for you?

I've been in cohabitation setups previously, and I end up feeling shortchanged trying to consider the other person's smaller preferences 24/7. Every once in a while, I need a morning where I can go out running without waking someone up accidentally, an evening where I make whatever I want for dinner without cleaning up after anyone else, or where I can focus all my mental energy just on decompressing from the day. Thinking about a setup where I only get that once a year or so if my partner is out of town feels somewhat restrictive.
posted by thoughtful_ravioli at 7:45 PM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Reading your additional comments, these things are all very possible (and in fact this is exactly what I expect in my relationship). A few suggestions to consider:

Take evenings where you need them! It's totally fine to say you're going to spend the evening decompressing alone, and then doing so, or setting aside "you" evenings every week. Understanding and independence from a partner on this front is a must, for me.

If you do want to cohabitate, you could consider separate rooms. This could be every night or just when you want the space. I prefer the latter model; my best friend and his partner have separate rooms and love it (and do not feel it decreases their intimacy or sex life at all).

I think that having non-shared activities in a relationship (some separate friends and/or hobbies) can make day-to-day independence easier. If one person is out doing something on a semi-regular basis, the other can do their thing.

I'll also note: these comments pertain to a relationship with a romantic partner. Adding kids to the mix definitely creates additional challenges to independence and personal space! I agree with other posters that this is something to strongly consider before having kids. The degree to which you can maintain independence and space with kids is related to child age, your partner's attitude and involvement with parenting, support from others, and your own parenting philosophy and decisions.
posted by DTMFA at 8:34 PM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

So I'm in my late 30s and my primary relationship is with a man who is married and has a lovely wife and daughter. We're all close -- his wife actually set us up (they have an open relationship). He lives a very happy and fulfilled life with his partner, and we see each other several times a week, at his house and mine. I have dinner with all of them regularly. I have no desire at this point in my life to share my space with a romantic partner. I live with two lovely people who help me not be a total hermit by their mild, nonintrusive daily interactions with me.

It works. Really well. Relationships are what you make of them, and don't let anyone tell you what you should or should not have or enjoy with a partner. I've been in many partnerships, and even an 11 year marriage, where we lived together, and honestly nothing brings me as much joy as having a loving, emotionally bonded relationship with someone who I don't have to share space with.
posted by ananci at 10:24 PM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Absolutely nobody's marriage operates on the inside the way they look on the outside, so what you think is typical or traditional is mostly an illusion anyway


Also look at some of the stories here and here. People love to think they're unique and non-traditional (special snowflakes, etc), but they're really not. Or we all are. Do what works for you. That is all there is to it.
posted by Kwadeng at 11:29 PM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

We lived in separate flats for the first ten years, which was perfect for us and our individual needs as we both need enough solitude to function.
Ten years ago we had an (unplanned but nevertheless much wanted) child. We moved together as i could not at the time imagine it different. We still have separate bedrooms.
However, i often think we should instead have looked for two door to door flats or similar as having separate housholds suited us both much better.
Having a child was both wonderful and terrible. It was unplanned and honestly that is something i treasure and would recommend. It changed me in so many ways to have him, and especially the first few years pushed me sometimes beyond anything. But i survived and we are well.
I feel becoming a mother by accident was the best for us. We were happy as a couple in our solitary lives but the spontaneity required shook us and we grew with the challenge. The only thing I would not do again is move in together, but it was easier when our son was a baby and I felt also societal pressure to do it.
posted by 15L06 at 1:28 AM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Every once in a while, I need a morning where I can go out running without waking someone up accidentally, an evening where I make whatever I want for dinner without cleaning up after anyone else, or where I can focus all my mental energy just on decompressing from the day.

I've been married and cohabiting for more than 15 years and we both have all of those things all the time. My husband cooked pasta sauce last night and I ate scrambled eggs and oven fries and was in bed asleep before he'd even finished. Sometimes I order sushi and he eats frozen pizza because sushi is not his thing.

Put your running stuff in a pile outside the bedroom door, and your partner can wear earplugs if morning runs are an issue? Or have two bedrooms (this is what we do.)

A relationship is not a thing to which you martyr yourself. You still have to be an individual.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:05 AM on August 7, 2018 [21 favorites]

Are you the kind of person who naturally shrinks or retreats in shared spaces? If you and a partner (or roommate, coworker, anyone) are in the same room, do you sit in the furthest away chair, seek the quietest spot, leave altogether? I’m an introvert who prefers quiet alone time, and I tend to shrink in shared spaces. This inevitably leads the other person to sprawl in that space, because I’m basically giving it to them. They’re more comfortable doing their own thing in someone else’s presence, and they don’t know I prefer a larger bubble of space. And then they sprawl into that bubble, and I retreat further. Even in a living situation with two quiet-loving introverts, it’s easy for a shrinker/sprawler dynamic to emerge. One person retreats, the other person fills the space left behind, and no matter who started it, it can become a cycle. It’s not just physical space; shrinking and sprawling can happen with noise levels, free time, clutter, emotional labor type stuff, etc.

I’m a shrinker by nature, and I our description of your previous cohabitation problems makes me think you’re one, too. There are three things that will help you break the shrink-sprawl cycle: the first, naturally, is to have enough living space so you can retreat without the other person sprawling into it. (This may not always be possible depending on apartment/house prices and availability.) The second is to get comfortable with talking to your partner about the kind and degree of space/quiet/consideration you want, up to and including things like requesting an afternoon alone in the house. The third is to recognize when you’re shrinking and retrain yourself to sprawl, just a little. Not enough to overtake the space, just enough to hold your own. This may involve doing things in front of others that you’d rather do alone (like exercising or watching TV shows that your partner doesn’t care about), or saying “I’m going to do this” instead of asking “do you mind if I do this?” or just practicing being quiet and alone nearer and nearer to the other person. Most people sprawl by circumstance and will not be fazed by another person sprawling back.

It’s a combination of finding the right partner, having the right space, and working with your partner (and yourself) to balance your needs.

Kids are something of a different matter - they effectively shrink your living space and ignore bubbles. And even if you find equilibrium at home, parenting requires some extra social interaction (with other parents, teachers, kids, etc). Your kid may love solitude, or they may be an extrovert - you can’t tell and it’s out of your control. A lot of parenting changes are basically “eh you just live with it because you have to” but I do think preferring to be alone adds some noticeable extra difficulty.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:52 AM on August 7, 2018 [10 favorites]

Seconding DarlingBri. I’ve cohabited with my husband for about 6 years and we both regularly declare it to be eat whatever night and do separate things for dinner, I exercise when I want to, we generally spend our evenings doing our own things (with occasional breaks to cuddle or chat or pet our dog or whatever). The key is we’re both pretty introverted and have similar alone time needs, and we mesh well in living together. Having enough space to have our own domains is very helpful too.

Also, I’ve found that I can forgive a lot of minor annoyances (he is apparently incapable of noticing when the sink drain is gross, for example) and want to do small favors for him (taking care of a chore we share before he gets to it, moving his laundry to the dryer, buying his favorite snacks at the grocery) because I love him and both forgiving small things and taking care of him are ways of showing my love in my mind.
posted by MadamM at 10:21 AM on August 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

More anecdata for you:

I'm 34, divorced with a child, hoping to never cohabitate with a romantic partner ever again. I have a robust and happy life.

My partner is 31, a self-proclaimed spinster who adamantly wants to never prioritize a partner over their career or broader life goals.

We live two states apart, adore each other and support each other constantly. We visit each other and travel together often, and miss each other when we're apart for long periods of time. But that absence (and the space we give each other to live our independent quotidian lives) is what makes our relationship precious. I love my life, and they loves theirs, and we would never ask each other to abandon what we've worked so hard to build for ourselves. In spite of that, we're deeply committed to each other. I want our relationship to last, and I expect that it will. Someday when our life circumstances are different we may want to live closer to each other, maybe even in the same city. But for now that doesn't feel necessary, or wanted.

In having an unconventional relationship, there's a certain amount of stress surrounding people not understanding how important we are to each other. I'm learning to just let go of that. One thing that helps is finding relationship role models: people who have found lasting, loving companionship without wanting to live in each other's pockets. PM me if what I've got going sounds interesting and you have question about how it works.

A reading suggestion: Tove Jansson's beautiful Fair Play, based on her prickly creative and romantic partnership with Tulikki Pietila. My partner and I found it inspiring.
posted by libraritarian at 12:31 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was so busy talking about myself that I missed a couple of points:

1. If you want to have a child you almost certainly can, in one way or another. If you want to coparent a child you need to find a partner who wants to do that with you, which could be harder, but is not impossible. In my case, I'm coparenting with my son's other biological parent. My partner is sometimes a part of his life, but not in a parenting capacity. We all like it this way. I love being a parent, and if I hadn't had a child in that previous relationship I might still have chosen single-parenthood, and my life wouldn't be terribly different than it is now. If you want a child, and want to not live or parent with a partner, that is something you could do, and there are plenty of other people in the world who do it.

2. Is there any chance you're queer and/or polyamorous? These kinds of living arrangements are much more common in those circles, in which case you're likely to find people who understand what you're looking for without too much hand-wringing. Even if you yourself are neither, opening your dating pool to queer partners (of another gender) might make your search for understanding easier.
posted by libraritarian at 12:50 PM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

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