I've never been single while in recovery, and I'm not sure what to do
February 11, 2019 8:13 AM   Subscribe

I have been in relationships pretty much my entire adult life - I've had a combined period of about a year of singledom in my twenties, but otherwise have pretty much jumped from relationship to relationship. I am in a relationship with someone I love dearly, but I am concerned that I don't really know who I am outside of the context of a relationship, and I want to find that out. I need advice on how to precede or alternative ways of navigating this.

I got into a relationship a few months after college, and since then I have been pretty much a serial monogamist - going from relationship to relationship. I crave the stability of relationships, and I love having/being a partner. Almost six years ago, I got sober, which, yay! Three days into my sobriety, I got into a relationship, which, yikes. I then went from that relationship to another relationship within a matter of days.

I am in a healthy, happy partnership. I love my partner so much, but I also want to be more independent and figure out what I'm like when I'm not with someone. Part of me thinks this may be a momentary thing - I'll get over it and be really grateful I stayed in a couple of months, so I'm not making any sudden moves. But I want to hear from folks who have found themselves single in their thirties after a period of 4-5 serious relationships. I'm a bit scared of being single and 34 - I know it can get harder to find a partner, and I do want to have a long-term partner someday. How do I know when it's time to leave?

I'm starting therapy this week, and plan to talk to her about it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I do not have advice of my own, really, but I would say that you may want to read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I think some of it may be very useful for you right now.
posted by sockermom at 8:34 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]

I am sort of the opposite of you in that I had many short-term relationships, but didn't really settle down into long-term relationship until my early 40s. So I have had a lot of experience being single and my own person and have brought some of that into my relationship now in both good ways and in ways that I've had to overcome. All this is to say that I don't think you need to break up with your partner in order to develop some independence and explore your identity as an individual. Here are some things you can do:

Don't move into together. Keep a separate place that is yours and where you can be alone sometimes.

Don't mix your finances. Make yourself manage your money, save for retirement, budget on your own.

Cultivate your own friends outside of coupledom and hang out with them on occasion without your partner.

Take a class in something that interests you and develop that interest outside your partnership.

Go do things on your own - take a hike, go to a museum, garden, workout - have time for yourself that is just about investing in yourself.

Take on a project in your home - repaint, learn to fix that leaky faucet, hang bookshelves - knowing that you can take care of those things on your own are great confidence boosters and will help you feel confident about being independent.

Don't get in a situation where you take on all the emotional labor for your partner. Really discuss who does things like cook, go shopping, plan dates/vacations/events, don't just fall into these chores, be intentional with your partner about making choices about who does what in your relationship.
posted by brookeb at 9:01 AM on February 11 [16 favorites]

If you're in a good relationship and want to stay that one, that is okay. That can be a big part of who you are.

There is alot of talk in recovery circles about sustained singledom, and it's not bad advice, and it's most certainly easier advice. But that doesn't mean it's not possible to figure out you with someone else.

The biggest part of independence is what YOU want. What you like, how you do you.

I think you'll be able to find another relationship, plenty people do all the time. I'm definately a person who enjoys close relationships and I don't feel like me without those I love around me. That's not a wrong way to be .

About leaving: you know to leave because it isn't working. There isn't joy. Your not committed to working together anymore to solve problems. There are value conflicts or life paths that are incompatible with eachother (for example you want kids, he doesn't... Someone is going to be deeply unhappy).

What that means for you right now I don't know .

Good luck
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:21 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]

This may be an unpopular opinion, but coming from a perpetually single person -- if you are planning to eventually be in a forever relationship, does it matter who you are as a single person? You may never be a single person again. I have no idea why anyone would need to find out who they are as a single person if their ultimate goal isn't to be a single person.

If you're in a good and fulfilling relationship, try to figure out who you are as a relationship person. Find hobbies with and without your partner. If your partner isn't treating you well, dump them. It seems you have no problem finding new people to date. If your partner is treating you well, don't dump them - unless you want to. Sometimes we get advice we don't have to take.

You've been sober for 6 years. That's a very respectable amount of time. I feel like the "find yourself as a single person" advice applies to people who are more recently sober and making bad relationship decisions. It sounds like your current relationship was not a bad decision.
posted by Penguin48 at 10:34 AM on February 11 [21 favorites]

I am 36, newly single(ish) after being in a relationship for 12+ years, and I feel you. I asked a similar question here, you may find some of those answers helpful.

In the context of being in a relationship, prioritize yourself. It's not selfish to do that. Check in with yourself every now and then to see if this relationship is meeting your needs and wants. I find journaling to be very helpful with that, YMMV, and your therapist will probably have ideas on that too (good job on going to therapy by the way! That is a great example of putting yourself first!).

I found it very easy to minimize my own needs and wants until they were basically non-existent, and I was bending over backwards to try to make my husband happy (which, spoiler alert, was not in my capability no matter how hard I tried). I didn't have the vocabulary or skills to do the hard work of introspection and analyzing to do the check-ins with myself while my relationship was sliding off the rails, so the earlier you can do that, the better it is for everyone.

brookeb has some great advice.

Good luck!
posted by Fig at 10:57 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]

I would agree that it is OK if you don't know who you are as a single person. I met my (now) wife when we were 18 and we've now been married for over 20 years. I have definitely had weird passing thoughts over the years about how I would be different if I hadn't be in one relationship my whole life, but as far as I can tell we only get one ride on this carousel, and it is more useful to me to work on being the best person I can be in my current life. If my situation changes, I'll figure out who I am in my new situation when I get there.

Like brookeb says, there are definitely ways you can examine and develop your independence within a relationship (and as someone married for most of my life, I would say it is essential to do so) but that is different from being a single person.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:58 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]

I feel like I found more about who I am in a serious relationship than as a single, so this kind of thing is very ymmv.

My friend who has a spouse who is military talks about "living single" when their spouse is deployed for extended times- cooking for one etc. (Instead of moping.) Maybe a single holiday might help?
posted by freethefeet at 12:39 PM on February 11

Who you are as single is the same person you are now, with just less obligation and consideration for another person. Are there things or lifestyles you are interested in experiencing but feel you can/should not given your relationship and partner?
posted by GoblinHoney at 1:46 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

My best friend is a serial monogamist - I don't think she's been single more than a few months at a time since she was 19 or so. She did try to find herself as a single person for those few months after leaving her fiancée 12 years ago, but she was just out of sorts and miserable. She wound up getting together with someone else and all her friends (including myself, probably) were like "but don't you want to be on your own for a while?" No, she didn't. Turns out the "new" guy was great for her, and they've now been married for 10 years, with kids and the whole shebang. She's continued to grow as a person since then and I don't think anyone thinks she would have been better off without him.

I do know people who wind up in bad relationships because they can't be alone, or who let relationships take over their lives to the point where they don't have to think about their own issues or what they want out of life, and that's a problem, but that doesn't sound like you. It sounds like you just need to make sure you're continuing to grow and be true to yourself while partnered.
posted by lunasol at 3:26 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of the idea that if you're serious about working on something, you can work on it from wherever you are.

It's totally possible to be in a relationship but still put work into becoming more independent. (And conversely, it's totally possible to be single but still keep falling into the trap of defining yourself through someone else — we've all met single people whose emotional life still revolves around some ex just as much as it did when the two of them were together.)

If you want to be single, you should be single, and you don't need any excuse at all — just go for it, and enjoy it. And if you want to work on being independent, work on being independent. And if you want to do both, do both! But don't mix up the two decisions.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:26 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]

Can you compromise and keep your own space and still stay with him? So don't spend every night there--have your own space, and set aside a least a couple nights a week to be on your own. Get your own hobbies separate from him--take a class or volunteer or whatever you want to do. Consciously make an effort to spend time alone, even if that's just reading a book at home or watching TV. You'll still see him and do all the work of a relationship, but if he's worth his salt even a little bit he will absolutely respect your space and support you completely while you do this. If he doesn't, looks like the problem took care of itself.

Good luck.
posted by Amy93 at 5:48 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

I can say it's actually pretty great! Being afraid of possibly not finding a partner because you're "too old" is not a very good reason to stay in a relationship. That's society's programming in your head as well as your own fears having jumped from relationship to relationship. I totally get it because I've been there. People find love at all ages! We see it all around us if we take a second to really examine things. Sure, we're not as youthful or thin but we're sexy and beautiful due to our confidence and life experience, arguably more than ever (assuming you are growing emotionally as you grow in age.) Perhaps I don't have a billion people to date but a lot of that has to do with where you live and what you're doing. I can say that my self-respect and self-awareness is at an all-time high so I'm attracting more of the right kind of people. And it's cool because, at 34, you could technically date someone from age 21 to 61 and it'd be OK, really! How are you different now? What do you like about yourself at age 34? How would you like to grow? What does your ideal life look like in 5, 10, 15 years?

I'm in my mid-thirties but spent nearly all of my twenties and early thirties going from one relationship to another with a few months in between. Last year I set the goal of staying single for an entire year and I just accomplished that goal! I have seriously dated two people during this time for a few months each but did not want to pursue a relationship with either. Instead of asking if someone was "good enough" or jumping in and figuring out the rest later, I have been asking myself what I really want. I'm not comparing two dates against one another but rather comparing each date against what I really wanted as an individual. I am very independent in many ways but also realized I was defining myself too much by my relationships, current or past. I found myself having to grow emotionally in ways I hadn't when I wasn't single, and I know that work will pay off if and when I'm in another relationship. Yes, as others have said, relationships provide ways for us to grow in ways that we can't when we're single BUT the reverse is true, too.

It's not to say I don't have my moments of doubt, like "Shit, I'm getting older! I'm on the fence about having kids but I only have 10 years or so should I truly want to go that route." I don't feel any pressure or rush though; in fact, I feel less pressure than ever. I can only speak for myself but I wasted a lot of time staying in less-than-ideal relationships and don't want to waste any more time with the wrong people. However, this is more about confidence and self-knowledge than age.

Everything has trade-offs. I think it's natural for people in relationships, even happy ones, to imagine what a different life would be like. It's OK to commit to the one you're in and realize that, for the price of admission, you won't experience certain things but will do others. It's also OK to realize that things aren't quite right and break up, even if you love your partner and can imagine a happy future together. We can offer advice but only you will know! I can say that I don't believe "right person, wrong time" exists unless maybe you're both 17, graduating from high school, and about to head in different directions. However, worrying about this kept me in a bad relationship for too long as I tried to wait for the circumstances to get better when it really was just that the person wasn't going to become a good match, even in better times.

There are a lot of things you can do before making any big decisions about your relationship status. For example, individual therapy would be perfect in this situation. You could reflect on what you want, think about what you're missing, and make a plan for developing yourself and your life. You could also go on a big solo trip, say, a solo road trip across the country or visit a new country where you don't know anyone. Both therapy and travel have helped me a lot this past year of being single, although different people have different wants and needs. I realized I was using relationships as a crutch to avoid making my own big decisions and bold moves. Now I'm living more for me and it's not always fun but it's much better than before! I'd like to have a relationship eventually but I know I'll recognize it and be ready if and when the time comes.

Finally, congratulations on getting and staying sober for these past going-on six years!! That's a huge accomplishment and something to be really proud of. You were able to do that so I am 100% confident you will be able to figure this out, too -- if not quite yet then sooner rather than later!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:03 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

I just left an 8-year relationship, I'm in my mid-thirties. It was the best decision of my life. I stopped drinking during that relationship but it didn't fix my underlying issues. Part of my problem was that I was deeply emotionally dependent on my partner and incapable of functioning without them. When we broke up I immediately got into a new relationship, which was even worse. I discovered Melodie Beattie's work and it helped me a lot, especially Codependent No More. She's a recovering addict and her framework specifically looks at substance dependency (self or in a family/relationship with an addict) and how that fucks up our ability to relate to others in an emotionally healthy way. Maybe you have these issues, maybe not, but it's a good book and worth a read. It doesn't mean you have to break up with your partner. If you realize you should, it will help with that process. Or it may help you make your relationship healthier.

I'm now taking an intentional break from being in relationships but I do know that people find love and long-term relationships at all ages. Whether or not you break up, your fear that you won't be able to find a relationship because you're in your thirties is worrying to me. That sounds to me like anxiety, dependency and/or internalized sexism (the spinster stigma - guessing that you're a woman?). I'd urge you to really dig into the roots of why you feel like that with your therapist. And regardless of where it comes from, fear is not a good reason to stay in a relationship.
posted by 100kb at 6:49 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

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