Travel back in time with me to the awkward and wonderful land of middle school dances, specifically those slow songs that made your palms sweat until that cutie in the cargo pants asked you to put your hands on his shoulders. I remember a few especially romantic lines from those songs. 98 Degrees proclaimed, “My life is yours alone.” How about “I’ve never had a dream come true, ‘till the day that I found you”? S Club 7, of course. And in “I’ll Be,” a song that carried us from the first dance in the sixth grade through senior prom, Edwin McCain crooned to his love, “You’re my survival.”
These songs are expressing one of the ultimate romantic sentiments, the idea that one person in a relationship somehow doesn’t have a full or whole life without the other (something often expressed with the phrase, “You complete me.”). Until recently, I subscribed to this notion. For the past three years I’ve been navigating the difficult dating scene in New York City, and on top of that, I’ve been recovering from an eating disorder and depression. That means I have been working hard to rebuild a destroyed self-esteem and sense of identity. I have been in a few short-lived relationships in this time, and in each quickly found myself losing my own conception of myself as well as any scrap of self-worth I had previously mustered. I was no longer whole without my partner.
It was my dietitian (though I like to think of her as my life guru) who suggested a different way of looking at relationships. She told me that each person in a couple should be represented by a whole circle, and that when these circles join, they overlap in a venn diagram but never break their individual forms. To me this means that each person has a pre-established strength and independence going in to the partnership. It also means that while they complement and support each other, each person would indeed be OK without the other.
In my recent relationships, my circle had broken and melded into the other. This is because I saw my partner as someone who could solve my problems, or could at least distract me from mine. Years of suffering from an eating disorder and depression had broken me down, and I desperately wanted to be whole again. I was working on doing so in therapy, but was also aware that a long and difficult road was ahead of me. So, to fast-track things, I dove head-first into relationships. Thinking about the man I was with and how great he seemed was much better than remaining in my head. For a while, this made recovery and happiness a lot easier to obtain. But when these relationships ended, my problems came back with a vengeance. I was even more vulnerable to the negative thoughts in my mind than before, and it was at these times that I experienced some of my worst relapses.
My last partnership lasted maybe a month, and that’s being generous. This time, I found myself dating someone who was going through his own personal struggles, struggles that affected his ability to have meaningful relationships. “We can help each other,” I thought. What happened instead was that I spent too much time focusing on him, using this person as a distraction. He ended up hurting me in a major way, and I realized I had made myself vulnerable for a man who was far too vulnerable on his own. I was also crushed after being with him only a short time, because I had allowed myself to become dependent on him.
I am hoping that in my future romantic relationships I can reject the “You complete me” sentiment, and I don’t think this makes me any less of a romantic. In fact, to me, there is something beautiful about finding a partner who appreciates someone with already-established self-worth, independent goals, and a sense of personal identity. Furthermore, these aspects of self can certainly grow stronger in a healthy relationship. And I don’t think you need to be recovering from any sort of mental health crisis to see the dangers in depending too much on another person. When it comes down to it, the true person you are stuck with forever is yourself.
Despite having realized the unhealthy patterns I have followed, it is still difficult to break them. However, I have found the easiest way to begin to do this is by focusing first and foremost on myself. My recovery starts and ends with me. I have been and will continue to be supported by some amazing people, but if I do not take certain steps on my own every single day, I will end up back at the beginning. Even when one day (fingers crossed), I find myself recovered and returned to some sense of normalcy (if that even exists), maintaining my self-esteem, setting goals for myself, and taking actions that align with my values is up to me. My identity and self-worth cannot and will not be created or formed by someone else. Now I close with the wise words of Destiny’s Child, “All the women who are independent, throw your hands up at me.”
Molly Kiernan is a 24 year-old living in New York, NY. She is a mental-health advocate, an avid flannel-wearer, coffee-drinker, and Netflix-watcher. Find her on Twitter @mollykiernan or visit her blog at recoverywisdom.wordpress.com.