“Although a relationship might contribute to our happiness, our happiness must transcend the relationship. Ensuring that peace of mind is not dependent on any one thing or one person.” -Daily Headspace meditation (4/4/2018)
In 2005 my engagement to Leslie ended in an explosive fashion. There was screaming, ring-throwing, and anger on both sides. It took a few days, but eventually, I adjusted to living without her but not a day went by that I didn’t long for her to walk back in the door. She was manipulative, abusive, cheated on me, but I still wanted her. We had been together for two years and I didn’t know how to experience joy without her.
I soon drowned myself in people in order to be happy. For about a month I sought out one-night stands and eventually started dating Amy, a wonderful woman who I had no business dating. I hate to admit it, but I was with her to cover the misery in my heart. She deserved a lot better and I knew it at the time. Despite the happiness, she brought me I had a growing guilt inside me for staying with her when I knew that our lives were not on the same path and I broke up with her after about a year of dating.
For the next five or so years I managed to stay out of any personal relationship where my happiness was linked to the person. In fact, I kept a strong emotional barrier between myself and the people I cared about. Instead, I latched on to the libertarian ideology and economics. Instead of finding happiness in people I found it in an identity.
I guess this was better because it meant I wasn’t hurting anyone else, but it was only incrementally better for me. I was still attaching happiness outside of myself. This period pretty much ended when I hit my lowest point… drunk on my bed with a gun in my hand ready to end it all. Luckily, that low point wasn’t my endpoint.
The next several years involved a lot of self-examination and pursuit of health improvements. I had relationships but they didn’t involve an over-attachment or forced detachment. I wasn’t exactly healthy but I was, as Dan Savage puts it, “in good working order”. I became content with myself and was able to envision happiness even if I lost the people, roles, and things I cared about. I didn’t know it at the time but I was exercising a lot of practices that the ancient Stoics encourage (and later when I discovered Stoicism I was able to start implementing these practices more consistently and consciously).
I think most people agree that it is dangerous to attach your happiness to a romantic partner. When two people come together they should be independent enough to thrive without each other. The overall relationship dynamic should be one where you both lift each other up instead of one person disproportionately carrying the emotional weight for the other. If you suddenly end up without that person you should know you will be okay. Going into a relationship content to live without that person strengthens it further.
It seems less common, but maybe more important, to apply that same standard to other relationships. The most powerful connection is from a parent to a child but we should have the same ability to maintain our happiness independence in this relationship. To latch on to the parent identity is to set oneself up for pain unnecessarily. Eventually, that role of parent will end. Hopefully, it won’t involve the death of a child (but it might) and will be because the child grows up to be a responsible, independent adult. But either way, the role of parent will die and if happiness is attached to that identity then the individual will suffer. All things are ephemeral.
It isn’t only people that can bring about unhealthy attachment and dependence for happiness. Passion projects and other things that bring us joy we can become dangerously dependant on. I love cycling, it brings me great happiness, but there is a chance that I’ll walk outside tomorrow and get hit by a car and lose my legs. I also love reading, but I may come down with a disease that takes away my sight, or even all my senses. Will I be able to be happy? I hope so.
I think about these things, not to dwell or worry about them but because I don’t want to take anything for granted. I love the feeling of the wind on my face more when I realize that I may lose it at any moment. The joy that comes from a hot bath is intensified when I know that it may be my last. I feel the connection with my partner more deeply because I know she is mortal and our relationship will not last forever. Taking a moment to think about losing everything and how I will deal with that situation provides me with appreciation and knowledge of my own strength because I know I will be okay.
Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail about life in general?
Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions: pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”