Breaking up with romance

It's not you, it's me. Lex De Laney explains why she is taking a 12-month break from romance to concentrate on herself

, 28 June 2011

When I turned 25 last year, I went through something of an existential crisis. Perhaps a ‘beginning of life crisis’ that my life wasn’t going in quite the direction I planned.

Only six months before, I had experienced a dual ending. My years away at university drew to a close as I submitted my MSc dissertation. The terrifying world of graduate recruitment loomed and, beyond that, three ‘m’s’ that absolutely terrified me: marriage, mortgages and motherhood.

Crossroads.jpgSecondly, my two-year relationship – the most serious and grown-up I’d ever been in – came to a drawn-out end when we realised that we just weren’t right for each other. I wanted to flee the country and work in tropical climes, and he wanted to play in his band and live the capitalist dream. And so we went our separate ways – him off to a snazzy graduate engineering job and I returned, unemployed, to my mother’s house.

Ten months later, after a period of living the dream abroad, I found myself back at my mum’s, still single and unemployed. To say it’s been tough would be an understatement. I’m still going through my ‘angry young woman’ phase (yelling at the TV, reading Marxist philosophy, getting increasingly frustrated with just about everything).

As the post-university and post-relationship haze has slowly lifted, I’ve been met with a horrible realisation: if you’re single and unemployed, you’re somewhat of a second-class citizen.

I’ve always been aware of the advertising strategies used to make women feel that they can have it ‘all’ (whatever ‘all’ is) by buying cosmetics and all manner of rubbish. But I’ve also noticed much more, since being single, that women are expected to be in relationships to be deemed attractive, successful and intelligent.

I recently started watching the dating show Take Me Out (admittedly more for the hilarious Northern humour of the ex-Phoenix Nights presenter than the blatantly sexist meat-market structure of the show). I was horrified. Thirty single, attractive and very different women all have to compete for a potential mate. You wouldn’t be surprised that in most cases only the most conventionally attractive women ended up being chosen to go on a date (and indeed most of the participants would fall into that category anyway).

My personal accomplishments and close relationships seemed to pale in comparison to the importance I placed on my intimate relationships

I became a bit despondent when I realised that almost all my nearest and dearest are in what Bridget Jones and her ilk refer to as ‘Smug Married Couples’. I was beginning to cave to peer pressure – not because my friends thought there was anything wrong with my state of bachelorettehood – but because I felt like the odd one out. And yes, I felt lonely.

Squidgy heart.jpgBut why did I feel lonely? I began to consider this and realised that it didn’t need a therapist to get to the crux of the issue: I’ve been in long-term relationships since before university, my favourite films are classic boy-meets-girl romances (whether Bollywood or Hollywood), my favourite book is Pride and Prejudice and my favourite TV show is Sex and the City. Even my own written work places romance at its heart (if you can forgive the pun).

What’s more, the women in all these big-budget depictions of romance are desperately seeking not just love, but a man. The behavioural patterns from earlier classics like An Affair to Remember and Casablanca where women are demure and passively accept normative gender imbalances continue today largely unchallenged in romantic blockbusters. Even the slightly more ‘unusual’ characters, such as Audrey Hepburn’s famous portrayal of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, are rescued by men in the final scenes.

When you consider the extent to which these patterns are replicated, it is disturbing. Single women are presented as desperate for a man as Bridget Jones so effectively shows us. And the ways in which romance unfolds follows a depressingly predictable pattern: strong man wooing weak woman and woman being somehow rescued. Is romance a predominantly heterosexual experience? It would appear so due to the disproportionate lack of strong gay and lesbian characters portrayed in literature and on the big-screen.

These seemingly harmless films reinforce dangerous and entrenched gender ideals.

Unfortunately, my lack of a job meant I was consuming even more romance than before, curling up with romantic movies on a Sunday and re-reading all my old favourite romance novels. In my personal life, it was becoming increasingly clear that I wasn’t any closer to finding what I was looking for.

For a while I tried to fill this romantic-shaped gap by going on a few dates, but none sparked the excitement I wanted. I soon realised that my psychology was completely, dare I say, damaged, by my heavy consumption of romance. My personal accomplishments and close relationships seemed to pale in comparison to the importance I placed on my intimate relationships.

Last week, a friend revealed she was half-way through a year of sexual abstinence. “It’s amazing,” she told me, adding that she was feeling really creative, productive and that all her potential and thoughts that had previously been taken up with men, sex and relationships were now being channelled into her own pursuits.

As I start to fill my life up with great people and new projects, the idea of being in a couple becomes much less appealing

I saw a similar pattern in my own experiences of being single. I’d strengthened the relationships closest to me and was growing increasingly productive, yet my progress was hindered by my love-affair with romance. The recurring moments of loneliness were most acute after I fed my habit of watching romance movies, or re-reading my favourite love affairs.

In almost a year of being single, I’ve discovered how great it is. But I’m looking forward to the additional benefits of having a complete ‘year off’ from all things romantic and to carrying on learning to love my own company and feeling comfortable in my own skin.

Of course I would like to meet someone one day, and live with a couple of cats in a little cottage by the sea. But that isn’t the main goal of my life anymore. I have friends who are absolutely terrified of becoming single and who really view themselves as part of a unit.

Sculpture.jpgI felt like that for a long time and my love-affair with fictional romance made me think that I needed the togetherness of being in a couple, or the excitement of getting to know someone romantically. However, as I start to fill that area of my life up with great people and new projects, the idea of being in a couple becomes much less appealing.

It’s important for people to take a step back sometimes, to reassess, reflect and spend time alone. For me, that means breaking up with the pursuit of romance and giving myself 12 months off from men to see how my perceptions change over time.

So I’ve done what any loyal Bridget Jones fan would after a breakup: I’ve cut and dyed my hair, removed the self-help books from my shelf and have finally started getting on with the new most important relationship in my life – the one I have with myself.

Picture of a country crossroads in Northumberland taken from Wikimedia Commons. Anatomical painting of a heart taken from Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of an expressionistic sculture of two figures (one swooning) taken by Flickr user Rob Gallop.

Lex De Laney is a UK-based feminist and co-founder of a young development consultancy which contributes to gender and conflict analysis

Comments From You

Watermelon // Posted 2 July 2011 at 11:34 am

This article really hit a soft spot for me, as I was in this same situation as soon as I graduated from uni and ended a 6 year relationship after similar realisations of incompatibility.

I really recommend your advice because for two years I remained single to learn to appreciate and love the skin I was in, thereby becoming more confident and more in tune to what I wanted from life and future relationships.

By abolishing the ideal romance that we are all conditioned to embody and aspire to. I have become more content with relationships and attitudes of people realising that every person is different and that we must all play an active role in defining what romance is.

I think what we have both been through has been a romance detox and I recommend everyone try it some time in their lives.

Linda // Posted 8 July 2011 at 2:29 pm

I am older than you but I found, when I became newly single, that freedom and loneliness were different sides of the same coin. It often depended on how I woke up. The second thing I found was that one by one my married friends came to me and asked me what it was like being single. The envied my life. I think that they are married to the lifestyle rather than their men. It probably didn’t start off like that for them, but now they lack the courage or imagination to make a change. The romantic notion is another aspect of consumer society, you just need to buy… pay for… change… to attain your goal. I have been happiest when I stopped looking for a man and just enjoyed what I did have, me.

Jane // Posted 15 July 2011 at 11:51 am

It is wonderful to read this, more people should feel comfortable to be in the position of not being attached to another person, or defined as being with another. I truly believe that for many people they may also have more successful relationships if they were content to not be in one. I am more than happy to not be in a relationship, I enjoy all the extra time, the ability to do and see whoever I want, whenever I want.

I spent a while away from relationships and it was a really enlightening time. I now choose to be in a relationship because I want to be, not because I feel pressurised to be, a condition which I think I previously found myself in on several occasions. This means that I will not put up with situations that are causing me harm or are not right for me.

It is a shame that some people feel they don’t have a choice in their relationship status, I hope, like you, that many people will start to feel more encouraged to remain single and not feel the cultural pressure to be in a relationship that comes from other couples and of the romantic ideals portrayed in films and books.

Bryony // Posted 26 August 2011 at 12:39 pm

Hi Lex,

Really enjoyed reading your article, and registered on the site so I could post a comment!

This article really struck a chord with me too. I hope you are some way to finding where you want to go in life, and have found a job or a different path.

I think the pressure to be in a ‘twosome’ can be overpowering. There seems to come a point where, after university, many friends are in couples. I am nearly 28 and am coming to the end of the stage where many of the couples are getting married. I have a diverse group of friends but in each sub group, I am often the only ‘single’. Over time – and with some help of a CBT therapist! – this situation has started to get easier and easier. I have had a number of serious relationships, some of which ended well and some badly, but none which were serious for nearly 5 years. I have now been celibate for nearly six months. I think you can set too much on the idea of finding that ‘special person’. As my coupled up friends will remind me, relationships are not easy. There is a lot of compromise to be made if you are going to do it properly. That ‘perfect person’ doesn’t exist: if you are lucky, you will get someone who is 85% brilliant, 15% extremely irritating. In relationships, you will inevitably have to give something up for the relationship to succeed: whether it is independence, one side of your wardrobe, time spent cleaning up after your partner etc etc. I believe in treating people well, and I also believe in trying to fulfil commitments you have, whether it’s committing to a person, committing to an event, or committing to going to a friend’s birthday party. Sometimes therefore it is hard to have it all. When you want to focus on starting a career – not at all easy – or on saving up for a house, or on building your friendships, or on study, relationships can, and should, take a back seat. As time goes on you also find that you are less and less willing to get into relationships with people who you are obviously not compatible with, and become choosier and choosier. I would say that the ideal is to be comfortable going through your life as you – whether as an individual or in a couple, I hate the word “alone” with all its negativity! You are born an individual, you will die an individual (even if you are a twin!) So why the focus on making yourself two? To be in the right relationship is wonderful, but to be in the wrong relationship is toxic – to be yourself, going it on your own, is much, much better!

Inna Hudaya // Posted 4 September 2011 at 6:56 pm

Hi lex, thank for the article. It reminds to myself few years ago. I do realize that i grew up wuth all those romantic shit and always lookin for the prince in a horse with a sword. I end up feeling desperately lonely and fed up react to my family judgment as a non-productive women (read: not marry and not having babies . i went thru a periode of time being alone, talk to myself and tryin to connect within myself. once i cut off my hair and saw myself bald and naked every morning in the mirror. i hate and feel like wanna puke in the beginning, but in the end i have to say that thru this periode i found the meaning of beauty for myself.

I agreed that breaking with romance and sex help us to be more focuss to our goals and project, but does’nt mean that we couldnt focuss on that within a relationship. my opinion it’s depend on the time, the partner, and the relationship. I have no regret for all my failed relationship in the past, thru all this i found clearly what i really want and i learn more about myself thru my ex perspective.

Hmm, what Bryony said about loneliness reminds me about the alonesses/onenesses. When there’s two person walks together there are two onenesses walks together. Once we connect to ourself, it doesnt matter whether we are single or couple because the happiness is within.

Thanks again for writing this :)

laura // Posted 31 August 2014 at 5:37 pm

Hey Lex,

This is the article I needed to read. I’m 25 and at the end of a 10 year relationship. A detox from romance is what I think i will do as it is high time i think about what makes me happy and how to be comfortable being a separate individual. Throughout my entire adult life my sense of self has been as a part of a unit and it’s a bloody scary prospect going it alone. Just want to say thanks for the prep talk :) x

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