I didn’t fall in love for the first time until my mid-twenties, and by then I’d developed a clear idea of how I thought love should feel, buoyed by the books and articles I’d read throughout my teens and young adulthood. I’m a millennial woman who was raised with a very specific point of view that says I can do whatever I want, no partner needed. According to these books and articles, when you have a healthy relationship, your partner does not (should not!) complete you. You complete you, your partner simply adds to your life. You are whole all on your own.
But then I fell in love. For real. The healthy kind. And I was shocked and horrified to find that I was experiencing a feeling I didn’t think I’d feel: I was suddenly fuller. I felt “more whole.” It was like a sizable piece of my heart had been missing, perhaps inaccessible, all along. I felt more secure than ever, too, and that was kind of concerning. My inner dialogue was saying: I’m not supposed to need a man. Am I less of a feminist if I feel this way? Is this sudden feeling of “wholeness” okay?
According to Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, I’m not alone in this struggle with romantic love. She says we might need to clarify the meaning and feeling of “love” for the modern world. “Dependence has gotten a bad rap, because we live in a patriarchy, and for thousands of years, women could not move through the world without a male partner,” she says. “His vote represented her. She couldn’t enter into a contract unless he signed it, and so on. So, I think women have gotten a bit skittish for good reason.”
This feels like a problem that’s specifically hitting my generation, too: Even my mom, who had a traditional, male breadwinner-female nurturer dynamic with my dad, raised me with the idea that I should make my own money, have my own career and be my own independent person — that I could do anything, be anything, independent of a man’s involvement. In some ways, it’s very cool that I’m living out my mom’s (and grandmother’s) wildest dreams for me.
But where it gets sticky for me is emotional dependence. I’m just fine on my own, but I feel better when I’m in a healthy relationship. And when I’m somewhat dependent on that other person emotionally. Is “dependence,” in itself, a dirty word? Why do I feel like it is?
Solomon says that the type of dependence to which I’m actually referring is “a two-way street.” “We are really talking about interdependence; two people relying on each other, caring for each other, committing to each other,” she says. “If you are going to be in a long-term intimate partnership, it is normal and healthy to need that person. Otherwise what’s the point?”
If monogamy is your thing, and all goes well, you and your partner become a family, pool resources, and “bear witness to each other’s lives,” says Solomon. “You create memories together. You plan for a future together. You show up for each other, again and again. Research shows that intimate partners’ bodies become physiologically entwined — their soothing presence reduces your stress level, and helps you feel more at ease.” (And vice versa.)
Solomon, who’s been married for 20 years, says emotional interdependence is expected — and worth it. “I am not ashamed to say that [my husband] is a huge part of me,” she says. “Does he sometimes drive me crazy? Absolutely. Would I be lost without him? 100%. Could I survive without him? Yes. Do I want to? Hell no.”
Solomon told me about a student in one of her classes who felt like she had to decide whether she was a “career type of woman” or a “wife-and-mom type of woman” — something I started to struggle with during my college years, too. But this, Solomon says, is a false dichotomy: We can have both achievement and relationality, ambition and caregiving, interdependence and independence. This isn’t the case for having it all; it’s the case for remembering these qualities aren’t mutually exclusive.
If I am in a romantic partnership, I can also be independent. Solomon believes the happiest romantic relationship “are the ones in which there are two ‘me’s’ and a ‘we’” — which strikes me as a more well-rounded way to describe modern partnerships than simply calling it additive. Romantic love might make me feel “whole,” but that is more likely a marker of my personality than it is a flaw in it.
For now, I’ll keep my independent spirit, my hobbies, my own friends and my ambitions. But I’m also open to that warm, comforting, all-encompassing emotion, too — that feeling where my heart could seemingly burst from the additional contents. If I’m lucky enough to fall in love again, I plan to embrace love’s “wholeness” with the wild abandon of a person who doesn’t fear that it will make her less of something else.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.