Before I get into anything, let me preface with this: I completely love the idea of marriage. I understand, for some, the confines of this official commitment can seem antiquated, but I fully support and agree with the heart of this concept — the idea of choosing one person to go through life with and commit to. I appreciate all of that, and, for the better half of my 33 years, I made it my mission to find such a union — to the point of obsession. It wasn't until I entered my 30s that my marriage mindset actually changed completely.
For context, I should give you a bit of background about me: I was that daydreamy kid who was practically raised on Disney movies and who believed her life was meant to follow a similar happily ever after narrative. I also come from a very traditional Mexican family that values marriage and family above, well, everything. And while I'm grateful for the ideals I was raised on, I think it became so embedded in my mind, that I saw no other option in terms of life path. Still, this notion and goal of meeting the perfect man, having the perfect wedding, and living in perfect matrimonial bliss stuck with me through my teens and well into my 20s. I believed this was the secret to a fulfilling and purposeful life.
So, for almost 30 years, I lived my life like it was a movie and I was the female protagonist kissing all the frogs, whose problems and woes would be solved once she coupled up and found the right someone to love forever and always. (Heck, I feel like I even had a dramatic soundtrack playing in my head every time I went on a good date or had a disappointing breakup.) Basically, I was Charlotte York IRL.
While living in a state of optimism and hope has its benefits, there was a naivety to my mindset that I now see impacted every potential partner that came in my path. I found myself teetering on two extremes: Either I wrote someone off immediately and without warning if I didn’t feel that “spark” right away or I jumped headfirst and all in when I did. This was dangerous in that I walked away from perfectly wonderful individuals, and/or attached myself to people who were completely wrong for me. Needless to say, my dating life was a mess and filled with heartbreak and disappointments.
Another implication of this marriage-minded path involved my self-esteem. As relationships came and went, and I saw more and more friends getting married and starting their own lives, my mind inevitably went to some pretty dark places. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t get someone to commit to me? What wasn’t I bringing to the table? Why was I not enough? See, my focus was not necessarily on finding the right person and actually being married, but feeling wanted, desired, and, most importantly, validated. And, believe me, this is not a healthy mindset to have.
These insecurities kicked in in full force around any family holiday or special event. Despite the plethora of things going on my life — career, travel, new apartment — it seemed the first question on every relative's mind revolved around my romantic status and dating life. "You dating anyone?", "How's your romantic life going?", and my father's favorite question, "Is there a 'him' yet?"
I recall one particularly fun Christmas Eve dinner in which an inconsiderate uncle referred to my "ticking biological clock" that needed to be tended to (a term and topic of conversation I assumed had long been done away with, along with corsets and chastity belts). Despite my family's good intentions, these questions and interrogations made me feel belittled and simplified to a classic cliché — the miserable spinster on a constant quest for love. They also made me feel like the only interesting thing about me was my marriage status (or lack thereof). Nothing else about my life was worth discussing or asking about.
So what changed, you ask? Did I have this great epiphany or lightning bolt moment where I suddenly woke up a changed woman who no longer cared about marriage or finding a life partner? Nope. Simply put: Life happened. In the absence of a relationship, I found myself pouring all my energy into variables I could control — mainly my career, friendships, and relationship with myself (as trite as that may sound).
As my career progressed, I fell deeper and deeper in love with it. I threw myself into work and sharpening my skill set, which, as the years progressed, helped in the self-esteem department. Another booster came in getting a space of my own. I moved out of my parent’s home in my mid-20s (later than many) and found taking care of myself to be incredibly challenging and liberating all at once. I made financial mistakes, learned how to cook for myself, and had to figure out how to cohabitate with people who weren’t my family. Yes, these are all rites of passage for every adult, but, for me, they were a bit off-grid and a bit of a shock to my system. They were also astronomical in cultivating my self-worth and independence.
You see, I come from a very traditional family where most of the women in it go from their family home to their marital home. (To this day, my parents jokingly try to convince me to move back in and save on rent.) As a kid I envisioned “growing up” as having a house in the suburbs I shared with my husband and children, not dwelling in a small, rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, California. But here I was, in that very scenario — and, to my surprise, it actually felt pretty good.
Now, to be clear, I never stopped dating or meeting new people. There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from hitting it off with someone and getting lost in the easy conversation and enjoyable company. However, I think my years of relationship faux pas made me a bit more cautious (read: jaded) when it came to the "butterflies." Hitting it off with someone — or not hitting it off with someone — doesn't determine the fate of your relationship.
I also began getting thrills from other things that weren't romantic or relational at all. Lazy, solo Saturday mornings with a coffee in hand as I browsed local vintage stores. Reading for hours in bed by myself. Traveling the world by myself. Long runs along the beach. Happy hours and dinners with my girlfriends. Yes, all of these things can be enjoyed in a marriage and a committed relationship, but they became the defining moments of my single life. They taught me how to not only be alone, but truly bask in it. I quickly became addicted to a little drug called independence.
Before I knew it, I was coming on my 30th birthday, and in reflecting the last three decades, I realized that in the course of a few years, my “table for one” life had overshadowed my life-long mission to be a part of a “table for two.” And, that was OK. (Sometimes I think I enjoy being alone too much, but I’ll deal with that later.)
In looking back on some of the people I clung to in the hopes of making them my forever partner, I'm grateful I never got my way. There was even one man I held onto for years (in a very unofficial capacity), believing our "special connection" would turn into an actual serious relationship. I allowed myself to be entangled in a dysfunctional game of cat and mouse that left me feeling worthless. I see now that I craved the attention, even if it was unhealthy and comforted myself with the prospect that at some point he would come around and we'd actually be happy. He never did — and I couldn't be more relieved. My approach to relationships was so warped and based on superficial wants and needs, that any permanent union I entered into would've followed suit.
“The best couples are often those who have been around long enough to realize that everyone is flawed and no relationship is going to be perfect, and a happy relationship (and marriage) is more about compromise and acceptance of the other’s differences than anything else,” says Annie Gurton, psychological therapist and advanced imago relationship counselor. I would say this statement pretty much sums up my approach to relationships and marriage.
I'd also say that, today, marriage is not my end goal — happiness is. If that happiness includes a husband and children at some point in life, I welcome that. If it means going through life alone, that's fine with me, too. And if it means getting married in my 40s, 50s, or beyond — bring it. I've learned that there is so much life to be lived as a single woman and so many opportunities and moments to be enjoyed. And I am no longer defined or validated by my relationship status. The tough part's been reconciling this with my family (I was on the receiving end of a stern, "It's fine" after telling my mom I wasn't settling down just yet.)
I'm glad that, in my 30s, I'm feeling peace and joy in being a solo flyer, so much so that I'm not exactly willing to let it go that easily. If and when I decide to do life with someone, there will be careful consideration, patience, and a ton of compromise involved. Because I know now that marriage isn't my happy ending. I am.