My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone. I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much?
—Dreaming of Solitude (DoS)
Here’s my prediction on most people’s gut reaction to reading this, “What a whiny, self-centered, loser. She’s symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the U.S. today!” I read it differently and not just because I’m a huge fan of solitude. I feel for DoS because her dilemma highlights a central challenge in any long-term committed relationship.
For peace to prevail over time, you have to do two things. First, you have to consciously ignore most of the low-level aggravating things your partner does on a daily basis. For example, The Good Wife has to try to accept the fact that I selfishly turn off the bedroom light at night whenever I’m ready to sleep whether she’s mid-paragraph in her book or not. She has to try to accept the fact that right at that moment I’m thinking more about my running partners waiting outside for me in seven hours than I am her. And she has to do that type of thing every day in myriad ways because I’m a selfish pig.
Second, you have to continuously shake off a steady stream of low-level irritants without allowing so much resentment to build that it eventually bubbles over in grand gestures to have separate bedrooms (where I can be in control of the lighting my own damn self) or to live three thousand miles apart. That balance, having decent enough communication to talk about and work through low-level resentments (The Good Wife, “In the future, could you please ask me if you can turn out the light so I can at least finish my sentence?”) is an exceedingly delicate balancing act that’s easier to get wrong than right.
In my reading of DoS’s letter, the key phrase is this, “. . . furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want.” Three annoyances that by themselves wouldn’t amount to much or even if taken together for a short period of time probably wouldn’t amount to much. But the longer they’re not talked about in the light of day, they metastasize and drive a wedge between otherwise intimate people.
Imagine if DoS had come clean with her husband about her feelings years earlier. Three separate dinner discussions. The first. “For a long, long time, I haven’t felt enough freedom to decorate differently.” The second, “For far too long, I haven’t felt nearly free enough to be more messy.” The third, “For as long as I can remember I haven’t felt sufficient freedom to eat whatever I want at whatever time I want.” If the husband is as good a guy as he seems to be, he’d be sympathetic and try to be much more understanding of her need for those particular freedoms.
There’s no guarantee those conversations would go so well that the resentment would dissipate to the point where moving across the country wouldn’t be necessary, but not having them is a larger risk. By not having them the husband is in for a major surprise, one he doesn’t deserve if she’s said too little for too long.
Postscript: I thought I had turned the comments back on awhile ago, but learned today I had not. They’re back on. So comment away on Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Ms. Dreaming of Solitude, or whatever you want to get off your chest about those you’re most intimate.