It was a Friday at the end of July, 2013. The evening before, my two-year relationship had finally ended. I still think of that Thursday as my own personal day of liberation.
He was still living with me, would continue to live at my apartment for the next four days before he moved out to live with his parents in a nearby town. But I woke up that Friday morning with a weight off my shoulders, a feeling of such blinding lightness and release that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget. I don’t want to forget it.
Before I got ready for work, I wrote a group text to my closest friends letting them know what had happened. None of them were surprised, all were relieved and hopeful. We’d broken up briefly a few weeks before, at his pleading and promises I’d agreed to give him a second chance. He blew it, of course, and I was done.
The song lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” pretty much describe the relationship and everything I feel about it, and him, now that it’s over. I’m not sorry it happened. It changed me and set me on a revolutionary course in my love life.
Once we’re out, the best thing that can result from a toxic relationship—or really any relationship, toxic or not—is a reevaluation of everything we believe about love and partnership. Clearly I didn’t know what I was doing, between my disintegrated marriage and my stint as punching bag and “sugar mama” (ugh) to a charming and manipulative thief. At first I was so giddy with relief and confused by the pain of detachment, I couldn’t think further ahead than a few weeks.
I read a lot of rich, validating books during those first months—books about breakups, about choosing yourself, about narcissists and emotional abuse and boundaries. And I realized that I’d never actually taken the time to think about what I wanted in a relationship. I mean, what did I actually want?? I knew what I didn’t want—a lying scumbag or a man-child like my ex-husband. But where did that leave me?
I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could possibly do for myself was not to date for a while. A long while. To remove myself from the dating arena entirely until I’d figured a few things out. But I didn’t want to be single by default again—killing time until the next guy showed up, using my energy to look or long for him. I wanted to be consciously single, to feel empowered by my choice not to date or enter a new relationship.
More than that, I wanted to date myself.
From my senior year in college on, I never had a chance to really be single—not involved with or distracted by a man or men. Between my boyfriend who became my husband who became my ex, to the men I dated while we were separated, to the man I ended up allowing to live off me for two years, I hadn’t ever truly taken a break from romantic encounters, and certainly not on purpose. I was a late bloomer in dating, didn’t have a boyfriend until college, but of course I didn’t spend those early years consciously creating a healthy sense of self-worth, I mostly had a series of crushes that went nowhere. When my husband and I split up, it would have been a great opportunity to take a long, honest look at myself.
Instead I was scared of being alone, lost without my married identity. I wanted to find what I thought I was lacking pronto—a new partner who would take me away from myself and all the unprocessed emotions from the last few years of crisis, loss and separation. So I ran headlong into the lion’s den and held myself an anxious, unhappy prisoner there.
In my heady sense of freedom when I finally got out, I vowed never to make those mistakes again. I had a second chance to embrace the kind of growth and self-awareness I could have prioritized after my marriage ended, and I was going to take it—joyfully, purposefully, powerfully.
I gave myself a year, though was open to ending that year early if I felt I was ready. But I intentionally set out to date myself for a year. This meant consciously giving myself all the time, effort, attention and affection that I’d previously given to men. Not being distracted by a lack of men or my interest in men, but focusing on what I needed—and giving it to myself. Recognizing what healthy partnership means to me and what I want it to look like. Loving myself in every way, learning what it means to be the partner I need. Identifying and writing down my core values. Writing letters and journaling to process pain, anger and shame from my past. I made an empowering playlist which I listened to while I walked my neighborhood, cleaned my apartment and sat dreaming in my living room. I learned to trust my instincts, to recognize and honor my own boundaries.
I invested in a relationship with myself in a way I’d never imagined possible.
About midway through this year, on a particularly festive New Year’s Eve out with two friends, I ended up kissing a stranger at midnight, who then asked for my number. I gave it to him—not because I wanted to, I didn’t, but because I hadn’t prepared a response. He texted the next day and asked me out, to which I never replied. I was hung over and full of chagrin, and took stock of where I was. I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but did it mean I was ready? If not this guy, would I want to say “yes” to the next one?
The answer was a very emphatic “no.” I wasn’t ready to give this up yet. I wasn’t ready to stop pouring my energy into me—relishing my alone time—living my life without the drama that dating and relationships bring. Of course there were lonely moments, but I had friends, family and pets to help me through those—not to mention myself. I lived through holiday weekends alone, I learned from the lonesome moments. I thought about a future partner, but I didn’t feel the lack of one.
Eleven months after my breakup, I went to a Match.com rafting event with a girlfriend. I enjoyed it, and found I was interested in what online dating could offer me. I was ready to dip a cautious toe in the pool—but this time I was prepared. I was going to do this differently and I knew exactly what that meant—conscious dating, open to adaptation as needed. I wrote my New Rules in Love and read them over daily. When I started communicating and going on dates with men, I listened to my gut—my best and truest ally—and never doubted or second-guessed what it told me. If it said never see this man again, I would tell him it wasn’t going to work and move on. I journaled before and after almost every date, keeping a clear perspective on every experience, discussing my reactions openly with friends.
And it was fun. I had fun meeting different men—always a little nerve-wracking right before the date began, but once it started I was fine. I allowed myself to say both “yes” and “no” frequently, dating from a place of strength and abundance and confidence, rather than fear and lack. I took breaks from dating for weeks at a time, hiding my profile and giving that energy back to myself. I eventually stopped online dating after six months, it was just too time-intensive for me, but it was a good way to get back in the game. After that I met men in the real world, which took intentionally accepting invitations to social events and creating my own opportunities to go out and talk to strangers.
When I met the man I’m with today, I knew immediately and instinctively that he was a good person. We chatted, exchanged numbers, met up casually at a concert the next week. Eventually I texted him first—but not out of desperation; I had another date that week with another man I’d met. After my first date with my current partner, I knew something was very different—and even then, we both took our time. We didn’t rush, nobody got love-bombed. Every step of the way going into this relationship, I used my conscious dating techniques. I continued to remember what mattered to me, to invest in my own wants and needs first. Even as my life opened to include him, even as we compromised and became closer, I made myself a priority. We’ve been living together for more than six months and I’m still doing that. It’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had—because I’m also still in a great relationship with me.
I believe he and I work because we share the same core values—ultimately I think that’s what creates the best chance for compatibility long-term. We have our issues, we talk them out. I see us building a life together, and I feel hopeful and excited about the future.
But at the same time, I know I’ll be OK no matter what happens. I’m not afraid of losing him. This isn’t cynicism or pessimism or denial; it would be devastating and heartbreaking beyond belief if we broke up. But I’d still have me. I’d still have a full life and as many chances for happiness, fulfillment and joy as I do with him. I’d still have a whole identity, something I never understood or valued before.
Dating myself was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I wouldn’t be the partner I am now without that experience, wouldn’t be in the relationship I am, wouldn’t be the person I am. Whether we’re on our own by choice or not, we don’t have to just live through singlehood because that’s what fate handed us, to sit resignedly in the Singles Waiting Room until we can board the next dating train. Societal pressures aside, being single has advantages we often fail to appreciate, not the least of which is a chance to intentionally prioritize ourselves.
If we redirect the energy we’d give to a partner or dating into ourselves, instead—into our ambitions and desires, our growth, our finances, our friendships, our hobbies and travels—for even one month, it might just lead to some pretty amazing results.
Dating ourselves isn’t solely a means to building a better, healthier love life in the future. It’s a radical and empowering re-imagining of our beliefs about love, partnership and fulfillment.
And that changes everything.