Written by JK Murphy on November 12, 2020
Illustration by Maya Chastain
When I was 21, I signed up for doula training and started volunteering as a birth companion. I think I wanted to witness love — a different kind of love than what had consumed me the year prior. In a way, I saw the birthing process as the reversal of a doomed relationship. I found catharsis and healing in comforting a person through a process that (typically) started in pain and ended in joy.
Struggling with mental illness throughout my twenties showed me which relationships were steadfast and which were fragile. Due to trauma, nature, and bad luck, I’ve sometimes been what Bell Hooks refers to in Communion as a “truly despised female category: the woman who loves too much.” Yet in my darkest moments, the people I’d had romantic relationships with (namely, cishet men) were nowhere to be found.
I realized at some point that the love I grew up believing would save me — romantic, cisheteronormative, exclusive love — was something I needed to challenge. And I soon discovered love doesn’t have to follow those rules.
Commitment and mutual affection show up in many different ways, and I wanted reciprocity. I wanted to give love to the people who had been there for me when I needed it most.
Relationship anarchy, a term coined by Andie Nordgren, is the philosophy that relationships should not exist in hierarchies — that friendships, for example, shouldn’t automatically be seen as less important than romantic relationships.
As relationship coach Mel Cassidy told me, you don’t need to be non-monogamous to be a relationship anarchist, and those who choose monogamy can still learn a lot from these principles. “By stepping out of that inevitable ‘relationship escalator’ model, people can find so much diversity to explore in the ways they connect,” says Cassidy.
Learning more about RA has helped dissipate the feeling of urgency. Acceptance arrived in its place, and essentially, I’ve stopped searching for “my person.”
It might hurt to hear it, but your other half is probably not out there looking for you. The good news is that, hey! You’re actually whole just the way you are.
That’s not to say love from others is unimportant. It’s crucial. But prioritizing romance over other relationships, like friendships, can be damaging, to us and to the people we love.
Time is a valuable asset. When we pin our hopes and dreams to a single person and prioritize finding them or tending only to their needs, it can lead us to neglect our community. If we set aside our friendships to focus on a single “soulmate,” our community may not receive the time and energy it needs to thrive, and community is so important for our mental health.
As Cassidy says, “human beings are relational creatures: we didn’t evolve in dyadic units, we evolved in groups. In Western culture, the mythology of ‘the one’ has led to the notion that our partner should be able to meet all our needs all of the time.”
These expectations can be harmful to both our partners and ourselves, as bearing all that emotional weight is a lot of pressure.
Upholding hierarchical relationships as the default, as what is healthy or expected, is precarious. When we place all our little love eggs in such a fragile basket, we might be setting ourselves up for more heartache, whether it’s in one fell swoop or in a thousand little ways over the years.
For me, being in love under patriarchal ideals (i.e. finding a man to fulfill me) has always felt like opening up my chest and saying, “look inside, take whatever you want.” As someone who struggles with emotional dysregulation, it has sometimes felt like I’m missing a protective layer of flesh.
Being loved under those expectations felt like I was trapped, burrowing in the ground until my fingers bled, trying to get out from under the light of their gaze.
Once I went on a (fairly awkward) double date with a guy I loved and his grandparents. As his grandpa grilled me on all the classics I hadn’t read, I overheard his grandma compliment me. My first instinct was to catch his reaction. I needed him to confirm it before I accepted it, because I could only see myself as worthy through his eyes.
Suffice it to say, that kind of love (which artist Florence Given might call “hetrifying” ) simply isn’t for me anymore. I believe I missed out on forging some incredibly loving, healing bonds because I was laser-focused on finding some guy to notice and love me, when I was already being noticed and loved by so many others.
Of course, there’s a space where these hopes used to be. A space once occupied with dreams of vows and permanence. Dreams of being scooped up and away from the bad things, the bad parts of other people, the bad parts of myself.
Cassidy told me feeling this empty space is normal to an extent, as these expectations of unconditional love are “so ingrained in us.” But they also said that “taking the time to consciously invest in non-romantic and non-sexual relationships is one way we can challenge the ideas of scarcity that keep many people in patriarchal monogamy. Actively nurturing the primary relationships in our lives — the ones we have with ourselves — is incredibly healing, nourishing, and transformative.”
Shifting my focus to my friends, my family, and myself in recent years, I’ve discovered I can let love in without it becoming all-consuming. I can allow simple moments and passing pleasures with those I care about — like a dip in the ocean, a crackly bonfire, sleeping next to the sound of rainfall — take priority over a fantasy that hurts more in the long run.
I’d love to get all Robert Frost on you, like “I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference,” but the truth is, a lot of people will forever challenge whether this is my path, or simply the vestiges of what I’ve learned to live without.
And that’s okay.
Cherishing my people over one person means being fully present for my nieces and nephews, it means cultivating new friendships and continuing to foster old ones. It means developing a stronger sense of self, and a better foundation of self-respect. I’ve found people who are here to stay, and I’ve started to believe I am worthy of that level of commitment.
Romance is not excluded from that. It simply won’t take front and center, and I feel confident in that part of my story.
This is where I am. This is my journey. This is my life — for better or worse.
JK Murphy is a Halifax-based writer and photographer who is passionate about mental health and body politics. She loves the ocean and making people laugh. Follow her on Twitter.