I’m not the best with social media—never have been, probably never will be. I use it to read interesting articles or to gleam a poignant quote here or there, or sometimes I become uncharacteristically sports conscious and will root for a winning team, but that’s about it. I don’t think many would know about my life just by tracking my comings and goings on Facebook or Instagram, but it makes explaining why I'm here and Austin's there long-winded. I find myself clarifying over and over the same scenario, and contrary to how often I talk to myself and apparently love the sound of my own voice, even I get tired of it. So here we are!
Austin and I parted ways in Spain for me to come back for the promise of an exciting job merging education and tech recruiting, and for him to have time to himself to become truly fluent in Spanish without my beginning proficiency dragging him down. By the time he returns, we will have been apart for five weeks. At first, this felt jarring and deeply sad; we had been together almost non-stop for months and had gotten into a comfortable rhythm in between the many breakdowns of expectations and disappointments. But ultimately we knew that I really wanted to pursue my dream of being a mover and a shaker in my job, and being completely immersed in all things Spain had been a dream of Austin’s for a long time. And so, tears were shed and plenty of chocolate was consumed, and we said adios.
From day one of pre-marital therapy, I’ve been hearing and reading about the concept of relational differentiation: how the most healthy relationships are not built on two people becoming one, but rather two people developing and celebrating their own identities and being the guardians and biggest fans of the other. When done well, the result is the most pure form of agape love: we can love each other for who the other really is, instead of who we desire them to be. The idea is that we don’t need each other in order to be okay. Austin doesn’t have to be a container for all of my emotions, like children need to do with their parents; I can regulate my own okay-ness and still be present with him, and he can do the same. And when we made the choice to part for a bit, to not end the trip together, I felt like I could pretty much write a book on how differentiated we were. Two years in and we had done it! What else can we master because enlightenment is ours!
And of course, this is always the first sign that I’m going to get my ass handed to me.
Doing (a very short stint with) long distance has been the opposite of being in a groove— if traveling together had been a gentle wave coasting against the shore (we were each others’ social lives, after all), long distance has been an irregular tide infested with jelly fish with a surprise drop on the ocean floor. Not only are we our own certain brands of lonely, but it points to how much of our relationship has been built of enmeshment— of me needing Austin and him needing me. The rhythm we moved into while abroad was more mature than we’ve been in the past, but we were each others’ only people, and somewhere along the way, it became too foreign to be without him, which is why the decision to be apart felt so overwhelming.
Since coming home, however, the distance I most feared would happen has manifested and taken full force— I’m starting a new job in the ‘burbs of San Francisco and living with my family, and Austin is wandering the streets of Madrid meandering through free museum entrances and drinking 2€ cervezas. He doesn’t understand why I feel the need to have a cell phone and I don’t understand why he doesn’t think stylish connectivity is important. It’s hard and scary for us to be on such different pages, for my loyalties to be with him and also with my very generous parents who I’m living with and also with a new job and also with my friends and also myself and my solitude. And of course, it’s really hard for him to be living and traveling alone, a monumental feat for my people-loving husband, and be dealing with gut-wrenching loneliness and, at times, disenchantment. For me to not be able to be what he needs and for him to not be able to be what I need. We fail each other daily and haven’t quite found how to repair over the phone; and so we live in the relief that this isn’t a forever reality, that it’s just for now, and we let it be weird and more distant than we’d like, we let the pages be separate.
And all the while we know that the rift is both good and bad, that it means we each are pursuing what matters to us as individuals, that my desires and needs matter just as much as Austin’s, that we each are fighting for our own and for the other, that we’re letting each other be the other instead of just an extension of ourselves. The space between where we think we should be versus where we are is hardly ever easy to pilot, but smart people who have lived more life than us tell us that despite our feelings, all is going according to how it’s supposed to and that this is normal. That maybe this disappointment of not being able to be what the other needs is really the first step—that accepting the reality that I will often come up short, that I can’t always be what he needs and he can’t be that to me, means that we’ll eventually be that much more free, that much more separate but together.
Sometimes when I’m talking about this with people, the comment “Well I’m sure this will bring you closer than you ever thought possible eventually” weaves its way in, and I have felt angry and also worried — I certainly don’t feel closer right now, would you?!—that I’m missing the marriage mark. And then I was relaying this reaction I had to a friend the other night, and she snapped right back with “that is not the reason we do everything [in order to be closer with our partners]” And I thought, YES. Preach it, teach it. It’s not the only reason to do something. I am so proud of both of us for choosing our own longings and setting a new precedent for how we can relate, for not wanting to be enmeshed but so often fading into it anyway, for focusing on our personhoods and therefore, how we can love those persons better. It is good and disheartening and beautiful and brutal, and if that’s not a litmus test for things worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.