Dear Sara: A while back, I had a “come to Jesus” moment with a [single] friend/mentor when she was implying, yet again, that marriage is a sign of spiritual maturity. I argued it was luck. I said, “Tell me one thing a happily married woman (I decided to make it easy for her by excluding the unhappily coupled) knows that I don’t.” She said, “She knows how to show up in the world completely as herself.”
This resonated so deeply with me. Not only do I struggle with intimacy/shame/perfectionism issues, so do all my single friends. It made sense to me that in order to be happy in a relationship you have to be courageous enough to show up as yourself. I really appreciated your mentioning how courageous it is to continuously put yourself out there in dating, but for me, that’s social courage; I know how to present myself favorably to a wide variety of people. I think intimacy is a deeper kind of courage.
I showed up in a completely different way in my next dating relationship and the whole experience was different (he was surprised/intrigued by my vulnerability). As easy as things were between the two of us, I experienced a lot of internal struggle with self-judgment. I didn’t know, until he pointed it out, how relentlessly hard on myself I am. He and I didn’t ultimately work out, but it got me thinking. I was also thinking when I read your book, that though you feel like you married later rather than sooner because you needed to meet the right man (not because you needed to change), it seemed like it also came after you had spent some time (a few years?), working on acceptance.
So I’m wondering, while it seems that you place a high premium on luck in the happy marriage sweepstakes, do you think self-acceptance is in the mix? You write that you can be happily married and still messed up, but do you think a happy partnership is possible without self-acceptance? – S
Dear S: You and your friend seem to think there is a hard line that distinguishes People Who Accept Themselves from those who do not. The PWAT have gained entry into the land of happy coupledom, while you and your single friends can only press your noses between the bars of the gate, berating yourselves for not accepting yourselves enough.
So the first thing I’ll say is we married folk aren’t so great. Many of us still question ourselves and suffer serious bouts of low self-esteem. In fact, when I think of the people I know who have the kind of self-acceptance you’re talking about, I don’t see any correlation to relationship status—I know single people who possess a deep, quiet confidence and I know married people who are at war with themselves.
It’s true that bringing your full self to a relationship is important, but to me that is like saying being honest in a relationship is important—it’s not a skill or a character trait that some people have and some don’t. It’s a simple choice, one you’re always free to make, regardless of your past and regardless of how difficult it is for you.
And you did make that choice in your last relationship. Yeah, it was hard and the two of you didn’t end up together forever, but you still did it. You saw that things were different, maybe easier, so own that and realize that this experience can carry you forward into your next relationship.
Your ex said he was surprised by how hard you are on yourself, which I think is another way of saying, “Hey you’re not so bad—we’re all pretty terrified deep down.” Being afraid to be vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re damaged—it just means you’re a person.
The thing about trying to hide yourself from your partner is that it’s a losing game—if you’re together for any length of time, they’re going to figure it out. And that’s a good thing because any partner worth having will see your flaws and frailties and love you anyway. (I’m not saying he’ll find your quirks adorable, but he’ll be willing to put up with them because on balance you’re worth it.)
If you show up as your full self in a relationship, then the people who aren’t right for you will leave. This is good news. This will save you time. It’s not that you need to dredge up all of your childhood traumas on the second date—you’re entitled to your privacy until the person you’re seeing proves worthy of your trust. But the ultimate goal here is not to impress the other person; it’s to see if the two of you are a fit.
And, ironically, the less you worry about what people think of the “real you,” the greater the chance they’ll like what they see. Because you won’t be thinking about yourself—you’ll be thinking about the other person—what are his hopes, dreams, fears, and deep insecurities. How can you be a friend to this person? What can you do to ensure that he feels heard, supported, and safe? This is not a sacrifice; this is something you do for the two of you, because a good relationship is a virtuous circle: The more support and compassion you offer, the more you’ll get back. (And if you don’t get it back, well then you have your answer.)
I did find a lot of self-acceptance during my single years, but if my husband and I met when I was younger, I’m pretty sure he still would have liked the more insecure version of me. Either way, I’m glad I did that work because it made me happier and calmer—both when I was single and now that I’m married.
That’s the other reason I don’t like to think of self-acceptance as a prerequisite for a relationship: It’s a worthy goal in and of itself. And perhaps the first thing to accept about yourself is that being vulnerable and showing your imperfections is hard for you. You don’t need to wait for your next relationship to do this. Worry less about presenting yourself favorably and see how it feels to bring your full self to your relationships with your friends and family. It’s not just our partners who deserve to see our true selves.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.