‘On Being Alone, But Together’

Why healthy relationships are ones in which the partners permit each other their solitude.

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The idea that even within a relationship each partner needs a healthy amount of solitude might, at first, seem counterintuitive.

After all, do we not often seek out relationships to act as a salve for our loneliness?

But it’s now been three and a half years since meeting my girlfriend, and it can’t be understated how much I’ve learned about relationships in that time period.

In many ways, I was operating with a knowledge deficit in this area.

I’m highly “educated” by society’s standards, of course, but I realize now that there’s a whole different domain of knowledge that can’t really be found in books, it has to be discovered through cultivating real human relationships.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that — despite being in a happy relationship — I still need a lot of time to myself, to be alone, to think about things with a feeling of “being away” from it all, so to speak.

I’m fortunate in that my partner understands that my desire for alone time isn’t born from any lack of fulfillment in the relationship.

It’s just who I am.

It would be easy for other types of partners to interpret anything short of always wanting to be around them as a sign that something in the relationship is off.

It’s that attitude, however, that I’d like to question.

There seems to be this prevailing view in our society that a relationship somehow solves our individual problems. It fills a “hole” in our lives that otherwise couldn’t be filled.

Maybe that’s true — to a certain extent.

I can confidently say, for instance, that I’m not the same person I was before I met my girlfriend, and that she has significantly improved the experience of my life.

At the same time, what our relationship has also revealed — somewhat troublingly — is that many of the sources of my own dissatisfaction in life have nothing to do whatsoever with my relationship status — they are knots that I have to unravel on my own.

That’s where solitude comes in as an essential element of who I am.

I’m learning more each day that I would rather do everything I can on my end to become a happy, contented individual, rather than place my burdens on others.

Solitude is a pathway toward becoming one’s own best friend, which is the most important thing we can do if we ever hope to be a vital force — rather than an energy vampire — in the presence of others.

Meditation and mindfulness are techniques for becoming more comfortable with sitting alone with ourselves and simply enjoying who we are free from any need for external stimuli — including a partner.

This isn’t to suggest that we don’t need human contact.

Of course, most — if not all — human beings desire relationships with other members of the species.

But the point I’m trying to stress is that seeking out relationships without at first understanding the importance of being capable of being happy alone is a recipe for disaster.

It’s only after we’ve learned how to generate our own joy and happiness that we can share these things with others.

When it comes to my relationship then, I see it as one of my obligations — and my partner has also done a wonderful job of reciprocating on this — to take care to provide opportunities for both myself and my girlfriend to be alone.

That’s why I shared the quote above.

It takes maturity to step back from a partner when it seems as if they need their own space for a while, and not take it as a rebuke against the relationship.

When two partners allow each other to depart for a while, it allows each of them to rejuvenate themselves, and then come back to each other feeling refreshed.

This is especially true if one or both people in the relationship are on the more introverted side, as I am.

For healthier relationships, more people need to realize that there isn’t anything selfish about maintaining boundaries within a relationship.

On the contrary, this can be an excellent exercise in selflessness when both partners realize the necessity of allowing each other to explore themselves at their own pace — rather than trying to live up to preconceived notions of what a relationship should be.

I’m grateful to have such an understanding partner, one who knows that when I take time for myself, I’m really just doing it so that I can become a better person who can contribute more to the relationship as time goes on.

These past few years have been a time of healing for me, in no small part due to my girlfriend’s willingness to continue giving me space as I learn more about myself and what I want out of life.

In fact, I’ve completely rethought my view on relationships. In many ways, I now a relationship as the opportunity to be alone, but with another person. I suppose that’s what “being alone together” means.

A relationship is a lot like walking along a shared path with someone, but every now and then each person needs to veer off into the woods alone for a moment to catch their breath.

In a healthy relationship, the other person waits for their partner with patience, care, and understanding.

Then, when the time is right, they resume their journey

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campbell

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store