"Alone" is the word, above all others, that strikes fear into the heart of every woman who finds herself forced to walk away from a relationship. Even when that relationship is hopelessly unsatisfactory.
Today I received a call from a client whose marriage has ended after 30+ years. She was, she said, trying to remain positive. She was also terribly worried about the prospect of spending the rest of her life “alone”.
It sounded as though she envisaged eking out her future, entirely alone, marooned on a desert island somewhere. Her only hope of rescue from this island was, of course, if a new partner appeared on the horizon.
Now, the reality is that this woman lives in a town, with good communications, has some family around her, knows quite a lot of people and leads a fairly active life. She has interests and hobbies and plenty of personal resources.
Her mind-set is far more persuasive than her reality.
She went on to tell me that her husband never listened to her or paid any real attention to her wants, needs and wishes. Like many other women of her age whose marriage finally founders, she had, she said, lost her voice. She had had to defer to her husband for years on end. Her husband had made her feel small, stupid and inadequate. He was, she said, ‘a strong personality’; while she is ‘sensitive’.
That, of course, is one interpretation. She was too loyal, whether to her husband or her idealised view of her marriage it’s hard to say, to see that he might also be domineering, pig-headed, overbearing, controlling, careless of her feelings, or emotionally abusive. The way she described him, and she wasn’t fishing for sympathy, she made him sound like extremely hard work. He shared none of her tastes and valued nothing that mattered to her. He spent years intimating to her that she was, essentially, worthless. Still, he had stayed with this allegedly worthless woman, until she tried to redefine her role in the marriage.
And yet she still believes that life as one half of a couple (if, indeed, she could even correctly be termed an equal half of any unit which couples her with her husband) is better than life “alone”.
“Alone” is the killer word. It implies a damning social judgement. We are still led to believe that women who are “alone” are social and personal failures. Society’s misfits. They are the socially handicapped, carefully excluded from right-thinking mixed society. Outcasts from coupledom. (Which might just make Internet dating the new French Foreign Legion!)
In fact, this woman’s issues around her own self-worth have blinded her to the reality. More people – including, obviously, women – than ever before are living, and choosing to live, uncoupled lives. They find pleasure and meaning in their life.
She knew that she could never find pleasure and meaning in her future “alone”. She could get herself a place, decorate and furnish it to be exactly the way she wanted it to be, but still she would be “alone” and it would all be worthless.
Until I asked her what would happen if she replaced the term “alone” with the phrase “stepping into my own life”. That phrase stopped her in her tracks for a moment. She replied: “Well yes, maybe.”
But when I asked her to try the phrase in her own mouth something interesting happened. As she said it her mood lifted and there was a new energy and conviction in her voice.
For many women there are only two points of reference: either “with a partner” - which usually means deferring to a partner – or alone. The self doesn’t fit anywhere into that equation. My client had lost a neglectful husband, but found the path to her own self.
Which will offer her more fulfilment? Well, your guess is as valid as mine. It all depends, in the end on your viewpoint. She can return to her conditioned, traditional viewpoint if she chooses, and endure all the feelings of worthlessness that it comprises. Or she can embrace the forward looking, life affirming choice. Which one would you choose?