My first relationship after my marriage had more than its share of complications and difficulties. Easy, it was not. But one of the best things about that relationship was, quite simply, me.
You see, in that relationship I re-discovered a “me” that I thought was long dead, a casualty of maturity and responsibility and propriety. But it turns out that she wasn’t dead at all, just sleeping like a Disney princess awaiting Prince Charming’s life-affirming kiss.
Finding that woman again was a tremendous relief and joy. She was fun. She laughed easily and genuinely. She was brave and decisive and compassionate and open-hearted and funny. She was flirty and sexy and playful. I really, really liked her. And when the relationship ended, one of the things I grieved most was her. I was terrified that she was gone and I would never see her, embody her, feel her, again.
Fortunately, her disappearance that time was short-lived. My dedication to her demanded that she not retreat entirely. Oh no, I wasn’t about to let go of her. The hope of her — of being able to embody her permanently — was truly the main reason I left my marriage, so I wasn’t going to say goodbye to her without a fight. So I worked hard on identifying her and all the things I liked about her and hugging them tightly to my heart. And slowly, she became, not my alter ego, but just simply me.
Even as I write this, I have to laugh at myself for sounding like one of those self-help books about “finding yourself” that my mom used to read in the 1970’s, with titles like “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” Ick.
But the plain truth is that I know lots and lots of women who feel the exact same way. As they’ve approached 40, they’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with being a wife and mother and daughter and boss and not a woman of their own definition. Some of them have managed to re-create or re-discover themselves within their existing marriages, while for others, divorce has created the necessary space and time to explore the question of who they really want to be.
Sometimes the idea of an alter ego is quite literally applied, as in the case of my friend who had an affair at the end of her marriage and discovered parts of herself that she’d never met before but fell immediately in love with. In her case, the affair’s need for discretion prompted the use of dummy email accounts with contrived names. Her lover had been raised in France and Switzerland, so they used French names on their emails and in their correspondence. She became Nicole, a flirty, sexy, smart and sassy French woman, and discovered that she loved being her. When the affair ended, and she left her husband, she quite plainly stated that she wanted a life that had room for Nicole in it. She loved Nicole and she loved being Nicole. Inhabiting Nicole’s persona full-time became a stated goal, and, in the new life she is building for herself, she is consciously making decisions that promote that goal. For her, Nicole is non-negotiable.
Jerry McGuire made famous the line “You complete me,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who cringed at his word choice. I really hate the idea of being incomplete without another person — any person — but especially without a man. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that I think most of us are looking for roughly that same thing and it’s only a matter of semantics how we describe it.
We want someone who inspires us to be better, to be more fully ourselves. We want someone who brings out our best qualities, who adores about us the same aspects we most adore about ourselves. We want someone who provides us with a safe place to explore all the corners of our personality, nudging and encouraging those traits or talents that have hung back or hugged the wall, afraid to be seen and possibly ridiculed. We want the space to find out which roles, which personas, fit us most comfortably and which are ones we’ve been wearing out of obligation or fear or boredom. We want someone who champions our successes (no matter how small or meager) and feels our failures (no matter how grand or profound) and helps us discover the lessons in both. And, when it’s all said and done, and we have assembled that person that best represents “me,” we want someone who embraces that person, even if that isn’t their favorite version of us, because that is the one that we are most happy being.
I remember listening to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” one day and asking my husband afterward, “What would you say if I needed to do that — to go away and ‘find’ myself?” He hesitated only a moment and replied, “I’d say you needn’t come back. I’m not waiting around while you find out who you want to be. And you don’t get to take a break from your marriage to do it.” His answer rang out like jailkeeper’s key in the lock. He might as well have said, “I like you how you are and you’re not allowed to be anyone except who I want you to be. I’m not comfortable with anything else and won’t tolerate it.” Huh. Okie dokie.
I think, from observing my own experiences and those of others, that often what we call “true love” is exactly this: finding someone with whom we have that connection — who provides us with that jumping off place for personal growth and exploration and for whom we can return the favor. Someone we like being around in part because we like who we are when we’re with them.
Does all this mean that we need someone to “complete” us? Not necessarily. Maybe it just means that it’s easier to complete ourselves when we have a partner in the effort, to cheer us on. Maybe it means that the person who is “right” for us is the one who helps us most feel most “right” about ourselves. Maybe it just means finding someone who invites our alter ego in, to sit down and stay a while, or maybe even forever.