by Shannon Flaherty
I was engaged for four months, after four years together, and that was more than I ever thought would happen to me. She was my best friend, we shared so much, and I planned a proposal that included all the things we loved—picnics and good food and Oscar Wilde—and she said yes! Then, a few months later, after long and painful trans-Atlantic conversations, we, together, said no.
We broke up mostly by email: three thousand miles, the Atlantic Ocean, six time zones, and, as it turned out, two very different lives apart. It had been almost a year since I left to go to grad school, a decision I had delayed for two years so that we could be together in the same place, in our shared house. She was ready to make a home and start a family, and I was planning to continue my education, with a future of many years of school and many moves ahead.
She told me she didn’t think she could be the wife I needed, and I thought, “I didn’t know I needed any sort of wife.”
I’ve always been an independent person: the young girl hiding in a corner with a book when taken to parties by my parents, the type of kid with plenty of friends, but most of them fictional. Being queer was only one of the ways I was an outsider growing up, and, as it turns out, the one I was least aware of. I couldn’t define my sexuality—I didn’t have the right vocabulary, it seemed—other than knowing it was different than what people said it should be. I was also nerdy, academic, agnostic, and ambitious. I had plans to get out of my hometown, further than the closest state school, and that in itself was unusual.
When I thought about my future, it always contained the ivy-covered walls of academia and, at some distant point, a challenging and rewarding career. Maybe children, but less out of a real desire than idle curiosity. The spouse was where I really got hung up: I couldn’t imagine myself spending my life with any of the guys I knew from school, but I also didn’t know there was any other option except for being single. It wasn’t until I went to an amazing all-women’s college that I realized, in more than an abstract way, that women could commit themselves to each other in lasting ways, which, given that I was a teenager in the early 2000s, seems ridiculous in retrospect.
When she said that I needed a different wife than her, there was still a part of me that didn’t believe that I could even have a wife. I knew what sort of wife, if any, I would be—independent, feminist, intellectually curious, and wanting to share all of those things—but no one had ever prepared me to think about what sort of wife I wanted to marry. I had spent so long rejecting the models of heterosexual and patriarchal courtship and marriage presented to me—the only possibilities that seemed to exist—that defining a new model seemed not just impossible, but unthinkable.
When I met her, we fit together like I never have—before or since—with anyone. We were friends months before we were lovers, but both felt natural and easy, right up until we had to make decisions about the dimensions of our relationship, most especially the temporal: the future.
At twenty, twenty-one, lots of people are making decisions about their futures: careers, graduate school, family, home. At nineteen I thought I already had the basics figured out, but two years later, with a partner I adored and a newfound sexuality that I suddenly had to figure out how to define, to package, so that all of the people in my life could understand it, nothing seemed settled. I could defer grad school, wait a couple of years, I thought, but all the complications that come with it were only deferred as well, not solved.
As I had to make those decisions, I began to resent those decisions for their very existence. Not because they were difficult, or heart wrenching, or because they made me angry and my partner sad, but because I was never supposed to have to make them at all. I had rejected all of that. I wasn’t the type of person who falls in love at twenty. I wasn’t the type of person who lets her relationship become more important than her independence. I wasn’t the type who would follow someone around and I certainly wasn’t the type who would ask it of someone else.
I don’t know who any of those types are—I don’t think they really exist, not in such a simplistic way—but I do know that defining myself in negatives wasn’t something that worked. It left me in a state of internal conflict, of panic attacks and existential crises over unwashed dishes, every day of my relationship, no matter how happy I was to be with her. Spending so much time growing up not thinking I could have a relationship that felt true to my desires, I didn’t know if I wanted one at all or if I was just doing it wrong.
What it largely seems to boil down to, though, is that I’m not always the type of person who wants to be with other people. And right now, that’s okay. That doesn’t have to be something I’m lacking, something I’m unable to negotiate or want, it can just be.
So instead, I’m trying to think of myself—my single and happy self—in positives. I am a person who loves to be alone, who homemakes quite happily just for myself, who has an amazing small group of friends and family who never fail when I need them, and who is pursuing my dreams, as I make plans to begin an MA/PhD program in the fall. In the end, I’m just a person, my own person, and I don’t know what sort of wife I need, or what sort of wife I’ll be, or if I need to be wives at all, but at least I know that it is a choice I can make.