Flying Solo

Hayley: Finding the balance between independence and holding hands

A few short weeks after I started dating Nick, we returned home to my apartment following a night of exuberant barefoot dancing. Unfortunately, barefoot dancing and glass beer bottles are a bad combination, and I had gotten a tiny sliver of glass lodged in my foot on the dance floor.

“Let me see,” Nick said. “No!” I cried, shrugging him off. “I can do it myself.” The next hour or so tested my flexibility, and Nick’s patience, as I insistently attempted to find the glass in my foot and dig it out on my own.

“Hayley, it’s almost two a.m.” Nick finally pleaded. “Just let me take a look!”

“I don’t need your help!” I shot back. This went on for some time, until I finally burst into tears, relented, and let Nick fix my foot (which took all of two minutes). As he kissed me goodnight, he said, “You know, you’re going to have to learn to let me help you someday.”

“Fat chance,” I thought, as I dozed off. Accepting help, I believed, was a sign of weakness. I grew up in a female-dominated household, raised to believe I could do anything I set my mind to do. I changed my own tires, killed my own spiders, and assembled my own furniture. I wasn’t opposed to serious relationships and equal partnerships in theory, but in reality, I clung to my unassailable self-reliance like a shield.

Several years later, I’ve gotten a lot better at asking for and accepting Nick’s help. I happily relinquished control in some areasspider killing is exclusively Nick’s job nowand haven’t felt like I’ve had sacrificed my independence in the process. That is, until I booked my first solo trip since we had started dating.

I was thrilled at the possibility of meeting up with some of my best friends in Miami for a bachelorette weekend. It was the logistics of getting there that made me uneasy. I have a near-crippling fear of flying, and every trip on an airplane is preceded by a few sleepless nights and a fair amount of tears. I’ve tried fear of flying courses, and a variety of sedatives, and nothing seems to help. I’ve never let it stop me from going anywhere, but the gut-wrenching anxiety that accompanies each trip is unpleasant and exhausting. (Moving to an island, in retrospect, was not the best choice, under the circumstances.)

Having Nick by my side helps somewhat. He keeps track of my passport and reminds me to take the water bottle out of my backpack as we go through security. He begrudgingly helps me remove four pounds of clothing from my suitcase and shoves it all into his own bag when my luggage is (inevitably) over the weight limit. He squeezes my hand during turbulence and soothingly repeats what we learned in the fear of flying course. “Remember, it’s just like speed bumps,” he’ll whisper, as we go through the clouds. Most importantly, he gets me on the damn flight, which is no small feat in itself. On many trips, I can be found Googling driving times and car rental rates while waiting to check in for the flight, or sobbing on a layover trying to convince Nick that we should drive the second leg of the trip. (Bargaining: the third stage of pre-flight panic.)

So I know having Nick around helps. And yet, it caught me off guard when suddenly the idea of taking a trip without him left me feeling rattled. After all, I did plenty of solo traveling before I met him. There were seventeen-hour bus rides and spontaneous weekend trips; twelve-hour flight delays and lost luggage. Hell, I moved to two new states without knowing a soul, hailing taxis to apartments I had never seen before, shared with roommates I had only met via Facebook. And yes, I took flights by myselffairly frequently, in fact. So why the sudden hesitation?

Naturally, I blamed Nick for my newfound anxiety about traveling alone. He had turned me soft! His hand holding and pre-flight pep talks and soothing whispers had made me weak. Not only was I worried about the flight itself, I was worried about losing my passport, and lifting my carry-on bag into the overhead bin, and finding a cab once I landed in Miami, and getting lost on my way to the restaurant where I’d meet my friends. These were things I used to do on a whim, and now here I was, fretting about doing them without my man by my side. Who was I?

Of course, the flight to Miami was uneventful. I hauled my own carry-on bag and hung on to my passport and found a taxi, and my friends, without incident. I had an amazing weekend exploring a new city with my girlfriends, and even held myself together on the flight. The experience gave me a rush, reminding me that, while I love to travel with my husband, I am still capable of doing it on my own. Stepping off a plane in a new place, breathing in the scent of new and unfamiliar air, watching traffic whiz by on the streets of an unfamiliar city… it might be more enjoyable to share these things with Nick, but it was comforting to reassure myself that I could still enjoy these moments without him.

Soon, I’ll be putting a new twist on testing out my independent travel abilities. We’re headed to Chicago for a friend’s wedding, but because of the restrictions on the frequent flier miles we’re cashing in, we’ll be flying separately. So next weekend, I’ll kiss Nick goodbye at the St. Thomas airport as he boards his U.S. Airways flight, and I’ll board a Delta flight three minutes later. I’ll take deep breaths on takeoff and hold tight to my passport and remind myself that clouds are just speed bumps. He’ll call me from his layover in Charlotte and make sure I’m boarding my connecting flight in Atlanta. Everything will be just fine, and I know I can handle it.

But I’ll be damn glad to see his face when we both land at O’Hare.

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  • Violet

    Oooo, thank you for this Hayley. Perfect timing for me, as my husband gets ready to accept a job offer (July 2015 start date) that will leave me largely on my own for the day-to-day as he works insane hours. Unlike you, I never navigated doing “everything” myself because we’ve been a partnership for our entire adult lives. I’m used to the idea of interdependence, and it works for us. I regularly take trips and do things on my own, so I’ve never feared I can’t do for myself- I just prefer to have someone else to share the load with. We take turns helping each other out. He cooks dinner while I change the battery in the smoke detector. Etc. He could do both of those things, I could do both of those things, but we don’t need to do both when we’re a unit.

    I’m pre-processing how I’ll feel once the shift occurs. Will I feel resentful that I’ve been left to “do everything myself”? Will I love my independence and then feel irked when he *is* around? Dunno, too soon to say, but I’m glad you wrote this because it makes me feel less alone in navigating this dynamic.

  • Daisy6564

    I was the same way about jealously guarding my independence. I am short (5’2″) so one thing I learned from years of living on my own was how to get things from high places. After we moved in together my now husband witnessed my spider-monkey routine of climbing on counter tops to get to the top shelf of the upper cabinets. He rushed over to help me. I stood on the counter top looking down at his 6 foot frame and told him that was all set, wondering why he thought I needed help.

    It took me months of living together to finally ask him for help reaching high things. He still knows not to offer to open a jar until I “loosen it up for him” (exhaust myself trying to open it first.)

    As you pointed out in your post, it is a balance. I like to know I can do these things for myself but maybe that I don’t always have to be totally self-reliant. It goes both ways too. Right now I am job hunting so I am home while he works. I keep trying to convince him to let me do his laundry but he won’t. He doesn’t like the 1950s housewife implications.

    • Sarah

      As a 5’2″ girl myself, this made me laugh a lot! My partner always looks at with deep suspicion when he sees me climbing on things!

      • Oh gosh, mine too! I am… well, they round me up to 5’1″ at the doctor’s office. I climb countertops still (our step stool doesn’t always get me high enough in our 12-foot-ceilinged home), and sometimes catch myself using kitchen tools (spoons, spatulas, tongs) to move the unbreakable closer to the edge of shelves so I can maybe reach on tip-toe… If my husband is home I for sure ask for help, but if he is not? Spider Monkey it is.

        • Marcela

          Good to see I’m not the only one that uses the kitchen tongs to get things off the top shelf.

          • Kitchen tongs, or using a wooden spoon as an extension of a limb. ;)

            I gauge where I put things away by, “how often will I have to climb up and get this?” If it’s more than once a week, it needs to go on a lower shelf.

          • Erin

            Ooohhh – good organization point! We’re moving next weekend, so I hope to keep this in mind when we unpack.

          • DanEllie

            yes! don’t let the taller partner organize the kitchen. We had to lower our hanging pot rack by nearly a foot so that I could reach what was hanging (without burning myself on the always-on pilot lights.

          • Alyssa M

            I’m so jealous of that… some day I will have a large enough kitchen to sort that way… some day…

          • We did it that way in our tiny-tiny kitchen too! But sometimes even high-use things had to go higher up, so we just made sure those were always in the front part of the cabinet instead of in the back. Lazy-girl organization = the more you use it, the farther forward it needs to be. ESPECIALLY spices, good lord I hate digging around for spices.

          • I thought I was the only one!

        • I’m a climber too! And I definitely organized my kitchen so that all the most frequently used goods are on the bottom shelves.

          • Me, too. I keep all of my baking supplies in what I think was intended as a liquor cabinet..

      • Ann

        My husband used to do the same, until he realized that, in my parent’s house, there are a set of high cabinets that even he, at 6’2″ must stand on his toes to reach. When he saw how precarious that is compared to 5’2″ me (or my 5′ mom) using the step stool, he finally understood. Sometimes, it’s just better to climb on things.

        That said, we just got a house and we REALLY need a ladder. When my husband was out of town, our smoke detector started beeping it’s low battery beep. On our high ceilings, I had no way of reaching it (he probably could have stood on a chair to get it). I meekly walked over to my new neighbor’s house and had to request help. My husband is all about being independent, and he is still embarrassed that I asked a neighbor for help with this. My attitude was all: What was I supposed to do? Go *rent a truck* to buy a ladder, go buy it, hauling it around myself and then deal with it? Or ask a neighbor for his ladder and be done with everything in 10 minutes? I come from a family of helpers and grew up not thinking anything of walking over to a neighbor’s house to borrow something or ask for help. It’s what neighbors are for! He views this as though we’re telling our neighbors that we can’t take care of ourselves… and I find that silly.

        It’s been an ongoing struggle in our relationship that he will inconvenience himself (and often *me*) to an extreme degree to avoid asking others for help. For example, he once wanted to wait THREE HOURS in 100+ degree weather for his parents to be able to drive to us when we had a flat and no tire iron. He was pissed at me for opting to stand on the side of the road and flag down help. It took me about 1 minute to find a helpful stranger, the tire was dealt with within 20 minutes, and we were on our way… with him pouting. His dad is exactly the same way, so I know where he gets it from…

        • Sarah E

          Wow, that is a pretty extreme attitude. And I thought my partner was weird for not liking to ask *friends* for help.

        • Daisy6564

          Sometimes climbing on counters is just easier than getting out the ladder :)

          His level of need for independence is pretty intense too (and I imagine annoying sometimes). My husband is a bit the same way but his is more of a reluctance to pay for help than to accept help. He insists on doing MacGyver fixes on things sometimes rather than taking them to a professional. Including doing all of his own bike maintenance and gluing on a rearview mirror that got knocked off his car.

          My mom recently suggested that I get my tennis racket re-gripped and he insisted that all I had to do was buy grip and do it myself. I pointed out that it would at most save me a few bucks. His attitude was why pay someone to do something I can do myself. I am trying to convince him that professionals have a level of practice and expertise in their fields that we can’t possible accomplish in every area. He is reluctant to agree. I am nervous for when we buy a house.

          • MC

            Recently I’ve had some conversations with friends about why our male partners are so stubborn about visiting the doctor. We’re both healthy young folk but I regularly go to my PCP for checkups, get acupuncture for chronic migraines, go to specialist doctors when I need to (derms, eye doctors, etc.) and he will just NOT go to the doctor preventatively, and even drags his feet when he has an issue because he feels like he can just diagnose it himself. It drives me batty, and the fact that my friends experience the same thing makes me wonder if it is a symptom of our culture’s code of masculinity – which says that men must be providers, protectors, heads of households, etc. Now that women have more economic opportunities and men don’t necessarily play those roles in the traditional way, it seems like they’re being socialized to assert control, self-sufficiency, etc. in other areas of life. Food for thought.

          • Ann

            My husband has that trait, too… and we own a house. Fortunately, he has agreed to have the important stuff done by professionals (because if we do it *wrong* it will cost SO MUCH MORE). And the cosmetic stuff? I’m game for since I’m pretty handy. (As a complete aside, volunteering for habitat for humanity can be useful for later home ownership. They taught me how to hang dry wall, and lay tile and wood floors.)

            On the convincing him that outside help is often worth it–what does he do for a living? Is it something that requires specialized training? Because if he values and takes pride in *his* skills, he may be more willing to concede that trades people also have more refined skills than the rest of us.

        • ElisabethJoanne

          Something I’ve realized in the past few years, and more so as I’ve been married, is that forming a community of helpers around you is a talent/skill. For example, my husband had surgery shortly after I started a new job (so I couldn’t take time off), and we could have used help at home with meals and chores. I grew up in communities where people would step in/step up with casseroles and light housework in such situations, but I haven’t formed those communities as an adult. Now I’m constantly thinking about calling in a CNA or housekeeper next time one of us is sick or injured, when others, with different friends, would have an unpaid team of helpers.

          I also sometimes reflect on how wasteful it is how each household has its own appliances and tools. There are 6 units in our apartment building. At most, I’d say 2 households are vacuuming at one time. Yet of course we have at least 8 vacuums among us. (1 each for everyone else, and we have 3 for complicated reasons) And since we’re not going to vacuum in the middle of the night, it’s not like a step stool or plunger, where you could need to borrow the tool at a time you don’t want to disturb others.

      • Alyssa M

        ooomg… I’m 5’2″ and his family are ALL over 6 foot, including his mom and sister in law. So when I was standing on a chair putting up Christmas decorations and slipped and broke the table… well lets just say it’s been three years and I still haven’t heard the end of it. I’m no longer “allowed” to climb to get to things(as if I could function without it) /sigh

  • Bets

    That balance is something I spend a lot of time thinking about in my relationship, so thank you for writing about it.

  • Sarah T

    The concept of “interdependence” has really saved me here, and I wanted to have it evoked in our ceremony. I first came across it in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Let’s see if this link works:

  • Sarah E

    I feel you on this. I tried living alone for all of four months after my senior year of college before I had to move in with my grandma. I occasionally still get the feeling that I should have made it, I should have had fabulous single years in an apartment of my own, decked out in animal print and violent pink. The reality is that I don’t do well living by myself at all. I even struggle working from home and not seeing anybody else for an 8 hour stretch. So I wonder if I’m really as independent as I think myself to be. Objectively, I know that if I weren’t in a relationship, I’d be smart enough to reach out and find other people to populate my days and evenings. Subjectively, I’m glad for the occasional solo trips I take and the many conference trips my partner takes to remind us both that we have our own things. (Though I still wish he could sit still long enough that I could sleep on his shoulder when we fly together.)

    • Eh

      It is great that you recognize that you don’t do well living on your own. I lived on my own for the first year of my Master’s degree. At first I was concerned about living on my own because I was in a new city were I didn’t know many people (I had to stop watching crime dramas). That feeling faded and I really started to enjoy living on my own (although I still couldn’t watch crime dramas). I loved my cute little apartment. After that year I moved to another city and moved in with my boyfriend at the time. When that relationship ended I had to make a choice to live alone or to find a roommate. I was seeing a therapist at the time who said that humans are social beings and that we shouldn’t live alone. He told me to find a roommate and to continue to live in the apartment I had shared with my ex (he felt that moving would be too much of a change for me). I didn’t like that therapist (he didn’t seem to get me and he said lots of condescending and paternalistic things) and started seeing another therapist. I also move found a one bedroom apartment so I had a place of my own to start a new chapter in my life (I had been dating my ex for over five years).

      On the other hand, my husband has always lived with people but done his own thing. His father mentioned that there were years where he only left his room (where he played video games all day and night) to go to work and to eat. He was only dependent on others for cheaper rent (e.g., he couldn’t afford to pay rent for a place on his own). I frequently go away for the weekend without him. While I’m gone he reverts to his old ways (the last time I was gone he ate hot dogs all weekend).

  • galfromaway

    As someone who struggles with anxiety (not to this degree, mind you), I reacted very strongly to the author’s “He had turned me soft!” and referred to his reassurances as making her weak.

    There is nothing weak about being anxious and asking for help. Anxiety is irrational, and yes, there is a need for an anxious person to be able to reassure themselves, but leaning on someone once in a while when you really could use that anchor is NOT weak. Being stubborn doesn’t benefit us in the long run. In some ways, it makes things worse. It’s hard for me to ask for help of my husband at times, but it certainly doesn’t mean I’m weak when I do.

    • Sarah E

      You’re totally right, and my brain knows that somewhere. But it’s reaaallly hard for me to remember that in the moment, though I’m working on it. I think that’s what Hayley was trying to convey. The irrational part of my brain will still yell about weakness even though I *know* and do my best to practice interdependence, knowing my limits, and honoring my needs and abilities. For me, it crops up when I’ve had a shitty day (in a string of shitty days, or as a result of ongoing issues I’m trying to resolve) and want comfort, but convince myself that it’s not a new thing, so there’s no need to “whine” about problems I’m supposed to be solving, or to “burden” my partner with it when he needs to relax and get a good night’s sleep, too. So knowing you’re right is one thing, and I identify with Hayley’s struggle to internalize the great insight you gave that we know to be true.

      • galfromaway

        It is hard to remember in the moment. I’ve had lots of those moments lately, which is probably why I reacted so strongly to her comments. That’s me too – not wanting to be a whiner, or not wanting to burden my partner or my friends when I’m struggling with something. But those are the times when I need to reach out. And for so long I had a post-it note on my wall reminding me:

        It takes a strong person to ask for help.

        I don’t know where that quote came from, but I repeat it when I need it.

        • This is hard for me too. While I have little problem asking my husband to open a jar (since I just put on hand lotion ;)) if I’m struggling with something emotionally, I tend to try to deal with it myself blocking most people out instead of asking for help. Thinking that no one wants to deal with my issues. This of course makes it worse in the long run. Why does to make me feel so weak to ask for help?

          • Sarah E

            I’ve been thinking about this since I read your comment. For me, I think it comes down to projection. When I start to worry about what other people will think/say/feel about something I do, I’ve learned (though not internalized completely) that it’s usually because on some level *I* feel that way. So when I’m worried my partner will think I’m burdensome/undesirable/weak. It’s because *I* think I’m that way. That by needing emotional support, particularly continual emotional support around the same or related issues over and over, I don’t think I’m a good partner or a desirable one. That I’m a burden to myself for not figuring this shit out, that it’s a critical character flaw. It’s MY perceptions I’m projecting, not his. Because he has never, ever in our relationship intimated anything other than complete support, kindness, and caring when I need him.

            Not that there’s an easy solution or “fix” for this way of thinking. Just loads of therapy, probably, whenever I find myself with insurance.

    • Hayley

      Oh yeah, definitely agree with Sarah E’s point, below…my gut reaction is always that I shouldn’t NEED help, but everyone needs help! So it’s really about working through the irrational initial reaction and learning that accepting help is a totally normal, good thing. I like the quote about needing to be strong to ask for help!

  • laddibugg

    I try to spread the wealth when I ask for help, so that I don’t overwhelm my partner. I ask him the majority of the time, but I do make a point to ask friends or family when I can, even if it’s something he would (sometimes begrudgingly) do. There’s an art to finding the perfect balance with that, too.

  • Laura C

    In our vows, we promised not just to help each other but to accept help, and it’s the second part that I know is a lot harder for me.

    • Hayley

      Me too! I’d always rather be the person helping, than the person helped.

  • Eh

    I lived alone for a few years. I was very proud that I could do everything on my own. The first time I was over at my in-laws house for supper I was helping in the kitchen and my MIL asked for help opening a jar of pickles. I didn’t realize that she was asking my husband specifically to open the jar (she didn’t say his name or anyone’s name for that matter) and I walked over to the table and opened it for her. At first she was surprised, and then she was pretty impressed that I could open a jar on my own. (She is also impressed that I can use a drill.)

    But then I hurt my back. I knew I had no choice but to ask my now-husband for help (I couldn’t buy groceries or do laundry, and cooking and washing dishes took a lot of energy), so I sheepishly asked him to stay at my place for a while. I was pretty sure that I was going to be beyond frustrated with the circumstance and living with him in my very small one bedroom apartment. I didn’t think we were going to survive my weeks/months of physio. Since we didn’t kill each other, at the end of my physio I asked him to move in with me.

    I still have stubborn independence streaks. I frequently take too much on and refuse to ask for help. But I am getting better.

  • Amanda

    I love this. I’ve always been very independent as well and have had a hard time adjusting to partnership. My boyfriend and I became “we” people very soon after meeting simply because we share so much in common. Now, “We” like falafel and Bach and bicycles. Even though I liked falafel and Bach and bicycles long before I met him, as did he living in his various homes around the country, I see pictures of matching sweaters evertime the word we comes up. It’s nice to have someone by my side, but it is quite an adjustment after an adulthood without.