Growing Pains and Self-Discovery: On Wives and Possibilities

...and sometimes we just need to be on our own.


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.

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    This was really wonderful to read. Thank you for sharing it.

    It seems that sometimes young love is a lesson life is teaching- the hard way. You learn that you can survive a broken heart, and sometimes, you learn what you actually need. It’s such an important thing to know about yourself, so I guess it makes sense that it can take a big event to learn it.

  • Mags

    I really related to this entire post, especially the way you described yourself: “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.”

    I fell in love a few years later than you and did get married (at 28). Now one year into marriage and 7 months pregnant, I’m still trying to figure out what kind of wife I want to be and what kind of wife I am. I too never thought I would follow anyone around or ask someone to follow me, but especially in the frequently shifting landscape of academia that is necessary for anyone that is part of a couple. Dealing with this reality and the other assumption that was always a part of me is a daily struggle. I’m still figuring things out, but want to thank you for making me feel less alone in the struggle.

    • Ditto to your childhood description being an accurate reflection of my own youth.

      This was a wonderfully eloquent description of, as Another Meg said, the teaching moments life provides us. Though things are profoundly difficult at present, you’ve readily displayed your innate strength and ability to parse these questions out and be better for that self-reflection in the future.

      Also, though I’m sure you’ve heard this already, it is far better to have learned this lesson now, before you and your former partner married. Realizing that my ex-husband and I were not the spouses we needed was one of the driving forces behind our divorce.

      This sort of questioning of our capabilities as a partner is something that everyone can benefit from, regardless of one’s relationship status. Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring others to glimpse within themselves.

    • Shannon

      “I’m still figuring things out, but want to thank you for making me feel less alone in the struggle.” Thank you, too, for your comment, for it’s strangely reassuring to know that other people in academic lives grapple with this issue.

      In fact, what you said there, really, is what APW is all about for me — making me feel less alone. I told Maddie, when she emailed me to let me know that my post was running, that APW is the only wedding blog I still follow, because it’s the one where my experiences, struggles, future, and identity are reflected. The best part about the whole website/project/community is finding a part of yourself in all of the different posts, even those that seem to represent a life very different from yours.

      Selkiekel — I am pretty thrilled to have figured this out before we were married. Not that there wasn’t a lot of restructuring and difficult decisions, including me being taken in by my (loving, very supportive) parents for a while, but it was such a relief to not have the additional, awful difficulties of the legal disentanglements or children.

  • Laura C

    Lovely post. From the intro all the way through the post, I had this song in my head:

  • After a fiercely independent childhood (I once told my dad that I was asked if I were a leader, and I said “yes” but was uncertain. He said “well, you’re certainly out in front, regardless of whether anyone’s behind you”), I moved halfway across the country for my man. With no great career prospects, which childhood me naturally assumed I’d have, and no idea what I even wanted those prospects to look like. And zero qualms about following my man.

    In my personal experience, I think being willing to follow my partner, or ask my partner to come with me, was one of the signs to me that this was the best partner I could possibly find. In such a big move, we talked about our options, what life would be for us at each of the schools he applied to, and he double and triple checked that I was okay with moving for him. I think if he wasn’t a good match for me, either none of that joint decision-making process would have happened, or my gut would have thrown all kinds of alarms for me, like it did for Shannon in her decision-making.

    I know a shade of the independence Shannon talks about, but life turned out differently for me. Rather than viewing my choices as sacrificing my independence, my experience turned out to be finding a partner who honors that independence, which is why I value our partnership over anything else, and why we both work to build a life together that also works for us each individually. So Shannon’s right- choosing to follow a partner is complex in making the decision, but it’s also pretty simple when I check with my gut :-)

    • Shannon

      “In my personal experience, I think being willing to follow my partner, or ask my partner to come with me, was one of the signs to me that this was the best partner I could possibly find.”

      I really like this perspective, Sarahe! I think it can be difficult learning how to balance your individual self with your partnered self, but it can be wonderful finding someone with whom those decisions feel intuitive and right.

      • Oh definitely- that’s one of the most important lessons my mom taught me: Always trust your intuition. Anywhere in life, but especially in self-determination, the gut-check will do a body good :-)

  • Wow. Me heart is simultaneously breaking and cheering for you. What a beautiful post and extremely important message that I think will resonate with a lot of us!

    So now I am going to say something that will draw some fire (especially from the younger crowd!). So I will preface it by asking that you not look at it as a condescension but as some very obvious observations about myself and in my immediate world.
    I had this theory (And it’s actually backed up by some facts about the development of the human brain but I’m not going to tout that as a validation, more of an interesting aside).

    I think we aren’t really fully people until we are about 25. ::ducks under desk::.

    I find Shannon’s reflections unusually accepting in terms of her ability to tolerate the emotional ups and downs of love and commitment but in my test group of -however many women I’ve known-I have found that almost universally we tend to settle into a more comfortable sense of self at or after the age of 25.

    That’s not to say we can’t handle relationships before then. But I think something about that magical period in your life (whether its biological, circumstantial, or what have you) enhances our ability to draw the distinction between self and relationship more clearly. The “existential crisis over unwashed dishes” that shannon mentions made me laugh because….yep. I think things like that will always exist. But I KNOW that if I had this conversation with my feminist-ragey 23 year old self she would admit that something pretty menial like dishes would be a deal breaker because that crisis was my internal crisis.
    In my 30’s now, having to do the dishes will still make me sting with self-righteousness, irritation and maybe a little frustration. But I think I have developed a trust not only in my Lovey, but in myself. Life had to teach me a lot of lessons about myself before I was ready to accept another human into my space.

    • And for the record: I ain’t perfect! Still learning…always learning.

      • Shannon

        Blair, I love this! Not that it’s necessary to draw a line at 25 (because I am now past that point and still feel like I’m figuring it out, hence the post!), but that it’s important to recognize that our sense of self will keep developing and changing, especially when we’re young, and that you’re not “done” figuring yourself out at any point.

        One of the things I’ve noted in the relationships of my peers (and myself) is that those that get together young and develop in the same direction might have a better chance of staying together than those that develop in what turn out to be separate directions. I don’t like thinking of the latter as “failed” relationships, because they aren’t! They’re successful in developing and discovering what might work or be important for each individual, and that can be just as important as finding someone who you can stick with. Though sometimes it can feel like a crapshoot to know if you and your partner are going to want the same things in 5, 10, 40 years, especially when you’re young and know you’re still figuring things out!

    • Not Sarah

      I remember reading somewhere that our brains aren’t fully developed until 25. I used to fight it, but considering how many things I’m still changing my mind on (1 month from 25!) that I used to disagree with ex-boyfriends on, I’m starting to believe it…

    • My less-developed theory sounds a little like yours. They probably took voice lessons from the same teacher.

      I’ve heard that, developmentally, human are still in adolescence into the early twenties. Aside from whatever is going on biologically, I think there are some disconnects with the likely life circumstances of twenty-somethings and societal expectations of that demographic. Somehow they/we are expected to fulfill all of these adult roles- finding a career, a partner, “settling down,” having our finances under control, etc- but really, as life expectancy grows longer and economic times change, the options for lifestyle are infinite, and I don’t see many people acknowledging this extended adolescence when we’re still figuring shit out and establishing the patterns for our adult life.

      So I disagree with your phrasing “not fully people,” is a bit vague and reminds me too much of being told when something is the “real world” or not, but I’m there with you on personal development still occurring at a high rate through most of our twenties. It’s just different for every individual. Personally, I found my partner at 21, and here I am at 25, certain that a lot of my personal development has been put into overdrive *because* of him. Part of that is because he’s older than I am, so has already done a lot of this development stuff, and part of it is because I’m more highly driven to figure shit out so we can pursue more relationship development together.

      • Catherine


        I’m in the same boat. That comment made me nervous. Not seriously, but I think everyone is different and everyone’s timeline is different. Some people are together since they are 14. Some people meet when they’re 40. My partner is older too, and I met her when I was 20. I’m now 23 and we are engaged. We’ve always just felt right. I, also, was never into the typical 20ish year old things. If I wasn’t with her, I’d be in the same city, doing the same thing. She moved to my city. We both want the same things out of life. I know that I am young, but I also think her age helps us have some perspective. I trust that we will learn to grow together and make space for each other to evolve. That’s what commitment is, right? Finding peace and faith in the uncertainty. If you waited for a “ok, go!” sign from the universe, you’d be waiting forever. We want to know this journey together. There’s a line from a book that I can’t remember but it says something about when you commit, that’s when you really learn what love is. Dang I wish I could remember that quote!

        • Shannon

          “That’s what commitment is, right? Finding peace and faith in the uncertainty. If you waited for a “ok, go!” sign from the universe, you’d be waiting forever.”

          I think this is a great point, and works well if, once you’ve made that commitment, you both continue to work and grow and change together. The difficulty I had with the message is that I didn’t feel like I had a lot of positive cultural narratives around what to do when you feel like you’ve made that commitment, to move forward together in uncertainty, to love each other despite some misgivings, but then find that as the uncertainty unfolds, it’s not going to work for both of you. At that point, it seems like you just have primarily negative models of breakups/divorces/failures — and the ending of this relationship was a breakup, but didn’t feel like a failure. It was awful, and painful, and heartbreaking, but at the same time it felt right, and natural, and like a return to some sense of self I had temporarily not been able to embrace.

          I have difficulty with pushing the idea of true love meaning you’ll grow together, because it can be so exclusionary when it doesn’t happen — when you can love someone but still not want the same things as them — and it also doesn’t have to be a tragedy to recognize that.

          • Catherine

            Yes, of course I totally agree with you there. I wasn’t disagreeing in my post by the way, just had to speak up for myself since I’m an engaged young person ;)

            Of course wanting the same things is HUGE, you can’t build a life together if you are building two totally different lives. I totally didn’t mean to offend you and I’m so sorry if I did! I was mainly talking to myself! And about the whole “you’re not a full person till your 25” thing.

          • Anon

            “At that point, it seems like you just have primarily negative models of breakups/divorces/failures — and the ending of this relationship was a breakup, but didn’t feel like a failure. It was awful, and painful, and heartbreaking, but at the same time it felt right, and natural, and like a return to some sense of self I had temporarily not been able to embrace.

            I have difficulty with pushing the idea of true love meaning you’ll grow together, because it can be so exclusionary when it doesn’t happen — when you can love someone but still not want the same things as them — and it also doesn’t have to be a tragedy to recognize that.”

            YES YES YES! I know this comment is late but about 6 months ago I ended a 7 year relationship and this is exactly what I felt (and we had been together since 19, so I was just past the 26 mark). Heartbreak but also a sense of peace and naturalness; that I had done the right thing.

            It was incredibly sad that it ended, but our relationship wasn’t a failure. I don’t regret it. I don’t think of it as time wasted. It, for many reasons, just didn’t work out.

        • Shannon

          (Replying to you here since I can’t reply to your lower down comment :D)

          No offense taken at all! It’s so important that when we talk about still developing as young 20-somethings, we don’t automatically take that to mean that any young relationship is doomed!! I certainly don’t think that at all! I don’t really like there being a point at which you’re “not-done” and then magically you become “done”, like you’re a chicken in the oven with one of those pop-up timers.

          Personally, the advice to find commitment despite uncertainty is something I’ve struggled with, because as someone whose thought process is intensely reliant on logic and very, very little on intuition, it can be difficult to decide what level of uncertainty is okay and what is too much. I’m like this in most of my decisions, though, to be fair! I think it works differently depending on how you process your emotions and thoughts, though, and can be an important way of solidifying a commitment you might already feel in your heart for many.

    • my 3-year-old thinks the same thing. he (and i don’t know where he got this) has started referring to adults as “people” as in: “we no close doors. *people* close doors.” the implications are simultaneously awesome, appalling and hilarious.

      • Thanks Lady Brett!

        I did choose that phrasing carefully. It has been proven to be a real conversation starter, for one!
        Saying “We aren’t really adults” would have taken the discussion in an unnecessary direction and I was wont for a proper/effective substitute. Perhaps “emotionally corroborated” would suffice or something! I fear there is really no easy way to say it.

      • JC

        I love this! I am still a student (for only one more year!) and have been calling people who are done with school and working a job they like, “real people” for years! As in, “congratulations on your real person job!” Or “oh, that costs more than $5? That’s for real people with money”

    • Sara

      I agree, with caveats. I don’t think I fully felt like myself until I was 24/25. I was such an insecure kid, and college was helpful in growth but it wasn’t really until I was thrown into the working world that I came into my own self. I’m much more confident, much more willing to speak my mind and I have a better idea of what I want from a partner or from a career. My childhood best friend recently told me that she finds me much more confident with new people these days, and she likes that change in me.

      But I will say that I think its different for each individual. I know people that probably would say they had the same experiences younger or older than I did.

  • Great writing and observations, thank you for your honesty!

  • this is excellent.

  • Your childhood sounds really familiar to me. I like (and need) a lot of alone time and wasn’t ever sure how that was going to work in a marriage. What turns out to work for us is that he works much longer hours than I do. I still get time to myself and then am happy to have him come home. This does mean that I do most of the housework, but that’s a tradeoff that’s ok with me. He does usually do the dishes after dinner since I almost always cook. We’ve never had a conversation about it, but I think if he didn’t do the dishes without me asking, I’d feel like the little woman he expects to do the woman’s work. So yes, dishes can be a powerful symbol! We didn’t meet until we were in our early 30s and I think for us, that was the right thing. I have friends who have been happily married for over 15 years since they were 18 and 19, so I’m perfectly aware that young love can last. I think though that he and I really needed our twenties to grow into people who were ready and able to commit to someone else without losing ourselves. And having been on my own for a long time prepared me to be independent in a marriage, which is especially important since he’s also gone for months at a time.

    The issue of uncertainty is a tricky one. I’ve been sure since meeting him not that he was right for me, but that he was something extraordinary and that I needed to put the time and effort into finding out whether we could work together. I became convinced that we did a lot sooner than he did. He questions and second-guesses any major decision he makes. Thirteen years later, he’s still second-guessing his decision to join the Navy over the Marines out of college. He mentally goes down every road he could have chosen over becoming a doctor and believes that a couple of them would have been better. He’s never felt truly certain about any commitment he’s made, so obviously deciding to get married was incredibly difficult and he wasn’t going to feel as sure as he wanted. In his perfect world, he’d be able to see every possible future and know that the one married to me turns out better than any of the alternatives. Obviously, that’s not possible, so he just had to picture what his future without me looked like and decide that the one he saw with me looked better. And then jump.

  • Sam A

    This: “defining myself in negatives wasn’t something that worked”. Awesome sentiment.

  • S

    ” I wasn’t the type of person who falls in love at twenty.”

    Neither am I! Well, I’m not not type of person who falls in love at just-turned nineteen. But I did. And I’m twenty-two now and still in love and still ‘not the type’ to meet my forever person at eighteen. But I did.

    Of course, as in the article, there is much to be said for having the courage to walk away from a young love and live a different, single life. I really respect that! But I was wondering if anyone had any words of wisdom, from more experience, of meeting young and making it last.

    Meeting so young and not being ‘the type’ to meet young and be together forever presents many confusions and contradictions! I imagined my twenties as a series of different relationships and sexual experiences, but honestly being with my boyfriend really made that pre-conception disappear. Well sometimes not disappear, but dampen. I just want to be with him forever, to have children with him, to have fun with him and to grow together, not apart. So far, its working, even after a year living in different countries. But how scary to have met so young and to see what happens to most couples who have met so young. Sometimes I do wish we could have met later, but now I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine life without him. Every time I blow an eyelash and make a wish (do you do that in the US?!), I wish to be with him forever, and feel so warm and happy at the thought.

    We’re totally on the same page, and feel the same way about meeting young; that the idea of being reckless and young in sex and love is sort of appealing, but that we would never give each other up for that. We adore each other and are very committed.

    I realise many people go through this and break up and end up with someone else. Most, probably. But is there anyone out there who met young and DID stay together, while not being ‘the type’ to do so?

    I do have one role model in the respect. I have an friend who just turned forty, and she met her husband at nineteen. They are very free-spirited and open-minded, like my boyfriend and I, and spent two years from twenty to twenty-two in an open relationship, while long-distance. They got married some years later and have the single happiest marriage I know, and she tells me everything. They’re still so in love, but also value those two years of ‘craziness’. This scenario isn’t necessarily ‘my’ scenario, but I find it so positive to see one way someone ‘not the type’ made it work with an amazing end result.

    There is always hope, and for Shannon it is so positive that she has the strength to be on her own! I just don’t want that, but also do see the difficulty with ‘not being the type’ to fall in love so young. OH, life!