My wife and I were together for 26 years. When we met, I was in my mid-20s and had already withstood a string of longish relationships. My first college boyfriend, whom I met when I was 18, was a handsome playwright. We lasted a year. After him, I immediately became involved with a male friend. We were together almost six years before I announced that I was a lesbian. A string of women then followed, all while I continued to live with my now ex-man. I was a serial monogamist of the highest order. For my entire adult life, I had never been single, nor had I lived alone.
The truth is: The idea of being alone terrified me. As the only child of a single mother in the 1970s, I’d been a latchkey kid. Starting in kindergarten, I would wake up to an empty apartment, get myself dressed, and walk myself to school. After school, I’d walk myself home, let myself in with the key that was tied with a string around my neck, and watch TV for a few hours until my mother got home. It was unbearably lonely.
Even when my mother was home, her attention was sporadic and confusing. She was young, immature, self-centered. More interested in her own feelings than mine. If she was in a good mood, she might sweep in after work, announce a trip to Burger King, then arrange a snuggly night on the couch eating ice cream and watching Archie Bunker. If she was tired or angry, I might get berated and spanked for some offence my young mind couldn’t fathom.
To make matters worse, my early life was marked by constant upheaval and chaos. When my mother met the man who became her first husband, for instance, she abandoned me to my grandparents. Sporadically, she would collect me for a few months, then abandon me again as she moved from job to job, home to home.
As a young child, I needed stability, security, consistent love, care I could count on. By the time I was an adult, I was desperate for those things. So desperate, in fact, that I could not bear to be without a love interest. Not even for a second. If a relationship ended, I would frantically grab the first person I could find to the fill the empty slot. Never mind if that person was right for me. What could I know of “right”? In my frenzied attempt to secure a match, I would profess my undying love for a new person long before I knew anything about him or her. If I later found out things I didn’t like or didn’t like the way I was being treated, I just ignored it. Simply put: Being treated badly was better than being alone.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of my frantic attempts to find and keep love at any cost were the result of my anxious/insecure attachment style. In early childhood, the way we are cared for affects the way we learn to trust, relate, and love. Because my childhood was marred by inconsistent caregiving, I learned to be anxious in close relationships. In the popular book, Attached, the authors describe anxiously attached people as constantly craving close relationships, becoming overly focused on romantic partners to the extent that they lose themselves, and being unhappy when not in a relationship. To avoid being alone, an anxiously attached person will ignore problems in the relationship and put their partner on a pedestal while undervaluing themselves. They believe that, even if they are unhappy, they should stay with their partner because it may be their last chance at love.[i]
This was my mindset when I met the woman who would become my wife. Right from the start, there were red flags. On our first date, she mocked what I was wearing. I had chosen my dressy blouse and pants very carefully. She said I was “overdressed” for a rock concert and should’ve worn jeans. But she also said she was “ready to fall in love,” which was music to my ears. Did anything else she said or did really matter?
As I got to know her, the mocking and criticism continued. She made fun of my cooking, complained that my shower drained too slowly, deemed by best friend socially inept. Most egregiously, a few weeks in, she admitted that she didn’t find me attractive. I was too fat for her liking.
A healthy person would have told her to fuck off. But healthy I was not. After a childhood of being treated like I didn’t matter, like there was something wrong with me, like I was an unlovable, I had come to believe it.
This is how our sense of self develops. In childhood, if we are loved and treated like we matter, we naturally develop a sense of our own self-worth. If we are neglected or abused, we assume we deserved it and come to believe there is something inherently wrong with us.
Cognitive psychologists will tell you that the beliefs we form about ourselves in childhood run very deep. They are mostly subconscious and incredibly impervious to change. In fact, once our self-concept is formed, we instinctively employ a host of cognitive and behavioral strategies to maintain our beliefs about ourselves.[ii] For example, we tend to recall and pay attention to information that confirms our self-concepts. (This is why people with low self-esteem routinely believe criticisms but dismiss compliments.) We also prefer to interact with others who provide information that confirms our self-views. Thus, when it comes to romance, partners with a negative view of themselves reported higher levels of commitment to a relationship if their partner confirmed their negative self-perceptions.[iii]
To quote Groucho Marx: I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
My future wife held a very low opinion of me, and I agreed. We were a perfect match! You may wonder why she would choose to date someone of whom she disapproved. That is an analysis for a future essay. Suffice to say: I became her project. She didn’t like my hair color, so I dyed it. She didn’t like my wardrobe, so I started dressing like her. She didn’t like my job, so she got me a new one. At the time, I acquiesced to these changes without complaint. Her intense interest in me, even though it was in changing me, felt like love. But very quickly, I lost myself. By the time I moved in with her a few months after we met, I felt like an extra in my own movie.
If you know me personally or read my memoir, Scared Selfless[iv], all of this may come as a shock. I purported to have a happy, loving marriage. For many years, I thought I did. There were good times, of course. We had lots of fun and adventures. We made a good team in many ways. But there was always the underlying complaint that I wasn’t good enough. She mocked my table manners, said I talked too loudly and not about the right things. She criticized my personal hygiene, how I spent my time, who I chose as friends. The message, implicitly and often explicitly: I was a disgusting, lazy, selfish oaf.
Again, I feel I must reiterate that it wasn’t all bad. Had it been, I would’ve left much sooner. In the early years, the mocking and criticism were balanced out by compliments, affection, and admiration—the things I desperately needed to bolster my self-esteem. But as time passed and resentments grew, the balance shifted. Our marriage became weighted down by contempt. The compliments ceased, and I no longer felt that my wife admired anything about me. Instead, our shared narrative became one where I was an awful person, devoid of value.
While I was certainly to blame for many of the problems in our marriage, I couldn’t accept that I was completely worthless and go on living. So, I left my marriage and found myself facing my worst fear: being alone.
Without another person to fill my time, focus my attention on, or tell me who I was, I was forced to look inside. I didn’t like what I saw. In fact, I loathed myself. At the core of me was still that neglected and abused little girl, the one nobody valued or loved. I hated her for it.
It was only then, in my mid-50s, that I realized I needed to learn to love myself. I’d heard that expression many times, but I had no idea what it meant. I thought it was some psycho-babble bullshit.
It’s not. On the contrary, loving yourself is an absolute necessity for mental, physical, and spiritual health. In fact, I contend it’s the only real cure for attachment problems, chronic depression, eating disorders, and addictions. As Buddha says, “ You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
So how do you start? I started by being alone long enough to hear my own thoughts and feel my own feelings. I’d always been afraid to be alone, to look at myself, for fear of what I might find.
What I found was peace. Quiet. In the quiet, I heard whispers of what I really valued. I started doing more of those things. Going to parks. Listening to uplifting podcasts. Studying subjects that sparked my curiosity.
My days became simple and filled with things I liked to do. Little by little, I began to really enjoy being alone. I experienced authentic happiness.
And I became really, really nice to myself. I started exercising more, eating better, taking better care of my skin and hair, dressing well. Not because I needed to impress or attract anyone. Just because it feels good to take care of me.
For Valentine’s Day this year, I bought myself a bouquet of pink tulips. They delighted me so much that I got a dozen pink roses too. I’m looking at them right now as I write this. They are beautiful, exactly the sort of thing I would choose for myself. They make me feel so loved!
[i] Levine, A. & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find and keep love. New York: Tarcher Perigee.
[ii] Swann, W., Pelham, B. & Krull, D. (1989). Agreeable fancy or disagreeable truth? How people reconcile their self-enhancement and self-verification needs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 782-791.
[iii] Swann, W., Hixon, J. & De La Ronde, C. (1992). Embracing the better “truth”: Negative self-concepts and marital commitment. Psychological Science, 3, 118-121.
[iv][iv] Stevens, M. (2017). Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving. New York: Putnam.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).