"I just felt alone.” That’s what a friend of mine told me recently when we caught up after lockdown, describing her decision to leave her partner of five years. More specifically, she said, “I felt alone even though we lived together.”
My friend wasn’t the only one to end a longterm relationship after a month in lockdown. Since life returned to normal, there are many of us who, after spending so much time with ourselves, are having belated realisations about our relationships and friendships. We often talk about internal efforts to better our mental health — but rarely do we shine a light on the interpersonal pressures on our wellbeing. These pressures often appear small and thoughtless, but in time (and proximity) they build up and wreak havoc on our self-worth, self-love, and self-esteem. Your interpersonal relationships should enrich your life, help you grow as a person, and make you happy. Simple, isn't it? And yet so often as women we forget that last part — that every person we voluntarily spend time with should make us happy.
This month, as we celebrate our slow return to normal life, we want to make sure that you don’t lose those insights about yourself or your friends and partners which you have gained during lockdown. Here are four signs that your relationships are no longer serving you.
YOU FEEL ALONE
In our modern, fast-paced lives, you can walk through a crowd of hundreds and feel like you’re in a desert. It’s more than that everybody’s glued to their smartphones, it’s that feeling of disconnectedness; the lack of eye contact, or if there is eye contact, it’s the way people seem to look through you. On an everyday basis, it’s easy to push these observations away — but what if this is also what you come home to? If that untethered, unanchored feeling while being with the people you love and who should love you is familiar to you — cut it open and examine it. Where does it happen? How often is it? Does anybody else notice? Once you know the answers to these questions, you can begin to understand how much of it is a reaction against other peoples’ behaviour towards you, and how much of it may be due to unrelated stress or dissociation. Just remember: being alone isn’t the same as being lonely — and while you can’t chase away loneliness by surrounding yourself with people, sometimes you can have a richer, more fulfilling time when you learn to be okay with being alone.
Even as women gain more economic freedom in the 21st century, the old thinking that women must cook and clean still has its impact — and it goes beyond evenly splitting the housework. Are you the one who always remembers what groceries are missing from the fridge? What days to take out the garbage? When to vacuum, change sheets, do laundry? Are you the one who always has to ask for things to be done? If so — this is what behavioural scientists call ‘emotional labour’. While these might seem like small efforts, emotional labour is linked to increased everyday stress —which your partner doesn’t have — which, over time, increases exhaustion and emotional burnout. It is also part of why studies show that, while married men live longer lives than their single counterparts, the opposite is true of women. If you find yourself emotionally exhausted by having to keep a mental tally of all the things that need done — or if you remember this feeling skyrocketing during the lockdown — then it’s time to have a talk with your partner. Remember, of course, that a good partner will respond to anything that causes you mental or physical stress; if they don’t, then you’ll have your answer too.
YOU EXPERIENCE MICRO-TRAUMAS
Or, as they’re poetically called: little murders. These are distinct from capital T Traumas: domestic violence, freak accidents, deaths of loved ones. These are the little things that we often dismiss as hurt feelings, telling ourselves to not be so sensitive, and can come in different forms: little insults, backhanded compliments, and gaslighting. Now, this isn't to say that an unkind word here or there is a red flag of toxicity — we all have bad days and tend to take it out on those closest to us, and as long as we recognise our wrongs and apologise, there’s no reason why the relationship can’t move forward. What’s different about a micro-trauma is that it’s a pattern. It doesn’t stop, and over time it wears down your perception of yourself, and throws you into a state of hyper vigilance — a state where you’re always waiting for the next little murder, on constant alert to fend off an attack that may or may not be coming. As you can imagine, this throws not only your mind but your body into chronic stress, which can lead to long term anxiety and even physical manifestations like insomnia and panic attacks.
YOU FEEL GUILTY
This is a tricky one — but it’s a telltale sign. Guilt in a relationship/friendship can stem from many things, for many different reasons, and this is one of the few things on this list that can have no perpetrator — often, guilt just exists. It’s a familiar feeling — that tugging we feel in the pit of our stomach, the way we try to be excessively amenable in order to make up for feeling something that often our partners/friends don’t even know about, and the subsequent annoyance at ourselves. In times like these, you want to examine why you feel the guilt, and if necessary, if you should feel guilty. Do you feel guilty because you’re no longer as interested as you used to be, or do you feel guilty for voicing your distance? One of these is an internal guilt, and the other is most likely a guilt that you are made to feel. The truth is, some level of guilt exists in every relationship, and if all else is kosher in the partnership, the guilt can be resolved through long talks, therapy, and mindfulness. However, if you are made to feel guilty, if this is something imposed on you — then there are likely other troubles you are ignoring. As always, treat the cause, not the symptoms. If you’d do that for your body, why wouldn't you do it for your mental health?