“Is there, perhaps, one soul among all others--among all who have lived, the endless generations, from world's end to world's end--who must love us or die? And whom we must love, in turn--whom we must seek all our lives long--headlong and homesick--until the end?”
― Robert Nathan, Portrait of Jennie
There’s not an idea more written, more sung, more embraced, than the idea of romantic love. It is for many of us an idea so integrated into our own ideas of life that to be without it seems the most horrible fate. Somewhere along the halls of history we have collectively agreed that outside ourselves is where we’ll find the most fulfillment.
It is a given that anything taken to an extreme can be a detriment to our quality of life, including that philosophy, however it was never intended to be taken to an extreme and it is not in my intentions to deride romantic love nor find fault in placing one’s relationships with others on a pedestal. Instead I would like to encourage black women to place equal emphasis, if not more, on a relationship we so rarely nurture until life has backed us into a corner, and that is the relationship with oneself.
One of Maslow’s most significant contributions to the study of humankind was his theory on human motivations. His hierarchy of needs is a concept most are acquainted with. In brief, Maslow theorized that humans are primarily motivated by higher level needs (creativity, mastery, self-actualization) after our most basic needs (food, water, shelter, safety) have been met and after our psychological needs (belongingness, affection, relationships) have been met.
There are a few criticisms about his theory namely that people who without meeting what Maslow would describe as our most basic needs, are still primarily motivated by higher level needs. Whether you subscribe to Maslow’s hierarchy or not, I think it is important for black women to break down systematically their own hierarchy of relationships with the relationship with oneself at the very base.
When we think of base level requirements, we tend to view them in a rudimentary light. However, the relationship with oneself is anything but simple or easy. In fact, some people go their entire lives exploring the question: “who am I?” And of those who question who they are, even fewer challenge the answer or ask themselves why they are. Despite how complex and existential-crisis-inducing the whole idea of exploring oneself might seem, it is still nothing but a foundational requirement for good relationships with others. This is especially so if you wish to share yourself with someone else or have someone else share themselves with you romantically.
A lot of us view romantic relationships as character building and helpful in self-development because it’s one of the only times we’re faced regularly with our character traits. Our partners nit-pick and nag us about some things we never even realized we did. While oftentimes the subject of our partner’s nit-pickings might be something like not closing the cabinet doors when we’re through with them or teasing about how long you take to get ready, it’s almost just as often that our partners bring to our attention traits we would be better off without.
Instead of asking to talk about something that bothered you the other day (or the day before that), you might bottle up feelings of reproach only to have them all come out in a rage induced rant. Perhaps, you’ve come to realize that you’re a passive aggressive (petty) nuisance who prefers to emotionally manipulate your partner from behind the scenes when they’ve bothered you instead of addressing your concerns with your partner in a forward manner. When we know ourselves, we recognize not only our strengths but our shortcomings too. This gives us the opportunity to react to situations with better control over ourselves and over the outcome as well.
While romantic relationships oftentimes serve as an opportunity for us to look at ourselves in the mirror, the relationship we have with ourself serves as the foundation for the relationships we will have with others. For some of us who’ve already explored within and or were lucky enough to be raised by parents who helped nurture that sense of self, it can be inconvenient at best having to be the emotionally mature one.
No one knows this plight more than black women. Many of us are raised with the tools for nurturing relationships while being told that everyone else has developed these skills, only to find out we’re the only ones who have done the work. While black women are certainly raised to be good supporters and handywomen to everyone else, rarely are we taught to turn those skills inward. We’re quick to help everyone else become the best versions of themselves and then wonder why we, who have yet to practice what we preach, are often overlooked.
Relationships with others, romantic or not, can be life enriching. However, we reap more rewards as opposed to heartache, when we do them right. The right way to have a relationship varies from couple to couple, but all relationships can benefit from two individuals, with a knowledge of self, coming together to support each other. We can more easily be helped and help others when we know what we want from a partnership, our values, deal breakers, and other things. Knowing oneself perfectly isn’t necessary for a relationship and some argue that true knowledge of oneself can never be attained. What’s certain though is that if we took more time to prioritize the getting to know yourself phase of our adult lives without a relationship, we can be better directed towards people who have what we value in a partner.
It’s also ok to change your mind. Who we are tends to change as we go through different phases of our lives. Even when done right, relationships still end, and not everyone will find happiness and fulfillment from a romantic partnership with someone. While romantic relationships with others can be where greater character development happens, they are not and should not be viewed as a necessary steppingstone towards a fulfilling life. Being comfortable in one's own skin is an underrated experience that needs as much mental real estate as our romantic fantasies. No one is your other half. There are only additions to the whole person that is you.
It is said that each and every one of us is born with a soulmate of some kind. That an invisible thread, in guiding hand fashion, gently leads us to someone tethered on the other side and that this someone will complete us. It’s a tale as old as time. Generation after generation, song after song, have we embraced this idea of complimentary souls. Like a dancer, this idea of love waits in the wings of our minds for her moment to perform on the stage that is our life. For some of us, her performance is a pas de deux. For others a solo act. In either case, I encourage us to applaud with as much fervor a lone dancer as we would a duet or group, because the most important relationship you’ll ever have is the relationship you have with yourself.
Lilith is a blogger with an emphasis in writing and reflecting upon social agendas that effect black women. When not at her computer writing she is more than likely still at her computer, programming. On the rare occasion that Lilith isn't at her laptop you can attempt to find her exploring the Chicago food scene or attending workshops in creative writing.