Like most of us at this point, I feel oversaturated with ‘covid-dating content’, and would quite happily go the rest of my life never hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ ever again. However, the concepts I am grappling with extend beyond walking coffee dates or updating Hinge profiles. My concerns lie with the delicate balance of upholding my own feminist values of independence and autonomy, whilst also allowing myself to be vulnerable and ‘need’ my partner for support and stability at a time where the rest of my life is unpredictable and I feel I cannot control my own trajectory.
The guilt of relying on your partner, or ‘co-dependency’, is something that plays on the minds of many budding feminists like myself when trying to navigate healthy relationships. We want to want our partners, but we need to not need them. Dependency in relationships is a contentious topic, it bears many questions and rules. How far into a relationship is it okay to ‘depend’ on your partner? Is it ever okay? What level of dependency is considered normal? Pandemic aside, these are complex questions. Now, factor in a declared State of Disaster which restricts us from seeing our friends and family, and our work -presuming we are lucky enough to still have it- has most likely undergone a serious remodel.
So many factors that inform our sense of ‘self’ have been compromised by this pandemic. It must be acknowledged that Covid has had a profound influence on our independence. It has denied our ability to self-explore through travel, our ability to choose the space and people we surround ourselves with, our ability to practice celebration or routine. When I consider these factors individually they are somewhat forgivable and I can combat them with my signature ‘sucks, but she’ll be right’ mentality. However, when I consider these factors cumulatively I’m forced to acknowledge that the loss I am grappling with extends far beyond my cancelled holiday or the beloved job I had at the local pub with my best mates.
Covid has affected every area of my life that collectively established my sense of self, the self that took years of work and introspection to build and have a healthy relationship with. Feeling forced to relinquish my control of self over to Covid is something I struggle to forgive. So surely in a situation as ‘unprecedented’ as this one, can we at least partly exempt ourselves from that feminist guilt? The voice that says, ‘the only person I need is me’ and ‘you need to love yourself first’. I think a lot of people are struggling to love themselves in an environment that impedes them from actively being their best versions of themselves. That does not mean that they are less deserving of love and affection, it means that they need it more, or at least I know I do.
My own past relationships, both romantic and otherwise, have rendered me fiercely protective of my sense of self, especially as a woman and as one who bruises easily. I am very familiar with what it is like to feel small, to have my emotions minimized, to be made to feel problematic or apologize for taking up space. Therefore, I feel it is crucial to be selective about who we allow ourselves to have intimate relationships with, close enough to touch our ‘self’, because often we worked harder for it than we should have had to.
Bearing this in mind, getting into a new relationship this year scared the absolute hell out of me. The prospect of investing so much of myself into somebody with the capacity to bruise me is terrifying at the best of times, let alone when I already felt like I could not control anything in the world around me. The usual remedy for this is to take it slow and self-preserve to ensure that if things didn't work out, I was okay and could still be content independently. Of course, this did not happen. My partner and I met two weeks before the beginning of Covid, meaning that the majority of our relationship has occurred in lockdown, which really throws normal relationship dynamics and timelines out the window. The excitement of meeting someone new, combined with the fact that seeing each other was the only fun thing we could legally do, meant that we were basically joined at the hip. Within weeks we had met each other’s families and fallen into a comfortable routine, quickly realising that dating in covid was dating in dog years.
It sort of felt like yet another whirlwind I couldn’t control, our emotions progressed so quickly and effortlessly that we couldn’t slow down, even if we wanted to. Despite how little time had elapsed, we both felt immediately comfortable being 100% transparent with one another about everything from our innermost mental struggles to passing bodily gasses. By virtue of just being there and being ourselves, we created a supportive, hilarious, open, affectionate little bubble, one that made everything else going on outside of it that much more bearable.
Now this should be a good thing, right? This rare immediate compatibility should yield nothing but happiness?
In reality, four years of developing critical thinking skills in a social science degree, mixed with my strong feminist values created quite the potent cocktail of guilt and fear. I was and still am, so self-critical of how much of my happiness is currently reliant on my partner, as well as being fearful of co-dependency and how I would feel if suddenly he was not there. A good feminist does not allow herself, or her life to be consumed by a man, she remains independent above all else because her life does not revolve around her partner.
But what about when every part of your life, besides your partner has been restricted, your work, your ability to see friends, your study environment, even the amount of time you are allowed to spend outside, all the things that make up the ‘self’. At that point, all I wanted to do was guiltlessly open my entire lifestyle and space up to my partner, as he brought so much positivity in an otherwise negative circumstance, and I so craved that positivity. But instead I constantly try to justify to myself a healthy balance between how little time we have been together and the amount I allow myself to indulge in the relationship in its entirety.
For the first few months I would not allow my partner to stay the night with me, instead I would make him drive home at ungodly hours. Whilst I wanted to spend that time with him, I had convinced myself that by preserving a space that was mine, I was not allowing my lifestyle to be consumed by a relationship, thus protecting my ‘self’ and preventing codependency. Some might consider this strange behaviour, but to me it made perfect sense to deny myself of intimacy for the sake of proving that I could; because even in a relationship, I still wanted to be an independent and completely autonomous woman.
Over time I got over it and lifted the sleepover ban, but this concept is still something I still struggle with now, six months down the track. I continue to question if the amount of physical and mental space I give to my relationship is healthy. It continues to sit uncomfortably with me that the thing getting me through lockdown, one of the most challenging times of my life, is my relationship, not myself. It leaves me judging myself for fearing the prospect of withstanding this pandemic without him which to me - is the definition of dependency.
I am aware that like so many others, I am my own worst critic, and as such I ponder what I would say to a friend experiencing the same mental conflict. And that would be to just chill out!
It would be so frustrating to watch a friend completely over analyse and compartmentalise themselves out of enjoying the happiness that they deserve and creating red flags where there is no need to. I need to remind myself that being a feminist does not mean never being vulnerable or needing support. Especially at a time where nothing else feels constant, it seems reasonable to give myself grace if someone makes me feel secure, and most importantly not feel guilty for that. Acknowledging that at present, a very large part of my happiness is sourced from someone outside of myself does not make me half a person or a lesser version of my former self. It makes me receptive, sensitive and emotionally open to others, traits typically associated with femininity that I should not be compelled to suppress or minimise. There is no one right way to have a relationship or date in a pandemic. As women, if we chose to largely focus on the happiness that our partners bring us over the uncertainty and stress of everything else happening around us, we needn’t apologise for it.