Years ago, sitting in a restaurant with my boyfriend at the time and another couple, I watched as my boyfriend picked up the bottle of wine we’d ordered and refilled only his glass. I remember thinking: I’d like to be with someone who fills every glass on the table, and I don’t think that’s too big of an ask. I did not act on this observation. Instead, I added it to the steady drip of disappointments taking up residence in my anxious, overactive mind.
I know many women who have stayed in relationships a beat too long, or even years too long, unhappily embracing the philosophy that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Not every bird, however, is worth holding onto, especially the ones that make us feel stuck or anxious.
And yet sometimes we hold on regardless, treading water in relationship purgatory, unable to take a leap of faith into the unknown. Whenever I speak to a friend facing this dilemma, invariably she will say how scary the idea of being single again is. Scary is always the word used. Why is this?
It’s cruel and sexist, but it’s true: the single woman in her forties is not a celebrated figure. When I ended a committed relationship in my mid-to-late-thirties it felt like an enormous personal failure. I felt I was going against the grain of societal pressure which dictates that the women we aspire to be in our thirties, the women who are truly accomplished, are married or in relationships headed in this direction (and staggeringly, this pressure begins in one’s twenties).
And yet why is being single perceived as such a failure? Why can’t extricating ourselves from a relationship that isn’t serving us well be treated as a giant celebratory step that deserves a party, a cake, streamers, and the popping of champagne? Moreover, how about from a young age we condition women to value self-growth and taking risks over reaching yet another relationship milestone?
Why is being single perceived as such a failure? Why can’t extricating ourselves from a relationship that isn’t serving us well be treated as a giant celebratory step that deserves a party, a cake, streamers, and the popping of champagne?
For those grappling with the decision of whether to stay in, or end, their relationship, I try to restrain myself from yelling gleefully: “End it! Right now! You’re clearly not happy!” (this does not expedite their decision, unfortunately), and instead recommend reading: Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. It reassures the reader that relationship ambivalence is a common problem, and approaches the dilemma with a clinical lens, asking a series of questions about one’s relationship, citing examples of real-life couples who broke up or stayed together, and how they answered those same questions.
Outside of the self-help section, there are many books that comforted me deeply for they captured the moment of relationship stasis so aptly. There is Elizabeth Gilbert’s universally beloved Eat, Pray, Love. Early on, we find her sobbing on her bathroom floor as she reckons with the knowledge she doesn’t want to be married anymore (“I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept on insisting itself to me.”).
Gilbert nails it. It’s the wanting not to know that is intrinsic to those introspective moments before a breakup, because knowing poses a problem, it interferes with those relationship milestones we have been told we must reach by a certain age. Ann Patchett compares it to paralysis, writing in her essay “The Sacrament of Divorce” (published in This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage): “The only way off a runaway train is to jump, but at that moment the ground looked to be going by so fast that I was paralyzed.”
And then there is Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in which she knows and she has the inner dialogue to end all inner dialogues, directly before throwing a pie at her husband:
I’m getting out. I am no beauty, and I’m getting on in years, and I have just about enough money to last me sixty days, and I am terrified of being alone, and I can’t bear the idea of divorce, but I would rather die than sit here and pretend it’s okay… I can’t stand feeling sorry for myself. I can’t stand feeling like a victim. I can’t stand hoping against hope. I can’t stand sitting here with all this rage turning to hurt and then to tears.
More recently, I read How To Fall Out of Love Madly by Jana Casale. I am going to simplify the plot of this terrific book crudely to prove a point here: it’s a book in which the women we follow are embroiled in relationships with men that are not serving them well, and they are much happier for it when those relationships end. My god, I want more fiction that leans in this direction, more fiction that makes this point loudly, emphatically. I want an entire wing of the library dedicated to literature about women extricating themselves from relationships that aren’t serving them well.
I contemplated all of this as I set out to write my debut novel, The Freedom Clause. It’s about a young couple, Dominic and Daphne, who decide to open up their marriage one night a year over a five-year period. There are rules in this agreement, designed to protect them both from getting hurt.
But over the course of five years, only one of them adheres carefully to those rules, only one of them treats their relationship with the respect it deserves. And by the end of the novel, it is quite clear what Daphne must do, what choice she must make. I hope that choice is met with a celebratory fist pump by the reader.
I was writing the novel I wanted to read when I was feeling stuck and anxious. I was considering the relationships I had been in, and the relationships I had witnessed, as I plotted out the story of a young woman who has been raised a people pleaser, and whose journey of self-assertion in the bedroom ultimately plays out in other areas of her life.
The market for romance novels is enormous, and will likely remain that way, but there is an alternative happy ending for women, one in which the protagonist chooses to prioritize her happiness without a neat romantic conclusion on the final page.
Because I wanted to write the book that women give to their best friend when it’s unequivocally time for that friend to end her crappy relationship. Because we need novels where the breakup is the happy ending, the cause for celebration, and we need literature that gives women permission to live their lives fully, on their own terms, by ignoring societal pressures and focusing on what they need.
The market for romance novels is enormous, and will likely remain that way, but there is an alternative happy ending for women, one in which the protagonist chooses to prioritize her happiness without a neat romantic conclusion on the final page. And by popularizing this decision in fiction, perhaps we can make it less scary for those contemplating it in real life. For there is something much scarier than being single, and that is the bird in hand preventing us from reaching out for the life we hoped for, the one we deserve, a life we can grasp if we let go of what’s holding us back and trust in the path ahead.
The Freedom Clause by Hannah Sloane is available via Dial Press.