The Unbearable Loneliness of Doing the Work of Love for Two

Crystal Jackson
Photo byAlora Griffiths on Unsplash

No matter how hard you try or how hard you love, you will never be able to single-handedly save a romantic relationship or make someone love you back. It’s a harsh truth that I once tried to ignore. I layered foolish optimism over past trauma and tried to make lovers love me back with my effort, humor, charm, and will. I tried to be the perfect girlfriend, and so much of my true self went into hiding in the process.

I didn’t feel safe to be the real me. Time and again, I learned that the real me would only be loved under very particular conditions. I internalized a sense of unworthiness, and I equated hard work and love as if they were one and the same. If I loved someone, I worked harder to show them. I never wanted anyone to feel as unloved as I have felt.

One person can’t do the work of love for two. That’s not a relationship. That’s a person who has been abandoned by their partner — a single person with a relationship status that says otherwise.

There’s little lonelier than being with someone and feeling completely alone. I’d like to tell you that each time I found myself in this situation, I took myself out of it. But I didn’t. Instead, I tried to love harder and be more of what they wanted and less of who I was.

It never worked, and years later, I finally began to understand that how tightly I held on was a trauma response. I was so afraid of being abandoned by someone else that I abandoned myself. I was so afraid of being without the person I loved that I didn’t look at how lonely the relationship was making me. I thought if I could love hard enough, I would be loved and appreciated.

It’s fine to work at a relationship. That’s completely normal. What’s not normal is only one person ever doing the work while the other person reaps the benefits.

I never wanted partners to feel unloved or unworthy, and yet that’s exactly what they made me feel. I never wanted partners to feel abandoned or alone, but I felt that way. I was so busy seeing the best in them and loving them through their flaws that it never really occurred to me that they were seeing the worst in me and counting up mine.

The measure I held myself to was impossible. The measure I held them to was so negligible that the smallest attention or kindnesses floored me. I loved them so well that I didn’t quite realize just how much they failed at loving me. I might have had a partner in name, but I was being crushed by loneliness.

We’re not meant to do the work of love for two. We’re not meant to be the only ones finding compromises and solutions to our problems or addressing the real issues. It’s not our job alone to spice up the romance or make all the plans for date nights. We cannot single-handedly keep a relationship going and expect that we will be healthy, happy people in the process.

We give until we’re wrung out and wonder why they don’t want us anymore. Why would they when we bent over backward shoring up their self-worth while they chipped away at our own through their negligence?

In healthy relationships, our partners roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty right alongside us. We don’t have to work on the relationship alone, and because of that, we don’t feel alone in the relationship. We feel like we have a full partner, a best friend, and a lover who is committed to nurturing the love we share.

Love is a solo act. We can feel love even if it isn’t returned. But relationships aren’t meant for one. They are meant to be fulfilling shared experiences. Perhaps the real problem is that unhealthy relationships are never equitable, and even healthy ones can struggle to maintain the balance.

I look back and send so much love to the girlfriend who tried so hard to lighten their load while making her own heavier. She was brave and kind. I am brave and kind. But I don’t carry someone else’s burdens anymore. I don’t choose to participate in relationships that make me feel more alone than actually being alone.

I rebuilt my self-love back one block at a time. I’ll still love hard, but I’ll never again pour my love into someone who doesn’t appreciate it. I know I deserve to be loved and loved well — the way I’ve always loved the partners I’ve chosen. I don’t deserve abandonment, and I shouldn’t have to fight so hard for the bare minimum.

My life has gotten so much lighter. I stopped trying to love other people so hard they’d choose to love me back. I stopped believing it was even possible. I quit focusing on relationships that came with strings and started building ones on foundations of mutual admiration, respect, and appreciation. I decided to be wonderfully, deliciously alone with a wild, beautiful, fulfilling life.

I’m still a foolish optimist recovering from trauma. I’m still an incurable romantic choosing to be happily single rather than unhappily, and inequitably, coupled. My self-love is strong, and my friendships are plentiful. I have everything I need, and it’s enough.

Originally published on Medium

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails:

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