Whether it be through the novels we read, the movies we watch and the song lyrics we listen to, pop culture relentlessly tells us that, if you are alone, you cannot possibly be happy. LeAnn Rimes illustrated just how incomplete she would feel if her lover ever left her in 1997’s classic feel good song, “How Do I Live?”
How do I live without you?
I want to know
How do I breathe without you?
If you ever go
How do I ever, ever survive
How do I, how do I, oh how do I live?
Ouch. This song suggests that Rimes could not even perform the basic function of breathing without another human being completing her life. For many, this thought is one of unquestionable truth. We are told in lyrics and books over and over again, “You complete me,” “You are my better half,” “You’re my missing piece.” We are taught how romantic it is to search for “The One” and to look all our lives for the person who makes us whole.
The concept of man’s never-ending search for love, and how society views people who don’t wish to partake in that quest, has been on my mind a lot recently. At the time of writing this, I am acting in a production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 masterpiece, “Company.” This musical was groundbreaking at the time of its arrival to Broadway because of its nuanced, introspective examination of romantic relationships, marriage, and the main character’s ambivalence towards traditional relationship dynamics.
The action centers around the unmarried Robert on his 35th birthday, the five married couples who are his best friends, and the three girlfriends he dates during the events of the play. The show is told out of order in different short vignettes centering on Robert’s interactions with each of the five couples and his three girlfriends. Robert is pestered by almost all of his friends to get married and constantly questioned why he is not married yet. The play’s action shows numerous examples of the serious flaws and mundane minutia of each of the relationships Robert encounters during George Furth’s exquisitely written scenes.
Though the heteronormative, monogamy-centric message of the show can feel antiquated, much of Sondheim and Furth’s examination of relationships is timeless. What happens when you do finally find the person of your dreams? It certainly isn’t sunshine and rainbows forever. Sondheim brilliantly portrays the plight of married couples in the beautiful and bittersweet song, “Sorry/Grateful” in which he describes the phenomenon of feeling lonely while married,
You’re sorry - grateful
You hold her thinking I’m not alone
You’re still alone.
Later in the song, Sondheim describes the juxtaposition of being simultaneously elated and fearful of the prospect of staying with a spouse for the rest of eternity:
You don’t live for her
You do live with her
You’re scared she’s starting to drift away
And scared she’ll stay.
The same character who sings these lyrics later muses that he has “...everything except freedom, which is everything.” I can’t help but wonder whether polyamory might have solved his plight?
Our unlikely hero is all the while, content in his role as the ultimate third wheel. He floats from one friendship to the next, always observing and asking questions. In the above scene, he asks his male friend whether he is ever sorry he got married. In another, he tells his female friend how terrific she is, reflecting that perhaps she is the girl he should have married. His male and female friends are enamored by him, yet they are aware of his inability to commit, and therefore he is described as “always a flirt, but never a threat.” Clearly his presence fills a void within his friends as they muse, “You never need an analyst when Bobby’s around.”
After two hours of being pestered, placated, and ultimately propositioned by his friends, Robert finally has a breakthrough. In the climactic final song in the show, “Being Alive,” a deeply vulnerable Robert first expresses his frustrations with the challenges of getting close to someone and finally, after remembering the encouraging words of the couples, demonstrates a genuine desire to love someone with abandon despite the hardships he may have to face.
I have asked myself multiple times over the last few months why this show has had such a deep emotional impact on me. Perhaps it was my untraditional upbringing. My father was married with two children and had an affair with my unmarried mother. During this time my mother decided she wanted to have a child of her own, and thus the two of them procreated. I grew up with very little substantive contact with my father over the years. It was clear that the relationship that mattered most to him was the on-again, off-again romantic relationship he shared with my mother. Ultimately, my mother ended up leaving him, and after various attempts to find love and a “proper” father figure, she bravely decided that she would be happiest being alone.
She went on to have a successful career and retired early, all while being an incredibly supportive and fantastic mother to me. She is a vulnerable, deep and charismatic person and has always been my best example of someone who lives without dependency on another human being. Even in my various successful romantic relationships over the years, the autonomy and sense of self she possesses is something I always strive to maintain.
And yet, perhaps in spite of my unique upbringing, I love being in relationships. I love having intimate connections with many people and I love learning about exciting facets of myself through the lense of their experiences with me. I have learned so much about relationships over the years, and continue to grow and flourish when I am partaking in them. And even though there was a period in my life when I thought “love” was an idle fantasy of dreamers, I still always yearned for the opportunity to love and be loved in return. Perhaps that is why I cannot get through listening to the final song in the show without crying. I have heard our lead sing this song for weeks, and reviewed countless Youtube videos of past performers, and these words manage to touch me every time:
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody make me come through
I’ll always be there as frightened as you
to help us survive
We have been tribal, social creatures for millennia, so nothing in our evolution has ever told us we should face this journey through life without the help of others. Yet the older that I get, the more I find that romance is not the only thing worthy of filling a person’s life. Children, friends, colleagues, and co-podcast hosts can all enrich people’s lives just as much or more than a romantic relationship might. And as the character of Bobby found in “Company”, any fulfilling type of relationship, regardless of what form it takes, can only be achieved when one is truly comfortable and happy with themselves.
I have spent my life learning this fact, and after years of hating myself I have finally begun finding peace within me. It has deeply affected my relationships for the better. The destructive patterns of insecurity that have plagued me are giving way. This newfound confidence has enabled me to be comfortable and secure not only while I am alone, but has also allowed my relationships to blossom in ways I never thought possible. Alone is a part of being alive, as are the riches brought to us through our connections with others. Experiencing both with a true sense of loving yourself is truly being alive.
Emily is a vegan, feminist, non traditional relationship advocate. She is the self-described 'funny bone' of the Multiamory podcast trio. She loves singing, cats, and Nintendo and will beat your ass to the ground at Mario Kart. Bring it.