Though it’s no doubt old news by now — given the speed at which information travels on the internet — a few days ago actor, activist and all-round awesome person Emma Watson declared in an interview with British Vogue that she considers herself to be “self-partnered” rather than “single”. I first heard about this in a video that Russell Brand put online today, discussing the merits of Watson’s decision to use this label. Apparently this statement has led to the usual barrage of mockery and cynicism by those less-inclined to seek new and alternative ways of being, thinking and relating. If you’re interested these responses, I’m sure a quick Google search will yield links to examples of this, but I’m not invested in delving into that side of things any further. By writing this essay, I do not claim to espouse balanced reportage. I am excited by and fully in favour of the term “self-partnered” and this article will explain the reasons why it resonates with me, as well as discuss the potential it holds to be a new and empowering way to identify, particularly from my own viewpoint as a feminist woman and as a survivor of psychological and sexual abuse.
Below is the relevant extract from Vogue UK:
She turns 30 in April, and describes 2019 as having been “tough”, because she “had all these ideas” about what her life was supposed to look like at this age. “I was like, ‘Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal…’” she shares. “Cut to 29, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious. And I realise it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.”
If it’s staggering to think that Watson worries about this stuff, it’s comforting, too. “I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel,” she continues. “I was like, ‘This is totally spiel.’ It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.”
In a longer version of the interview, Watson also said:
“I see “self-partnership” as just taking some time out from the merry-go-round of relationships and “looking for the one”, and instead getting to know yourself a bit better.”
At this stage in my life, recently out of a relationship and delving into an intensive reinvestigation of self and purpose, I found this idea of self-partnership incredibly appealing. I immediately took to Facebook and proclaimed the following (to all 44 of my friends):
Thank you Emma Watson. This is the perfect way to describe where I’m at in my life right now. Self-partnered. I like it very much. We always need to be a partner to ourselves and get our self-worth from within. I suggest that we should all be healthily self-partnered always, and first and foremost. Having relationships with others should always come second to this primary relationship with self. If we don’t understand, respect and find our selves worthy, we cannot have healthy relationships with others. I also resent the idea that I have to be married to be worthy as a woman. It’s a notion that has weighed me down for decades and I’m finally throwing off the shackles. Self-partnership as a woman is a feminist notion as it subverts the dominant belief that women only exist (or are their best selves) in relation to others: as wives, mothers, lovers and carers.
In the comments section of Russell Brand’s video on Facebook about Watson’s declaration (he asked followers what they think), I wrote the following:
I think it’s brilliant. I’m recently out of a relationship and in a position where I’m really exploring myself and who I am. The relationship was abusive so I have to do a lot of self work to ensure I’m healed and also to forge a new future. Self-partnered perfectly describes where I’m at right now. I think we should all be self-partnered first and foremost, and partnered with another second. We should always have a healthy relationship with our own self and need to find self esteem and worth within.
Those were my initial thoughts, and since this morning they have developed. I believe that all humans, in order to be emotionally healthy, both within themselves and in relationship with others (friends, family, lovers, other-partners), must first and foremost be focused on cultivating a solid and healthy relationship with themselves. This means that one should feel ok to be alone, should derive a sense of worth from within, and be able to self-soothe, self-parent, and, by extension, I will argue, appropriately self-partner. We are already familiar as a culture with the concepts of self-worth, self-soothing and, to a lesser extent self-parenting. Self-parenting, for those who might not know much about it, is a concept explored in certain fields of psychotherapy (such as Internal Family Systems). It is particularly relevant to situations where people have had abusive or toxic childhoods. With self-parenting, in order to regain a sense of balance and healing to one’s wounded inner child, one takes on the role of a loving and kind parent (in an imaginary sense) and soothes the child self when it is triggered emotionally, rather than expecting others to do the soothing for you. It acknowledges and accepts the inability of one’s parents to have adequately provided the emotional nurturing one needed as a child, while also acknowledging that we carry within us the resources to be emotionally self-sufficient and to heal ourselves. It is potentially a very powerful process. Once familiar with this concept, the person can then consciously bring that inner-parent (who is inherently loving, caring and wise) to mind at times of need and crisis, in order to be able to provide solace, comfort and healing to the inner child self. Seen in the light of these other concepts then, self-partnering seems to me a natural extension of these more-widely accepted notions. It is one more way to rely upon and provide support to the self in a healthy, conscious and independent way. The next time you want to, say, go to the movies or eat out somewhere nice, but deny yourself the chance because you don’t have a partner (or even a friend) to go with, try going alone. The freedom and decadence of treating yourself to an activity you enjoy by yourself is a wonderful and self-affirming thing indeed.
Self-partnering is an especially powerful concept for people who have grown up with or experienced abuse in their lives. As a child of a narcissistic parent, my sense of self was subsumed to that of my abusive parent, and I grew up learning to serve others at the expense of myself due to this childhood conditioning. This serving of others and focusing on their needs is a defence and psychological survival mechanism when growing up in an abusive home environment. If one has to put the demands of a needy abusive parent first in order to get through the day and stave off further abuse, one will do so. There is nothing quite like constant criticism and being berated endlessly to instil in a child a sense of worthlessness. As a child I was only valued for what I achieved (good marks at school, displaying my talents appropriately) and for how I looked (adhering to Western feminine beauty ideals). Neither of my parents ascribed much value to who I was as a human being. All of this culminated in the development of a “self” driven solely by the needs of others. It also fostered the need for the approval of others, and the need to protect and nurture others, completely at the expense of my own self.
There also exists, in people like me, the sense of a vast and gaping void from a lack of adequate parental love, and the lack of a self-driven sense of personhood. This in turn predisposes us towards unhealthy and codependent relationships; people who have been subjected to this kind of abuse often seek out partners and lovers to fill that void. Sadly much of the time, unless the appropriate self-work has been done and early trauma has been healed, this will result in partnering with unhealthy or abusive partners (who share many similar traits to the deficient parent), who are willing to couple up quickly and intensely without appropriate boundaries or respect, thus perpetuating and further compounding the problem.
Due to my upbringing, I have been predisposed to unconsciously seek out relationships with all kinds of unhealthy and abusive people, and to put their needs first. It is a painful process that has led to codependency and abuse, including psychological, verbal and sexual abuse. I am three months out of a relationship with (my latest) narcissistic abuser. Needless to say, this relationship re-triggered the narcissistic abuse of my childhood, and led to me adopting a very unhealthy role within the relationship: one of carer and caretaker in which my needs were neither respected, nor met. It was a sort of concentrated, extreme version of my childhood experience, with sex and layers of covert and overt psychological manipulation and verbal abuse thrown into the mix. My self was almost completely subsumed in the relationship and it took considerable strength to educate myself and to get out. Since then, I’ve engaged in a kind of intensive self-study, including researching abusive relationship dynamics and revisiting my past. I am fully aware that if I don’t confront and heal my childhood trauma, and subsequent trauma from abusive relationships, I will not be able to enter a relationship with someone else in a healthy way.
After this relationship ended I explored different ways of relating to men: dating only, purely physical relationships, and non-monogamy. I thought that if I approached things differently, I would be protected from being hurt. But the trauma of past abuse kept being triggered. Given the intensive self-work I’m undertaking and the difficulties being in a relationship create for me right now, Watson’s declaration of being “self-partnered” resonates strongly with me. It is a label I’m willing to adopt and one that makes me feel valid, not only in society, but in myself. I feel empowered making a conscious commitment to self and saying this is enough. I define myself not through lack or by absence but through strength and wholeness.
Identifying as self-partnered is a radical, feminist act in a world that still values women predominantly for how they relate to others, as mothers, wives, lovers, friends and carers. Women are encouraged strongly to strive towards these roles and to be nurturing and empathic towards others. We are told it is in our nature to be this way, to be other-focused. We are told that self-sacrifice is virtuous and that being selfless is (somewhat perversely) character-building. Many women have these qualities in abundance, no doubt due to social conditioning, but what do we do with all that love and nurturance when we need it ourselves, and why do we (as women) find it so hard to direct it inwards when we need it most? Do men more naturally self-partner? Do men do self-love better? It is more socially accepted for men to have a sense of self and identity that exists beyond others and taking care of them. I can’t answer these questions for men, but it is something to ponder. What I do know is that we cannot strive for full gender equality without considering and shaking up the small-scale, internal and interpersonal dynamics that are still at play and which are drummed into us daily, from childhood onwards.
Because of the stage I am at personally, and because of all I have detailed above, I would like to declare that I am now consciously self-partnered. Please leave your gifts on the assigned table and don’t throw confetti or they’ll charge me a clean-up fee.
What being self-partnered will mean for me going forwards:
- I will check in with myself before making both minor and major decisions that relate to sex, friendships and relationships. Is this in my best interests? Do I really want this? Or, am I putting someone else or their interests first? Is putting someone else first appropriate in this situation (sometimes, of course, it can be), or am I being self-sacrificing when it is ok to say no?
- I can find emotional nourishment, soothing and validation within myself, not from others.
- I trust myself to make the best decisions for me.
- I can take time out to heal past trauma and move ahead in the best possible way for me when ready.
- I can go out alone and do the things I want to do without being self-conscious or feeling needy or lonely or silly.
- I put myself and my needs first. For a survivor of abuse and as a woman, this is an incredibly empowering position to take, and one that can only lead to the betterment of my life, as well as help create authentic and healthy relationships with others.
I hope this personal examination of what it means to me to be consciously self-partnered has been interesting to others and I hope it encourages thought and discussion. I’m curious to know what you think of the term “self-partnered” and if you can relate to it at all. I welcome your comments below.