The first time my boyfriend and I talked about the definition of love, we were in a New York City apartment. The summer was humid and scented with moss, and in a crowded kitchen, we talked about what love means — argued about it, really. We quickly realized this word required a definition neither of us could grasp — a concept simultaneously as expansive as the city awake around us, yet as narrow as the mortar between brick walls.
We haven’t talked about that definition in a while, but I hear it discussed all the time around me, in cafés, in classrooms, in libraries. And as Valentine’s Day comes around, there emerges a widening rift between those who are lonely and those who are not, those who are cuffed and those who are eating ice cream alone in their bed, those who are happy and those who are heartbroken.
But if being in a relationship has taught me anything, it’s that most of these distinctions are fallacies: The existence of a significant other runs on a line completely separate from the scale of our happiness. I’ve learned someone can enter your life and fill up space — they can shave away the lonely hours of the day, can fill up a square foot or two of your empty room, can occupy the chair across the dining table — but they can almost never be a substitute for what was already missing.
I used to think if I found a significant other, I would be a happier person. In the plainest, purest sense, happier. I thought if I just stabilized that part of my life, I would finally feel balanced in an enormous uncertainty in my life. We all wonder if that crush will text back, if we’ll leave a party with someone, if we’ll be “forever alone.” I did too. It seemed if this one constant uncertainty was finally settled, I would have much less to worry about. A significant other meant reliability — a constant reminder someone cares about you, a surefire way of remembering we are cherished and valued.
But being in a relationship did not rid me of all of my problems. Not even a fraction of them, actually. It might be a naive concept — of course, we can’t expect one person to fix everything — but I find not nearly enough people know this, or truly believe this. That includes even people in relationships, confused why they are not fully happy. We still persist, ruthlessly, in search for some way to mend ourselves through someone else.
My boyfriend has made several appearances in my columns this year, and contrary to the one or two sentences he occupies, his role in my life is not insignificant. Falling in love with him was exactly the kind of experience most people describe — uplifting, enriching, wholly encompassing. How could I ask for anything more, if I had the person I loved by my side?
But two nights ago, I opened my back window and thought of jumping the long way down to the snow. The lingering sensation — defeat, hopelessness, solitude — had never changed. Looking out the dirty glass panels, the Ithaca snow drowning the grass white, I came to the realization: Yes, it is still possible to feel lonely even when you have a significant other. It is still possible to feel as if you are a pinpoint in a world that is incomprehensibly wide, even when someone you love is next to you. And even when someone stable is by your side, it is possible to be utterly in fear of the future.
As much as I cherish my relationship, I’ve come to realize everything we believe about fixing unhappiness is more or less untrue. My boyfriend cannot heal me. He is, simply put, another person who has entered my life. Beautiful and sensational, but only a person. He moves my life with full force, but that’s the point. He moves it, and no more. My narratives belong wholly to me at the end of the day — how they play out, devolve, escalate are up to me. The loneliness will persist, unless I learn how to fix it for myself.
I like to picture that finding someone you love is simply the encounter of two oscillating streaks of life with one another — passing, fleeting and still moving on their own terms. It is a blip of time when two people meet on a path. And as much as life can be illuminated by this new person, they are just like anyone else whose path we cross. They are a person who cannot substitute what was void in our own lives. They will not be the answer to those questions that keep us awake at night. If it is “better to have loved and lost than to never have never loved at all,” then it is best to have loved yourself.
To my boyfriend, I am grateful to you for allowing me to tell our story in bits and pieces over the weeks, and to tell this one. Hopefully, we can reach someone who is feeling lonely during this season I hope they know we are not an ideal, not the dream to chase after, nor are any of the other couples on campus. We may represent some sort of ideal, some stroke of luck, some whatever-the-stories-say starstruck lovers, but we are not the answer to achieving, in the complete sense, happiness. We are far from that. We are just two individuals struggling to chart our path through the expanse that is the world, side by side.
Kelly Song is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Songbird Sings runs every other Thursday this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org