How to Have a Good Relationship — With Yourself

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Photo: Mondadori/Getty Images

 Valentine's Day is fun, but this week the Cut is celebrating self-love: We're indulging our all whims, desires, and worst impulses. Join us for five days of ME ME ME ME ME.

Last month, Yasmin Eleby got married. It was a classic big wedding: She rented a large event space. She had ten bridesmaids. Her sister, a minister, officiated the nondenominational ceremony. But Eleby’s wedding was covered by the media worldwide because one thing was missing: a partner. “Once she hit 40 she figured if she didn’t find someone who loved her as much as she did, she would marry herself,” said the CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, where Eleby held her wedding. He added, “She’s now indicated to others that she has high standards.”

There’s a short, strange history of single women marrying themselves, an over-the-top act that’s been met with plenty of skepticism. Although it’s tempting to write it off as a tulle-draped stunt, there’s something meaningful in the underlying idea of committing to yourself. If marriage, ideally, is a lifelong pledge to remain in a deep and fulfilling relationship, why not make this vow to ourselves? Self-love and self-acceptance for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you shall live?

It’s become conventional wisdom that we're all supposed to love ourselves, no matter what our relationship status. I was not raised in a Free to Be You and Me household, but I got the message very early on that self-acceptance was a good idea. And I’ve taken to heart the most-Instagrammed Kierkegaard quote of all time: “Above all do not forget your duty to love yourself.” Yet once we reach adulthood, these aphorisms are almost exclusively directed to single people — single women, in particular. Too often, self-love is presented as a way station on the road to romantic love. The self, and our desire to commit to it, apparently disappears once another person is in the picture. Even RuPaul’s self-esteem rallying cry is framed in terms of relationships with other people: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

All long-term relationships require work — that’s why some people find a therapist or life coach or 12-step program. But what about those of us who don’t have a therapist or a guru and want a little practical advice? The search for concrete tips on self-love quickly yields lists of advice about dating yourself, which, again, is mostly about passing time between relationships with other people. Take yourself to a restaurant and order anything you want! Buy yourself something nice! Or just stay in and lounge around! This all sounds great to me. Yet I wonder if it isn’t simply self-care, which Kara Haupt defined as “the attitude that I deserve to take time to feel good.” It seems like such actions are definitely part of having a relationship with yourself, but that can’t be the whole picture.

“I think this stuff falls under the rubric of ‘self-care,’ but it is most definitely work,” says Michelle Tea, author of a new memoir called How to Grow Up. “Self-care that is less stressful is like getting a massage or a mani-pedi. But you can't get by on treats; most of us do have to do a decent amount of heavy lifting to undo all the bad bullshit of our formative years (or our 20s ... or 30s  ...), so spa trips should be augmented with, like, therapy.”

Tea says she regularly sets intentions — like creative goals, or things in her life she wants to focus on. A lot of relationship counselors say shared goal-setting is important for couples, so it makes sense that this would be good for yourself, too. I’ve had many friends swear by The Artist’s Way, a book that outlines a week-by-week plan for getting in touch with your creative impulses and spending more structured time with yourself.

Then there’s your sex life. So much advice to couples is about how to maintain a sexual spark, years deep into a relationship. But what about your self-love life? “It’s not a priority for a lot of people,” says Myisha Battle, a self-described “sexademic” who hosts a sex- and relationship-advice podcast called "Down for Whatever." I know so many couples who schedule sex, so I ask her how often people should be having sex with themselves.

“It’s never enough!” she says, laughing. “I think we could all go for more doses of oxytocin, those wonderful stress-reducing hormones that get released when you have an orgasm.” She says many people find a good routine in masturbating before they fall asleep. But the most important thing, she says, is “to not deny yourself when you feel you want to masturbate, period. To be prepared for those moments.” That means having sex toys you like, and not being afraid to search for porn if that’s something that turns you on. And sometimes, maybe you should make yourself do it even if you don’t feel the urge. “If you’re feeling like life is just getting away from you and you’re too stressed, smack one out,” she says.

Of course, this is a lot easier for many people when they aren’t sharing a bed. If you want your relationship with yourself to truly transcend your relationship status, Battle recommends keeping up your self-love routine even when you’re coupled up: “I’ve talked to a lot of people who really lament the time they’ve lost with themselves when they transition into a partnered relationship.”

She’s talking about sex, but that statement could apply to so many things. Contrary to much of the advice peppering the internet, it’s being in a relationship with someone else — not being single — that poses the biggest challenge to self-love. When you’re happily spending lots of your time with another person, it’s easy to forget that you should also be spending time with yourself. Alone. And not just treating yourself, but really thinking about who you are and what you want. Each of the women who have made headlines by marrying themselves has indicated that they're still open to meeting a partner. I hope that, if they do, they hold fast to their original vows to themselves. They deserve it.