The Dating "Mistake" That Isn't Actually A Problem

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
It's the plot that launched countless rom-coms: A person in a happy relationship feels like they need to be single in order to "find themselves." So they end things with their partner, hijinks ensue, and 90 minutes later, they're back in a relationship — either with their original partner or someone they met along the way. The idea that a person needs to be single in order to go through some deep, meaningful personal transformation is pervasive. But is it actually true? Should you ditch your S.O. if you're having a crisis of self?
"I used to think that, to find yourself, you really needed to be single," says Juliet Allen, a sexologist based in Australia. "But what I've realized is that relationships are where a lot of growth actually happens as an individual, because our partner acts as a mirror of ourselves, in a way."
According to Allen, partners can sometimes show a person exactly where their areas of growth are — that person just needs to realize how they're going to grow. "A lot of the time, we project our own insecurities onto our partner," she says. Jealousy is an example of this kind of projection, and can mean that a person fears that their parter will leave them — or that they themselves may cheat on their partner. If a person is able to recognize these projections, then Allen says that a relationship dynamic is perfect for their growth. "This is especially true if your problems are relationship-based," she says. "It's hard to work on your relationship issues if you aren't in a relationship."
In fact, being in the right kind of relationship can and should encourage you to grow — both as an individual and as a partner. "The happiest relationships are those where we're not only afforded opportunities to grow, and change, and discover, but [we're] supported in doing so," says Jessica O’Reilly, PhD, sexologist and creator of the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast. "Surrounding yourself with happy, balanced relationships at all ages is of paramount importance." And these relationships don't just have to be romantic. "Even a best friend can hold you back or propel you forward, the same way a partner can," Dr. O'Reilly says.
If you're still feeling the itch to discover yourself solo, you may be projecting in a different way. "There's a problem in our culture where we can't just assert our desire to be single without explanation," Dr. O'Reilly says. "So part of the desire to be single in order to supposedly 'find yourself' is really just a desire to be single in some cases." And there doesn't have to be some major issue within the relationship that's making a person feel this way. Some folks may just not feel right within an otherwise happy partnership — and that's totally okay, too.
So, no, there's no need to sabotage a fulfilling relationship if neither partner feels the need to be alone. "We're growing personally, sexually, intellectually, and spiritually from the moment we're born to the moment we pass," Dr. O'Reilly says. Plenty of people will do that growing on their own. But if you're with a partner who makes you happy and pushes you to be your most fabulous self, then that's a relationship worth hanging onto — no matter what the rom-coms say.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series