Losing Agency In Romantic Relationships Or: The Subconscious Is A Mother****

The Muse Letter No. 75

I have stopped wanting things.

For a while now I’ve been feeling a certain sense of lack. It happened before as well this occasional feeling of not wanting much just floating through time enjoying what is there but now that I am sharing a space with my partner it is constant. And it’s starting to feel like a problem. A lack of agency. The fact that I have stopped wanting things for myself.

It’s not that I don’t want to be alone sometimes or that I don’t go out with friends or do stuff. Or can’t live without my partner. This is not necessarily about being too dependent. But there’s something happening when I hear the words: I want to do this thing for my work/self. That gives me a ping. Like a finger pressing on a bruise. It hurts a little. Because: I don’t. I don’t feel the need to want anything right now. Or I think I don’t.

And the difficult thing is that: A part of me has no problem with this. Well I am happy now! it says. I don’t need more than this, this person, this relationship and whatever else I want to do on the fringes, on the liminal space that I redeem as acceptable. The place where I want things. It’s enough. It’s good not to want too many things. Zen. Like Buddha.

Something inside of me decided that wanting things for myself should be kept at bay. And I wonder why?

I stand in the bookshop at the Fruitmarket Gallery a book in my hand called “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person” based on the 2016 viral opinion piece by Alan de Botton. Now I’m not that into marriage in general but somehow I am drawn to the book, because marriage as a metaphor I get that. The concept of: ending up with that one person. I do wish for it, too.

So I am intrigued by the proposition: That in some way you are inevitable going to end up with the wrong person because and that is the twist: We are all wrong. In some way everyone is a bit or very much wrong. And to accept that is the key to actually have a relationship, to know what kind of wrong you are and to know what kind of wrong the other is e.g. asking: What kind of horrible madness is yours?

I can feel it slowly settling in. A memory emerging from the past.

When I was 14 I decided I wanted to spend a high school year abroad. I was determined, researched all the different organisations, scholarships and prepared everything. It was the first time I had a big own agenda. My parents didn’t like it. My friends were kind of bewildered. But nothing could have stopped me. Except of course money. So I worked on getting a full scholarship. For two years I worked on my grades, started volunteering, directed a play at my school… If you’ve seen the movie Election and remember the ambitious Tracy Flick campaigning for high school president: It was that level of ambition. (Except obviously: the lying)

So genuinely I would say: I am very driven. Or I was. Or I am when I’m not in a relationship.

I had a huge sense of agency when I was young. I wanted so many things. And most of them I pursued. I didn’t let anyone stop me. So when I left to go to Thailand, I also left my then boyfriend behind, trusting that we would endure and come out on the other side, matured, stronger and happier. That somehow he would find things that he is passionate about, find his ambition, his agency, too.

I don’t want to get too much into this, I wrote about that time in Thailand and my first heartbreak in Things I Have Noticed but what I didn’t write about, what I didn’t exactly put into words because I didn’t realise it until just now is this: He eventually cheated on me and as a consequence I broke up with him. And somehow subconsciously what I took from it was: that having agency is bad. That I shouldn’t have gone to Thailand. Should have stayed home. Be a little less. Because wanting so much: It ultimately leaves you ending up alone.

This feeling that especially women seem to often have: don’t outshine your partner. Better not to want too many things, better not shine too bright or have too much fun. Don’t be complicated, take the backseat in your career, be homely.

Consciously I would say to that: Wtf? Srsly? But the subconscious is a motherfucker. And a slow learner and that person who never listens but always has a perfect way to attack you.

“I’ve been living in that state of apathy for the first ten months of my relationship.” A friend tells me over coffee. “It’s getting better now.” She adds. –"He always just wants to watch TV in the evening and I could do literally anything else, anything that I would usually do when I’m alone, like studying or reading. And I still sit there with him on the couch, I don’t even care about the show but I just feel like I have to be there. Even though I totally don’t. I know that he wouldn’t mind. What is that?” Another friend tells me over dinner.

“Agency begins with what you let into your mind—meaning what comes in from your environment. If you are lacking agency, it’s likely your attention is being hijacked and you need to figure out how to restore it.”( from “How to Develop Your Sense of Agency”)

Maybe this is all the pandemic? Our sense of insecurity? Constantly hijacking our attention? Or it’s our attachment style: Am I anxious or avoidant or both?

Is it the partriarchy? Is it me or you? How much am I projecting? All the time apparently according to the internet and so what is the other person doing? What are they bringing to the table?

This constant web of feelings in time meeting and repeating patterns.

What to trust, how to really say why you feel the way you feel? And why you do things, why you stay and hug and kiss even though you know you should take some time for yourself. A moment to recalibrate.

“People with low agency experience common impediments when trying to make sound decisions. They may procrastinate, obsess over details, or worry excessively during the process; they may lack confidence and be risk-averse; or their thinking may be too fast and they act on impulse.”( from “How to Develop Your Sense of Agency”)

I used to wake up our foster twin babies after school. I was not allowed to do it. They had to have their midday naps. But as an 8 year old and too excited to see them and play with them I would sneak into my parents bedroom making slight noises and when they woke up or were about to I would yell downstairs to my Mum: “They are already awake. Can I bring them down?” I knew it wasn’t best practice to wake them up early. But I just couldn’t contain myself. They were so cute.

So I might have some boundary issues as well.

In Bird by Bird Anne Lamot talks about the shitty first draft we all write when emotions work in us. Producing a narrative, any narrative that is at hand to explain the world to us. Usually the shitty first draft is flat, easy to understand, too easy and probably has some serious holes and lacking research.

I’m thinking of Life of Pi now. And the point of the book being that proof of God’s existence is the fact that you can go through traumatic events and come out the other side through the power of story (roughly). The story, the narrative you give your life, hopefully a good one, you can believe in. That there somehow is something greater than us. Which rings true. Research also shows that the human mind is wired for story. It loves a good narrative. The problem with that is that stories that we easily retain are linear, one cause one action.

As a writer I know that angle is everything. As a writer I also know that a story can be convincing but not necessarily true. And I also know that there’s always another story to tell, another layer to dive into. Something I am completely missing right now or leaving out, something that I am avoiding, that I do not have the words, the story for yet.

What I am trying to do now is something that my brain doesn’t like. No brain really does. I will let all of these stories, all of the reasons why you can lose agency be true at the same time.

Pandemic, depression, fear of abandonment, boundary issues, anxious attachment, low-self esteem, the patriarchy, trauma : ALL OF IT.

And I want to hold them in my hands, ten fingers here to grab.

And I will leave them open.

For more.


Set a boundary and do something for yourself. Just try.


"I'd like the one with the non-existential dread, please."

My book: "Things I Have Noticed - Essays on leaving / searching / finding” is a poetic memoir, about the process of finding ones own voice. 

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“The other day I had a nightmare. Again. A very familiar one. I have it 2-3 times a year maybe, maybe less. It’s hard to tell with dreams. I used to write them down in a dream diary to reflect upon later. To make sense out of them. The only true thing I can say about this one is: It’s always the same theme. And it always has to do with my math teacher.”

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