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No Woman Is an Island: Rethinking Autonomy in Relationships

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This post is part of the "Modern Male Brains & the Young, Powerful Women Who Love Them" series compiled by Dr. Louann Brizendine, neuroscientist and author of the recent book, The Male Brain. The series explores how the next generation of women relates to love while balancing complex, stressful lives.

I don't know who to blame: all those damn fairy tales for trying to sell me that "happily ever after" nonsense or the piles of Cosmo I read too much of when I was in junior high. The latter simultaneously daunted and inflated my fist-raising future ego with headlines like "A More Perfect You" or "Be The Woman Of His Dreams," reinforcing how important it was to maintain one's upper hand in both the workplace (career women wear form-fitting skirt suits and power stilettos, they also get the job they want and loooove it!) and the bedroom (do Kegel exercises daily, shake it up with whipped cream and role play, get on top, demand multiple orgasms). It made it all seem very simple once the training bra stage was over: Be fierce, figure out what a G-spot is, become the object of someone's deepest desires, hear love declared, end scene. Happily ever after.

The fascinating thing about both the fairy tales and magazine fluff (aside from a collective emphasis on heels and an improbably small waistline) is that they always make the partner seem incidental. As if a woman just fashions herself into a fabulous prize and that alone creates a fail-safe for relationships: Lady gets her shit together, some bloke with six-pack abs and a sensitive side is gobsmacked by her amazingness and in turn worships her eternally. She can do no wrong and he should be so lucky. Really, it doesn't matter who he is as long as he worships her. And as long as he's a prince... with a kingdom... and maybe an Audi or something.

It's like the NYT book review that made Carrie Bradshaw cringe during Sex and the City's fifth season: The ladies rule and the men are disposable.

But no one ever gets to the straight dope about the relationship part. Even up until a few years ago, when I clocked in something like 15 back-to-back engagement party/housewarming party/bridal shower/baby announcement/wedding/see-the-new-baby fiestas in just a handful of weeks, I was convinced that there was some ease and finality in finding "The One." Mind you, I'm not really one of those people who was ever really in a hurry to find the elusive One, but I did assume that person existed and once you locked and loaded with that person, there was a profound certainty that came with it: No. More. Thinking. Or. Wondering. We. Are. One. We. Will. Share. A. Bank. Account. We. Will. Spend. Our. Lives. Together. On. The. Same. Tax. Form. On. The. Same. Mortgage. We. Will. Ruin. The. Same. Kid's. Life. We. Will. Agree. On. A. Couch. Forever. Forever. Forever.

I wish I had learned a long time ago that relationships are not simple. They are also not static or certain, or defined by the basic juxtaposition of two individuals. It's not just about what you bring to the table. It's the table.

Relationships aren't a lock. Instead, they're a curious evolution, a live animal, a partnership. You feed it and it feeds you back. The fascinating thing about a good relationship is that it's work. It's not work to love the other person, it's work to show it. It's work to check yourself and your ego before you wreck, well, everything. It's work to unload your baggage. It's work to realize that at home you don't have to perform and win the way you might in your career; you're simply somebody's teammate and buddy -- your job is to help the team win. It's work to see when your buddy needs your help, when they're in pain, when they need attention. It's work to acknowledge that it's not all about you.

Real power, to me, is the ability to give more than you require. And it doesn't matter how saucy and sassy you are out in the world if you can't get real when nobody's watching, or grow and learn from a partner. Frankly, it's easy to stamp your foot and say, "This is who I AM! If somebody wants in on this they just need to DEAL with it!" That's not powerful; it's stubborn, lazy, self-centered. And probably lonely.

I live with someone that I want to spend the rest of my life with. He does not blindly worship me, and I don't in return. We simply love each other. We're friends with each other. We hold hands through the easy-breezy days and hug through the rough ones. We talk through the fights. We let go of grudges. We keep each other safe. We listen, we talk. We check in every day. We take care of each other so that we can take on another day in this insane, confusing world. We don't stop being individuals to be an "us," but we take care of the "us" and in turn, become stronger and better individuals.

What they don't tell you in fairy tales is that the relationship is the best part. It's a shame how often they leave that part out of the story.

Also in today's series: Caroline Heldman and Elizabeth Blackney.