In the Shadow of Joy

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Despite having a beautiful life, I am intimately acquainted with the Green-Eyed Monster. Jealousy is a pretty odious bedfellow, but for many of us, a well-known, if unfortunate, companion.

I got engaged when I was 27, which for my group of close friends was young. I was engaged to an incredible man I’d dated for most of my twenties, and so when doubt about marrying crept (and then flooded) in, I was confused and dismayed. Calling off our engagement shattered my world and my self-concept. In the aftermath, I constantly berated myself for calling things off, and hoped he would take me back despite the huge damage I’d done.

Slowly, over the course of several years, as the realization dawned that the damage was too deep, and as my own capacity to actually trust the confusing part of me who could not commit to marriage with my first love grew, I opened up to the possibility of falling in love again.

In the meantime, my friends who met their great loves around the time I was exploding my life, started to announce their engagements. The incredible friends who held my broken, sobbing self, together when I imploded were getting married.

These friends I’m talking about are people I love fiercely and without end. I want them to lead the happiest, fullest, most joyful lives. And yet, each of their weddings brought me to tears. And I’m not talking about the tears of joy as they came down the aisle (though those happened too). I’m talking about the less socially acceptable, snot-nosed guttural sobs in the quiet of my bedroom. In part it was an intense jealousy: “they have what I want (and to add insult to injury, what I gave up when it was so close at hand).” And in part it was an intense fear: “their lives are moving on… will there still be room for me?”

 It doesn’t feel good to be anything but happy for the people you love when they are in a moment of great happiness in their life. In fact, it feels wretched. But I’ve realized berating myself over my jealousy doesn’t make it go away, and certainly doesn’t make me feel any better.

I spent much of the half decade following my broken engagement single. During my single years, my friends were my everything. My fellow single friends (who wanted to be coupled) held a particularly special place in my life, as they knew with intimacy the way a simple pronoun like “we” could cut straight to the core on a bad day. With each passing year it felt more and more like my coupled friends and I were living on different planets. And in some tangible ways we were. And that is not to say the bonds of friendship disappeared or that we loved each other any less—our friendships remained intact even while the distance between our daily realities grew.

Part of the reason I think support groups are so powerful is that they gather people who have a shared experience, who relate palpably to each other’s unique flavor of sadness. My single friends were my defacto support group. We related with each other in that we’ve each passed through the halls of jealousy around our loved one’s wedding announcements. And we’ve each been slighted by our loved ones for being single in overt and covert ways, that we knew were not intentional, but hurt nonetheless.

There are a million buttons you could push that might cause another person pain. News of a new job shared with someone who is feeling trapped in their current job. A baby announcement to someone struggling with fertility. A description of a vacation or a dinner out to a person who is scraping by financially. A statement of being happy to someone who is in the throws of depression. And on and on. We can never fully anticipate all the ways in which we might push someone’s buttons, and some are impossible to avoid even if you are well aware of your loved one’s sensitive buttons. Some pain is just a reality of life.

So it feels nothing short of a miracle when a close friend who happens to know the constellation of your sore spots, is able to navigate them with kindness, especially when their happiness and your sadness are diametrically opposed. Many of my friends have walked this tightrope with incredible skill and grace, and I am enormously grateful to them for this kindness.

In recent months, my life, has very happily shifted towards partnership, and I feel like I am in the liminal zone between the world where “we” felt a million miles away, and the world where it tumbles, without thought, off my lips.

No matter what happens in the future, I don’t want to forget what it is like to be in a place where I was yearning for something that felt essential to my happiness and yet totally elusive and out of my control. If my life does move in the direction of marriage, I hope that I can say to friends I might invite to a wedding, please know that you don’t have to come if this is financially, logistically, or emotionally fraught for you. Not because they’d necessarily heed this, because we often go out on limbs for people we love, but because it makes such a difference to simply acknowledge that joy can cast a long shadow.

Valentine’s Day, in particular, with its myopic focus on romantic love, is tailor made to cast a long shadow on those single people who want to be coupled. (And of course, not every single person falls into the category of wanting a partner, but many do.) There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating romantic love if that kind of love is available to you today, but there is real grace in pausing to acknowledge that romantic love is not a universal commodity and that there are people for whom February 14 is a day to endure, not a day to celebrate. We cannot always be in sync with the people we love. Our seasons of joy and despair will not always align. It seems to me that the hard and essential work, is remembering that joy and despair are two sides of the same coin, no matter which side you find yourself on, in this exact moment. And in this remembering to be kind, to yourself and to others.