Fences: On Losing Yourself in Relationships

fullsizerender“That was my first mistake. Not to make him leave some room for me…I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine. I did that. I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn’t hardly tell which was which anymore.” – Rose from Fences by August Wilson

While watching Fences, a play written by August Wilson adapted for film and directed by Denzel Washington, I was struck by Rose (played by Viola Davis); her commitment to doing the right thing and the stability that she provided for her family. Rose’s sacrifices on behalf of her family are characteristic of the sacrifices that so many Black women make. Putting aside our desires and ourselves to such an extent that it’s hard to find either after a while. Hiding our wants so well that even our loved ones can’t tell that we’ve lost touch with the things that used to excite and energize us. In the quote above, Rose reflects on the fact that she married a man who took up all of the room in their house, all of the room in their lives, and that she lost herself in their relationship. She failed to make room for herself.

Failing to make room for ourselves in relationships is something that happens to many women. We are socialized to prioritize relationships, to prioritize the well being of our romantic partners. This is particularly true for heterosexual relationships that adhere to patriarchal values. As Black women we are often asked to put aside our strengths and defer our dreams in order to support our romantic partners. It is communicated to us through family members, friends, and church communities that we should prioritize our relationship, that we should support our man, that him and his needs should be put first. That achieving the goal of marriage should be enough to sustain and fulfill us.  We are shown models of “good women” who don’t have needs of their own, who spend all of their time and energy catering to the men and children in their lives. We hear the harsh critiques of women who dare to put themselves first.

I have fallen into the same trap as Rose before. I have gotten so caught up in worrying about whether or not a boyfriend liked and wanted to be with me that I didn’t make sure there was enough room for me in the relationship. I ended up deferring to what my boyfriends wanted to do, what their preferences were. I toned down my quirkiness for fear of their judgement. I edited my strong opinions to be more palatable. Thankfully, those relationships didn’t work out and I have since learned to hold on to myself and make sure there is room for me in my romantic relationships. Whether you are single and looking to begin a relationship or in a long-term relationship, this post provides recommendations for ways to make sure there is room for you in your relationship.

Be clear about your likes and dislikes

It is so easy to start “liking” something because your partner does. While it can be helpful to have spaces where you compromise on how you spend your time having fun and relaxing, it is important to know what you would prefer to do or not do if the decision were solely up to you. I encourage you to spend some time identifying the things that you most like to do as well as things that you don’t enjoy. Knowing this will help you to make time and space to do the things you enjoy while you are in a relationship. If you have been in a relationship for a while and have lost touch with the things you enjoy (this can be especially common for women with children), I encourage you to create space for yourself in your week. Use your personal time to do whatever you feel like doing. This will help you to determine if you’d prefer to sit at home alone reading a book, eat a delicious meal, spend time with friends, play music, exercise, do something artistic etc.

Make time for yourself 

One notable thing about Fences is that there was only one scene where we saw Rose doing anything for herself; she was at church being prayed over by deaconesses. In all of the other scenes Rose was either cooking for a family member, cleaning, or heading to church to help with a bake sale.  It seemed clear that Rose did not prioritize herself. Between busy schedules and being socialized to believe that putting ourselves first is selfish, it is easy for women to fail to make time for ourselves. I think this is particularly true for mothers. It is important for us to let go of the unhealthy belief that making time for ourselves is a bad thing. If we look at expectations for men, we can see that no one judges men for spending Sunday afternoons on the couch watching football; that is seen as acceptable and it is normative for female partners to support their male partner’s desires to have a day to relax. However, women rarely get similar time and feel guilty when they do take it. I encourage you to push through any guilt you have and carve out time for yourself in your life. I encourage you to aside an hour a week when you are not responsible to anyone except yourself. During that time you can do whatever you would like as suggested above.

Identify and express your opinions 

While not every opinion we have needs to be shared with our partners, it is important to identify the strong opinions that you do have on things and to express them when appropriate. Some partners will communicate in implicit and explicit ways that they don’t want to hear our opinions and their negative responses can cause us to keep silent. It is important to create room for yourself and your opinions in your relationship. If you are concerned about your partner’s responses to your opinions, talk to them about wanting to have the space to share your thoughts and ideas. It is best to do this outside of the context of an argument.

It can be easy to fall into the habit to squeezing into the leftover room in our relationships. If we’re not intentional we could wake up one day like Rose finding that we’ve lost little pieces of ourselves along the way. I encourage you to intentionally create room for yourself in your relationship and to make sure that you can be your whole self with the people you love.


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