• Erin Caitlin Sweeney

Why Do We Stay?

Why do we stay when we can be free? It’s something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. I have more freedom than any woman in my maternal lineage has had for thousands of years and yet a year ago I was ready choose entrapment over freedom. I was ready to marry a man who I knew in my heart wasn’t right for me. Choosing to clip my wings instead of exploring how high I could fly on my own. I was willing to sacrifice my freedom for safety.

Choice. It’s not something women have always had. For thousands of years marrying was not an option but a requirement. It was necessary for basic survival. Women couldn’t own property in the U.S. until 1900. Until 1974, single, widowed, or divorced women couldn’t apply for credit through a bank without a man co-signing for them. Hell, we couldn’t vote until 1920. This whole choice thing is pretty new. Even in the 21st century it doesn’t always feel like a choice, right? We are surrounded by heteronormative images of marriage from birth. It is assumed that we will all get married and yet women are disproportionately pressured to do so. Often our perceived worth is hinged on coupledom. We get into our 20s and suddenly all of our friends are getting married and having children. God forbid you’re 30 and single (and a woman).

I was 22 when I met my ex fiancé. My married friends asked if he was “the one.” I said yes. I thought he was. I had never felt a love like I felt with him. Everything changed when I met him. He and our relationship set me on a completely different trajectory than the one I had been on. After 2 years of dating we moved from New York to Kentucky so he could open a bar in his hometown. After living there for 2 years we moved to San Francisco so I could attend graduate school.

We had been together for 5 1/2 years when he proposed. I was 28 and he was 34. We loved each other. It seemed like the right thing to do. He got down on one knee in my favorite place in Manhattan and offered me my grandmother’s ring. I responded with at least 10 ‘fucks’ with a yes sprinkled in there. If you know me, this is not completely out of character but I still wondered if there was a deeper meaning, a voice inside crying ‘fuck no, stop!’ to which I wasn’t listening.

He first told me he was having second thoughts about marriage 4 months after he proposed. It was like getting the wind knocked out of me. The ground I stood on suddenly beginning to crumble. I held on for dear life. We talked about it constantly, he started going to therapy. He told me it wasn’t me but marriage itself. I told myself the proposal triggered unresolved trauma for him. I had unwavering faith in us. I believed this was a challenge that was going to make us stronger.

There was another part of me though, one I wasn’t willing to see. I started having severe stomach pain that lasted for weeks. I have my Masters degree in Integrative Health. I understand that emotional pain often manifests as physical pain but I refused to listen to what my pain had to tell me. I started every journal entry that summer with “I am so angry” or “I am so sad.” I was miserable. I was beaten down. I was engaged to a man that didn’t want to get married and I stayed.

So why did I stay? Why didn’t I listen? Why couldn’t I see what was in front of me? I didn’t trust myself. I thought it was my fault. I wasn’t willing to listen to the voice within that was screaming ‘get out!’ because I thought it was my trauma talking. For much of our relationship I feared that my trauma, my awful relationship with my father, was going to break us up. I thought ‘get out’ was self-protection. Always thinking my trauma was going to prevent me from happiness, from love.

I stayed because I had become accustomed to a certain level of sadness in my life. I stayed because he was a good guy, a nice guy and I didn’t believe I deserved better. I stayed because I envisioned (and held onto) the person he could be rather than accepting the person he was. I stayed because I believed the narrative that had been told to me all my life: love wins. If you love each other, it will all work out. I stayed because he was my best friend and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I stayed because I didn’t want to be alone. I stayed because I wanted to feel normal. I wanted to fit into the role society told me to fill. I stayed because I was too afraid to leave. I stayed because I felt safe.

My heart split in two when he broke up with me but something else happened. It felt as if obstacles had been cleared from my path. My world crumbled but a new one emerged. My heart ached but I was lighter.

I realized that the trauma I thought was going to break us up was actually what kept us together. I realized that I felt trapped in our relationship. I realized that I knew all along that he wasn’t right for me. I realized that love is not always enough. I realized he was a teacher from whom I learned so much.

I am grateful for the 6 years we spent together but I am even more grateful that he broke my heart. He opened the door to a cage I didn’t even know I was in and I could finally fly.

Here I stand, nearly 30 and single and I’m better than I’ve ever been. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m freer than I’ve ever been. Listen when your gut says ‘get out’ and trust that you’ll be okay. Trust that you’ll be better than okay. Trust that you know what is right for you. Trust yourself and you will be free to fly.


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