I spent most of my teenage and young-adult years worrying about what other people thought of my choices: my clothes, my hair, my eating habits, my job, my relationships. Inevitably, this started to affect my decision-making. I took shitty jobs I didn’t want because others thought they were cool; I stayed in relationships long after I should’ve let them go. There wasn’t a single area of my life in which I made decisions based solely on my own gut.
But when I turned 28 and came out as a lesbian, caring about what others thought went straight out the window. In hindsight, it’s easy to understand why those two things were linked. Although I knew I was a lesbian at a very early age, being gay wasn’t acceptable in my family. Remaining in the closet was perhaps one of the first instances of me doing what was right for others, but not for me.
When repressing my orientation started to affect my mental health, I sought out a therapist, and in therapy, I learned that while it was normal to care about what loved ones thought of me, I didn’t have to let their opinions dictate my life. Coming out ended up opening the “live for myself” floodgates: I took the jobs I wanted, I moved to New York, I spent my money how I saw fit, I developed my own sense of style and dated exactly who I wanted to date. I felt like a new, better version of myself, unbridled by the time I turned 30.
Then I met my wife.
Our relationship started out long-distance and a little complicated. The air of uncertainty between us had me falling back on old habits: I sought out any and all opinions I could. Little did I know, I was opening the door to the Pandora’s box of unsolicited advice. Although our relationship is thriving now — my wife and I have been together for nearly four years — other people’s opinions and expectations, albeit well-intentioned, nearly drove us apart.
Friends made snap judgments because our relationship was long-distance. Family members had outdated concerns about us being an interracial couple. There were unsolicited opinions about us “moving too fast.” And not too long after we moved in together, friends started to question how we spent money and ran our household. Every move we made, there were people there with gratuitous opinions. My grasp on the strong-willed sense of self I’d developed just a few years prior weakened, and I felt myself regress.
There were times I instigated arguments just so I could say, “Maybe we’re moving too fast.” I started to second-guess how we spent money, so I created another budget — one someone suggested we try. (That budget wasn’t right for us, so we eventually started arguing about money.) If we didn’t see eye-to-eye on a social justice issue, I would lay awake at night and find myself questioning whether interracial relationships could actually work. I started creating problems where there were none, sabotaging a perfectly happy relationship. My partner and I argued all the time and stopped communicating. My relationship was hanging by a thread. It was then that I decided things had to change. I needed to change.
After a lot of self-reflection and help from my therapist, I started to recognize when the concerns I had were really mine or just someone else’s. I’ve heard a lot of advice on what makes a relationship successful — communication, trust, humor, sex, fidelity. These things are important. But I’ve learned there is something else, something important, that I’d never heard before: My relationship doesn’t have to look like other people’s. What other people do in their relationship has no bearing on mine. My partner and I didn’t need to argue like other couples, communicate like other couples, have sex like other couples and manage our household like other couples to have a successful relationship. We didn’t need to allow cultural trends, opinionated friends, nosy family and how-to magazine articles dictate how and when we took major steps.
The problem with other people’s opinions about my relationship was they were (and are) ill-informed. People have only observed us from the sidelines. While it’s important to me to listen to advice from trusted loved ones, I’ve learned to keep in mind that what works for one couple might not work for us, and that doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong. Opinions are formed from people’s own experiences and biases; when they suggest what they would do if they were in your shoes, it’s just that: what they would do. Not all opinions are created equal.
Because our society is so heavily invested in other people’s relationships, we love to compare ours to those unions we deem “perfect.” There’s even a hashtag for it: #RelationshipGoals. We see couples on Facebook professing their love for one another and we figure their relationships are doing well. My friend once told me over martinis that she’d had five orgasms the night before and I automatically assumed she had the ideal relationship. She was probably exaggerating (right?), but I instantly started thinking about how I could achieve the same in my relationship. Comparing myself to others was like a sickness I kept catching, long after I thought I was immune. (That friend broke up with her partner three months after our conversation.)
During the rough patches of our relationship, my wife and I had to figure out what was best for us. When we were so focused on what other people thought we should do, we ignored what we really wanted. Ultimately, we had to set boundaries — not only to maintain healthy relationships with our friends and family, but to protect ours too. When we were finally able to make our own decisions free from outside influence, we found ourselves living our best lives and felt our relationship flourish.
Now, the only relationship goals we’re concerned with are the ones we set for ourselves.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi and Kelsey Lim.