In her recent essay about learning to pry herself away from love that drained her, from a man who emptied her, CJ Hauser offers the fable of the crane wife.
In the story, she writes, there is a crane who tricks a man into thinking she is a woman so she can marry him. She loves him, but knows that he will not love her if she is a crane so she spends every night plucking out all of her feathers with her beak. She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.
I am sitting in a Thai restaurant in North London after a long day at work, waiting for my green curry to appear. I tune in to a couple sitting near me who are clearly on a first date.
She is quick-witted and clever, making dry jokes about the news and picking up on threads from conversations they’d had earlier in the night. He seemed impressed. So was I. I noticed her mention a few things that told me she had a very interesting job, a TV journalist of some sort, though her date never asks her for more detail, so I am left hanging.
What I do get, though, is reams and reams of information about him: his life, his football team, his friends, his mother. She nods along and politely interrupts with sharp follow-up questions, the kind that make him seem interesting just by the fact of her asking them. Questions designed to cast the glow of her mind onto his.
He is talking about start-ups and sales strategy and explaining how his boss is useless, which is irritating, he says, but mostly he feels sorry for her, which is big of him.
My food is ready but I am hooked. I ask the waiter if I can sit a little longer. He is asking her what kind of men she usually dates.
She starts to answer, says something about kindness, but he interrupts her before too long to present a soliloquy about how he just needs someone who isn’t too emotional, isn’t too dependent, who won’t get jealous when he goes to the gym. So many women he meets on these dating apps are ‘just a bit needy, you know?’ He says.
She instinctively starts to explain to him that she is independent, that she is busy, that she doesn’t have much time for dating anyway so that won’t be a problem.
It’s the first time she’s been asked a question in the 45 minutes since I’ve been here and she has to use it to defend herself against an accusation that she hasn’t had a chance to do anything to deserve.
The first time she is allowed to hold space on the date, and she has to use it to address a need of his: his need to be reassured that she will never need him, his need to feel protected by her ability to not need his protection, his maddening and obsessive need to depend on her to tell him she will not depend on him.
I have witnessed so many versions of this conversation, and I have participated in many more. I wish I could get those hours back.
Briallen Hopper’s title essay for her collection called Hard To Love is about dependence, about this promise we make that we will not depend, about the emotional test designed for us to fail, about the hot shame we feel when we do. And we always do.
She describes all the effort she goes to just to seem detached and un-needing to someone who considers himself too good for dependence. For someone who considers himself unbothered by human needs.
She writes about her own boyfriend, for whom she performed this not needing. She describes that he aspired to be like Ralph Emerson, who wrote about the self-reliant man, who wrote this three-word manifesto for the independent male hero: Insist on yourself.
I have never read a phrase that better captures every romantic relationship I have ever been in. Men who, when faced with any decision, repeat this phrase like a prayer.
Insist on yourself. Insist on yourself. Insist on yourself.
The self-made man: the man for whom we have to pretend we do not feel, do not need, is, as Hopper describes him, ‘simultaneously entitled, dismissive, and hard to get.’
Emerson believed that emotional dependence is the birthplace of shame. There is shame in being an object of empathy, he thought. There is shame in capitulating to requests for help.
A man ought to be able to withstand any degree of pain without the need to be soothed.
Reading this, I realised that Emerson’s self-made male archetype had seeped into my own belief system. Ever since I can remember, I have been convinced that there is shame not only in watching another person capitulate to my requests for help, but that there is shame in making the request at all.
In my romantic life, I learned not to ask for help because I knew, without ever being told, that in all likelihood the men sitting opposite me would see this as weakness.
Eventually, I started to see it as weakness too. I was wrong. Asking for help is a formidable display of strength.
Being taught that we must suppress our emotional needs is toxic, it bleeds. Before long we believe that we must not need help in any aspect of our lives, that we must fashion ourselves into hyper-competent, unshakeable superhero women in order to be worthy of love.
Hopper writes: For years I lived with the knowledge that if I ceased to be a successful, self-motivated, ambitious, size-six Ivy League blonde, I would lose love. And I knew I couldn’t live without love.
I admire this in her, because I didn’t have that kind of conviction. After a while, I couldn’t stand the shame I felt when I admitted that I had needs, and I couldn’t argue with the voice in my head that said that love depended on invulnerability, so I started to believe I did not need love at all.
I don’t need anything from anyone, I’ve been saying, again and again, for months, because I was tired of not having my needs met and I wasn’t brave enough to expose myself to the same chasm of compassion again and again.
So I retreated from love, and I told anyone who would listen how brave that was. How I just didn’t need help from anyone.
Emerson thinks every man is entitled to be an island. I used to think that, too.
So, as Hopper writes, my desire to twine like a vine was constantly thwarted by a man who was always carefully disentangling himself.
This imagery is poignant; the tearing away of vines that need to interlink in order to climb. There is nothing more rupturing than the feeling of watching someone pull away when you need them. The feeling of knowing they are retreating not in spite of the fact that this is precisely the moment you need them to stay, but because of it.
I decided some time ago that I was someone who could withstand any degree of harm without the need to be soothed, because it was the only way to protect myself from the people who refused to soothe me. From the men who insisted, again and again, on themselves, and who thought that capitulating to someone’s need for help was the same as giving a part of yourself away.
And so we learn to lie. We learn to perform self-reliance in his image just so that he will not leave us as punishment for the fact of being human, the fact of having human needs, the fact of not being an emotional island. Hopper perfectly captures how absorbing this project can be.
I depended on his demand that I not depend. I leaned on not leaning on him. The irony was he left me anyway.
The paradox of dependence is that men tell us in big and small ways that they cannot bear the thought of us depending on them, so we perform non-dependence because it is the only way we can hold on to our human need for connection. For women, this performance is a prerequisite for love. And because we are human, and because we have needs, we need love just like everybody else does.
I use the phrase ‘non-dependence’ here because I need to make desperately clear that we are not talking about independence, not really. ‘Independence’ is the wrong word for this evasive quality we are taught to chase. It is not independence at all because true independence is inward-looking and self-defining. What is being asked of us here is wholly dreamt up by others.
Performing non-dependence is not about us at all, but rather about reading him carefully enough to know exactly what kind of un-needy-ness he—ironically—needs.
Hopper writes: We are far too prone to punishing ourselves and others for needing something we cannot exist without.
The truth is that the woman being described by the boring man in the Thai restaurant is not an independent woman, or a ‘calm’ woman, or a self-sufficient woman, although these are the words he will use to talk about her.
No. She is not a woman at all. She is a mirror. An inanimate thing that needs nothing from him but has an endless capacity to reflect back his favourite parts of himself. Someone whose questions reflect his existence in a way that makes him feel interesting and special and worthy of not being needed by such an impressive, clever girl.
Because here’s the other thing about the cool girl. Her performance of non-dependence not only makes him feel safe but it also makes him look good. He is the man who gets to pretend to be unthreatened by the powerful, self-sufficient woman while using the same narrative to keep her in a stuffy, windowless box in the space between genuine connection and true independence.
She must behave like a ‘real woman’ so he can see himself as someone who is partnered with such a woman but she must never actually be one. She must perform a non-dependence that is, in theory, threatening so he can be the special man who is not threatened, but she must never actually threaten him.
While he demands that she need nothing, he is in truth manifesting the greatest dependence of all: using someone else’s life to justify your own.
He pretends he doesn’t want committed love but he does. In fact, he wants a superlative kind of love: a romantic partner who is so committed she can tend to all his needs while tending to her own, and also find time to perform the not-needing he needs in order to feel brave enough to be loved by her.
Just writing these sentences makes me feel exhausted. I have played this role for years of my life, and I have seen the women around me play it, too.
But I don’t want to be loved by someone like that. If that’s the prize, I am not interested.
Finally, I am not interested.
The work of becoming a woman worthy of this particular kind of hetero-normative romantic love is itself a paradox. You work for years building something, not outwards or upwards, but inwards: building yourself smaller and smaller, with erasure as the ultimate goal. All to become something you never really wanted to be.
And what’s worse, you will always fail, because pretending to be un-human, with no human needs, is unsustainable. And when you do, he’ll be waiting to punish you for splintering his fantasy. The irony was he left me anyway.
Emerson wants men to know that ‘they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves.’
I was a leaning willow, and when my man could and did detach himself from me, I learned that leaning willows, unlike mighty oaks, are built to withstand quakes and storms. They can bend almost to the ground without breaking.
I am sitting on the floor of my tiny flat feeling the singular tearing sensation of having someone you love walk away from you right after you let them see how badly you want them to stay. I am crying. I am ashamed. I have failed, again. I have given myself away.
I am mourning all the moments we sat across from each other, as I watched his eyes travel deeper into mine the more I pretended not to need him. My heart broke for those moments, the connection I thought I had felt.
In fact I had just felt the warm glow of his approval—the unique thrill of seeing in real time that my performance had been convincing, that I had successfully plucked out all my feathers right there in front of him, that he was pleased with me, that my non-dependence had settled something inside him, and that, at least for this moment, he would stay.
That look on his face is not love. It is relief.
I am surrounded by a small group of friends. Some very old, some very new. All gathered at a moment’s notice. They have prosecco and cake and we sit on the floor and they listen to me cry. They hold me. Their jokes make me laugh so hard I cannot breathe.
I am lamenting the absence of love, but I am surrounded by it.
In all those years of steeling myself against heartbreak, I missed the most important lesson: I convinced myself that I had stopped needing help, but the truth was that I had stopped needing help from those who were unwilling to give it to me.
I needed help. Lots of it. We all do. And as I was lecturing people about how I didn’t need anything from anyone, all the people around me were holding me up. But I’d forgotten that people who love you let you lean on them without you noticing. When someone doesn’t pull away as you come near them, there is no free-fall.
Pretending that dependence is shameful because that’s what toxic men have taught us to do erases the people we actually depend on. I don’t ever want to do that again.
So I am done with the cool girl. Just like everything else that holds us back, she was created in his image, and his alone. She never had anything to do with us, and she never will.
Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.
To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work.
I will not be the cool girl, the dream girl, the crane-wife, because she is a lie. She is a straw-woman in a field full of hungry ravens, and I am done with her. She’s not worth it, and neither is he.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena is available from the Indigo Press.