A friend picks me up from the apartment I have shared with my partner of almost five years. She is driving me and my ironing board to the room I am subletting until I find somewhere new to live. I do not know why the ironing board is the only thing I take with me. Perhaps it has something to do with wanting to appear put together while shattering. As we drive, I am thinking about only one thing. If I am no longer a girlfriend, who will I be?
This was the end of my first long-term relationship. I feel as though the pain in my chest might crush me from the inside out. I feel bereft. I have just lost the one thing I knew I was good at. But the price of being good at it had been too high, I know that now. Driving away in the car, I do not yet understand why I am doing this. I just know that I no longer have a choice.
A few days later, I am on Tinder. I shouldn’t be, but I am, because I have fallen into the age-old trap of believing that pretending to be okay will make it so. The men I am speaking to keep asking me about my hobbies. What do I do for fun?
I have no answer. I tell myself I will heal in that borrowed room, but I don’t. No-one heals that quickly. So, months and months later, when I receive a spreadsheet from my former partner cataloguing our life together, it destroys me.
The spreadsheet has several rows listing all the things we had bought together. Cutlery, crockery, sofas, kettles, toasters, outdoor furniture for the balcony of that last apartment, the one that felt the most grown-up and held the most promise, but also the one we knew from the beginning wouldn’t last. The spreadsheet aims to calculate what the relationship had cost us, so we could come out even.
It has four columns. The first one is called ‘item’. The second one ‘full cost’. The third: ‘half cost’. And the fourth: ‘depreciated half cost’. The depreciated half cost of the items my partner was charging me for was nothing compared to what I had paid, what I had given up, of myself.
• • •
In her memoir The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy perfectly captures the calculation we make as women when we decide to enter into certain kinds of heteronormative relationships. As her own marriage falls apart, Levy reflects on the home she had built for her family. The one she is leaving behind, taking apart in a weekend something that took 20 years to build.
She describes herself coming up for air after 20 years and trying to will herself to swim back to the boat of her marriage. But she cannot swim back. Here’s what she realises, in these moments: she had built a home for her family, yes—a home for her husband and children. But she had never found a way to build a home for herself.
Levy’s disappointment is palpable. She writes that a lifetime of prioritising the wellbeing of men and children leaves behind an ‘unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman’. And so Levy poses the memoir’s existential question: if women choose love, what does it cost us? And what price are we willing to pay?
I was drawn to Levy because of the way she is able to express love, nostalgia and disappointment at the same time. Levy is heartbroken, but she is also clear-eyed and, I think, hopeful. Hopeful that whether she decides to love again or not—she tells the reader she has not made up her mind—she will do so knowing fully what price she is willing to pay, what sacrifices she is willing to make and which she is not.
That’s how I felt when I finally came up for air from the wreckage of my relationship. Heartbroken, of course. And I am heart-broken, still. But also happy in the knowledge that I had made a decision about the cost of love, and even though it was the most painful thing I have ever felt, I knew it was the right one. I had sacrificed too much.
What I had given—time, energy, care, support—is still seen as something women can and should give away for free. The cost of intimacy, for us, is so much higher, simply because our work has always been viewed as built into the idea of a relationship. It is invisible.
As she leaves, Levy offers a parting thought: I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. This, again, is what appeals to me about her account. Levy’s decision to leave her marriage is not about giving up on love. It is about believing it can be better.
The canonical thinker and writer Simone de Beauvoir spent much of her life in love with her male partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. She refused to play the role of the wife, no matter how in love she was. De Beauvoir didn’t want to give up her writing life, her thinking life, to take on the role those things would demand of her. She accepted that this meant she would not have children. As Levy writes: ‘She knew it would cost her more than it would cost him. In the end she decided she couldn’t afford it.’
• • •
History is filled with women who are singled out for making this decision. When faced with the cost of intimacy, they turn away. Perhaps at this moment in history, there is a version of romantic love that does not cost us so much. Like Levy, I am hopeful.
When de Beauvoir was a child, she used to invent games to play with her sister based on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She would always play the role of Jo March—the second eldest in a set of four sisters living in Massachusetts in the 1860s, and the novel’s heroine. Jo is the tomboy of the household. She is fiercely independent. She is also, importantly, a writer. Jo tells her reader she never wants to get married. She has already decided she cannot afford it.
De Beauvoir would always play Jo in her childhood games because, she said, ‘I was able to tell myself that I too was like her. I too would be superior and find my place.’
Susan Sontag once told a journalist that she would never have become a writer had it not been for Jo March. Alcott had created a character that allowed women like de Beauvoir and Sontag to imagine the life they wanted—one without traditional romantic intimacy.
In Little Women, Alcott hit upon a literary sensation for the ages. Since it was first published in 1868, it has never been out of print. I can’t help but think that the thing drawing those readers to the story again and again was the same thing that drew in de Beauvoir, that drew in Sontag.
Alcott fashioned Jo March on herself. Alcott, like Jo, was a writer who saved her impoverished family by selling short stories to weekly magazines under a pseudonym. Alcott, like Jo, was determined never to get married. And she kept her promise to herself.
Alcott’s own mother knew how high the cost of love could be. She both provided and cared for her four girls as well as their father, Frank Alcott, who ‘had ideas’ and considered himself a philosopher, but who never worked. He was distant and incompetent. He left the family poor and desperate and never felt the need to provide for them. Alcott never admired or liked her father, and I suspect she saw clearly just how much he drained and took advantage of her mother. Perhaps this is why her father was the one person who was left out of the family which she created in Little Women: the four March girls live with their adored and adoring mother, but their father is away at war for the majority of the novel.
In one of the adaptations of the novel, a three-hour BBC miniseries directed by Vanessa Caswill, the March girls’ mother, Marmee, is given a scene that is not in the book. One of the girls has twins and Marmee has to step in to be the midwife. As Joan Acocella writes in The New Yorker, in this scene we see in Marmee’s face ‘everything that Alcott hinted at but did not say about how her own mother was left to do everything.’
But while Alcott kept her promise to herself for life, she couldn’t do the same for Jo. In Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaption of the novel, Jo’s editor tells her that no-one is interested in women’s stories unless the girls ‘end up dead or married’. Unfortunately, Alcott found the same thing. She never intended to marry off Jo—she planned to give her the solitary writer’s life she wanted so badly. But when she published the first part of Little Women, she was flooded with letters from readers desperate to know whom Jo married, urging Alcott to give the girl a different kind of happy ending to the one she desired.
• • •
It is a peculiar thing, becoming so invested in something that you lose yourself. By the end of my relationship, I had poured so much emotional energy into the project of creating and re-creating my partner that I had no space left for me. He depended on me in those huge but invisible ways—for emotional support, for the steady hand to right the ship of his life when it threatened to sink, for the level head to solve every problem before it had even become one.
Because this labour is feminised, it is too often erased. It is not measured. It does not show up on the spreadsheet representing the last breath of a relationship. We are taught, again and again, to think it does not have a cost. But it does. Intimacy is tied to caring, and in many heteronormative relationships caring moves primarily in one direction, so many women find themselves in the position of constantly giving intimacy but getting very little in return. This is the loneliest feeling in the world.
I think what we have always meant by a room of one’s own is the permission to refuse to hand out care and not be cared for in return. Permission to assert, to insist, that we are better taken care of if we are alone, and if we reserve the energy we would have spent on him for ourselves. To be the subject of care, but not the object of it, is a kind of erasure. It leaves us feeling lonely and unseen. We become a vessel for something bigger; a carrier of the support he needs to thrive. We become the architect of the life he wants—every day building it a little higher, making it a little more stable, until he is exactly who he wants to be.
As I contemplate leaving my relationship on the bus to and from work, I listen to a poem by Olivia Gatwood on repeat about the manic pixie dream girl—the overplayed notion in film and television of a romance in which a man’s life is changed by the sudden appearance of a magical, devoted woman, one who urges him to start living, but who never gets a life of her own.
Let me build myself smaller than you,
Let me apologise when I get caught acting bigger than you.
Let me always wait for this.
Let me work for this.
Let me work for this. In those words I felt a niggling truth about my life. That I had been working all this time, but I had been alone in it. That it would cost me more than it cost him.
• • •
I was scared to be alone. But I realised that I was already alone, and that there would be some degree of comfort in facing that fact.
As I was trying to convince myself to leave, I came across an article in the New Statesman by the writer Laurie Penny. It was just after Valentine’s Day, 2017. In the first few paragraphs, Penny says: ‘I think that it’s usually better for women to be single. Particularly young women. Particularly straight young women. Not just “alright”, not just “bearable”—actively better.’
This was a radical proposition to me. I had always assumed that being in a long-term relationship was a valid, perhaps primary, indicator of success. That if I could prove that I could find and keep love, I had achieved something. And that if I lost it, this would be a catastrophic failure. Penny writes:
You see them everywhere—exhausted young women pouring all their spare energy into organising, encouraging and taking care of young men who resent them for doing it but resent them even harder when they don’t. You see them cringing for every crumb of affection before someone cracks and it all goes wrong and the grim cycle starts again. You can fritter away the whole of your youth that way. I know women who have.
Penny made me realise that my focus on the characteristics of my relationship and its discontents was misguided. The problem is structural, historical. I had always known the imbalance in my relationship was not my partner’s fault—he is a good person and was a loving partner—and so I could not talk myself out of the idea that the fault was mine. But the truth is it was neither of us. It was everything we had been taught about love. Penny again:
How can it be anything but political, when relationships with men are so often where women experience gendered violence, where differences in pay and privilege hit home, where we do all the work of caring and cleaning and soothing and placating that patriarchy expects us to do endlessly and for free?
• • •
The fact that I poured all of my spare energy into encouraging my partner is not something he ever asked me to do. Not consciously, anyway. It was just something I knew, without being told, was expected of me. It is part of the role constructed for me in a way that it is not for him. He never asked me to set aside my own needs for his, never told me I couldn’t see my friends as much, never asked me to give up the things I love in order to make his life better. But that’s what I did. And I couldn’t even see myself doing it, because I had made myself invisible.
bell hooks writes that ‘men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands.’ The way men have been raised and socialised means they come to see love as a prize, that finding a partner is where the work ends. For us, it is the beginning. The work I am talking about is not solely, or even primarily, about domestic labour, although that is certainly a factor in many relationships.
In her essay collection Coventry, Rachel Cusk dedicates a whole essay to the gendered project of making a home. ‘Entering a house, I often feel that I am entering a woman’s body, and that everything I do there will be felt more intimately by her than by anyone else … A home is powered by a woman’s will and work.’
This wasn’t the case for me: my partner did far more of the housework than I did. But still there were all the ways I kept him afloat. I watched his mental health patterns, telling him to go for a run when he seemed stressed or to come home early when he was spiralling, making myself responsible for stabilising his mood. I would tell his friends to look after him when he wouldn’t listen to me. I would find the job he wanted to apply for and tell him he could do it. I would check his application for him. I would find him a hobby when he tired of the job—the perfect touch-football team.
These are the small and big ways I helped him hold it together. That is the work of caring. And so often we get only scraps of it in return. We do all that work for ourselves as well as for him, and when something has to give, it is us. The long-term effect of playing this role is to become, in Deborah Levy’s words, a minor character in one’s own life. We develop the sense of being valuable only for the role we play in another’s life and success, an accessory.
In the wake of her marriage breakdown, Levy is asked to make a list of the major and minor characters in one of her novels. This gets her thinking about the characters in her own life—a transition between fact and fiction that reflects Levy’s own movement between novels and memoir. Too often, when women look back on lives spent building love and its consequences, they find that they have moved into the background.
When I think about all that is expected of us, as women, in so many romantic relationships—when I make that mental list—it seems inevitable that we become minor characters in our own lives. If this is what we have to do to find and to keep love, there will be no time or space left for us to fashion for ourselves a starring role. Energy is finite. A supporting role can fill a life. I almost let it fill mine.
Watching a younger woman hold off a man’s advances in the opening pages of The Cost of Living, Levy reflects—with sadness, nostalgia and, I think, hope—on the woman’s ability to stand steadfast in her aloneness. ‘It was not that easy to convey to him, a man much older than she was, that the world was her world, too,’ she writes. ‘It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.’
My whole life changed when I decided I might consider myself a major character. Levy points to the shift that I am learning to recognise between the individual and the systemic. ‘She had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rules.’
• • •
Perhaps the most heartbreaking rendition of the cost of love though, to me at least, is a fictional one. And it doesn’t come from the woman who chooses to leave. It comes from one who is clear-eyed about her calculation, and who chooses to stay.
In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, the novel’s protagonist Frances walks audaciously into an affair with a married man, Nick, after meeting his wife at a poetry event. His wife, Melissa, a photographer, became interested in Frances and her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi—two promising young writers, hungry, tireless—and invites the girls into her life.
Frances begins to connect with Nick almost immediately. After a few email exchanges, the two start their romance in earnest. They have sex in secret on a French holiday with Melissa just a few rooms away.
Reading the novel, we see Melissa as an almost middle-aged character, so authoritative does she seem to Frances and Bobbi. So it is easy to forget that Frances and Bobbi are in their very early twenties, and Melissa and Nick are only 32.
When Melissa finds out about the affair, she sends a crushingly pragmatic email to Frances.
‘He likes partners who take complete responsibility for all his decisions, that’s all,’ she writes of Nick. ‘You will not be able to build a sustainable sense of self-respect from this relationship you are in.’
‘It actually becomes exhausting.’
I can see myself in Melissa’s position. You get the sense that she initially stayed because she believed it to be the right thing to do, and later stayed because it was the easy thing to do. I know that pattern well. How many women become emotional carers because they believe in sunken costs?
My partner and I break up on a Thursday. We get back together on a Tuesday. Then we break up again. It is so hard to let each other go. On that first Thursday, I am giving a presentation about intellectual property in my evening class at law school. All I can think about is the conversation I am going to have when I get home. My heart is already breaking; I can feel the pressure it is putting on my chest.
I have made the decision that I can no longer keep up my end of the bargain. I have decided that I have sacrificed too much in the creation of him, and as soon as that thought crystallised in my mind, I knew it was over. Being a partner has been the most important job I have had, and I can’t bear the thought of doing it badly. Not for another minute.
I had been convinced, all my life, that the right thing to do was to stay. I don’t know exactly where I got this from. I come from a long line of stoic women who have taken care of male partners to their own detriment—perhaps I learned it from them. But their feminist ideals were also the only reason I felt able to leave. The cognitive dissonance lived in me as strongly as it lived in them.
In those days leading up to the end of my relationship, I realised something. I had always believed that as a woman I had to do the right thing, which would invariably be to stay. The caring thing. But I cared too much to do it half-heartedly, to disgrace its memory by being an unwilling participant in my own life. So I realised staying is not always the right thing. I could be more caring, more kind and more compassionate, both to my former partner and to the world, if I found a way to leave. I had to find a way to leave.
• • •
When my partner moves out, the apartment haunts me. Our cat is confused. Every night I get home from work exhausted, crushed, hungover, spent, and I say to him: it’s just you and me now. I don’t know if I am explaining this to him or reinforcing it in my own mind, knowing how much I want to swim back to the boat.
The pain of it is almost unbearable. It is unlike anything I have ever felt. The trauma of separation tears at me. I miss him. I want him to come home. After all my intellectualising of my role in the world, after all my rethinking about structures and agency and love, I regress to my most fundamental desire: I just want to fix it.
I stop sleeping. I lie awake all night watching the Sex and the City movie and thinking about how I will never fall in love again. I drink red wine and I take temazepam but still I cannot sleep.
One night I start reading Cheryl Strayed. Two things stick with me. First, when she writes, ‘most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you hold on and realise there is no choice but to let go.’ And then another passage, from her book Tiny Beautiful Things. It is in response to a collection of letters from women who are considering leaving their male partners. She tells them:
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own.
‘I’m not opposed to those traits,’ she says. ‘But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.’
The truth was I had been alone for a long time. I had been wholly invested in something he never quite committed to; I had lost myself in him. Now I wanted to put my needs before anyone else’s, for the first time in my life.
I spoke to my therapist, my sister, my friends. I tried to measure our faults in the relationship. Could I justify it? Could I give a list of transgressions as evidence of my moral right to leave? Would it hold up under scrutiny? It didn’t matter. I wanted a different life for myself. I couldn’t think my way out of that.
Levy writes that ‘chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want’. It might be, she says, the thing that brings us closer to how we want to be in the world. Strayed writes, ‘Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.’ What a radical proposition that was—at least to me. Wanting to leave is enough.
• • •
I discovered after leaving my relationship that caring energy is finite. Once I had stopped caring for him, I became able to care for myself for the first time. Sometimes I am still ashamed of this, but mostly I am proud.
I started writing more. I started writing all the time. I wrote my first book. Then I wrote my second.
Laurie Penny talks about two versions of herself: the one she can be while partnered and the one she can be while alone. ‘That self,’ she writes, ‘the self that was dedicated to writing, travelling and doing politics, that had many outside interests and more intense friendships, was not something men seemed to value or desire.’
Could that be true? Had I squashed the part of me that was dedicated to writing in order to be a better partner, to live up to my own standard of womanly commitment? I can’t be sure, even now. But something had definitely changed. Could the caring that is poured into writing be a kind of caring for the self—the kind I did not discover until I stopped swimming back to the boat?
Is it a coincidence that Jo March and Susan Sontag and Simone de Beauvoir felt they had to make a choice between love—of a certain kind—and writing?
I discovered that an arrangement where intimacy is given but not received in return leads to a particular kind of isolation. So many men who are the subjects of this intimacy believe they deserve to have it exclusively. The structural expectation is that we reserve our intimate selves for them, even though our intimate selves are starving. We become less and less able to seek that intimacy from friends and family because of that sense of duty.
When I left my relationship, I leant on my friends wholly. I collapsed onto them. Collectively and individually, they bore the weight of my grief. I have never felt so cared for. Years on from those weeks and months, my caring relationships with them are just as strong.
• • •
Almost two years to the day after my relationship ended for the final time, I am packing my things into boxes in a small, almost windowless flat in Finsbury Park in North London. I have moved here from Sydney since I walked away from my old life. It’s something I had always wanted to do, and here I am.
The flat is airless and stuffy and small, but I love it. It is the first time I have ever truly lived on my own, and it is all I have ever wanted. When I took this flat, I was new to London and did not have a real job—only a book contract and a promise to pay the rent. It was all I could afford.
But on this day, in August 2019, I have just been offered and have accepted a well-paid job as a journalist to support my writing and to pay the rent. So I am moving into a bigger flat, with windows and a spare room. A room to write in. It is among the proudest moments of my life, this moving day. I cannot tell you why. It felt like an almost endless series of tiny, heart-wrenching steps away from something that had led me, finally, to something else. Something that glimmered with hope.
Perhaps this is why I found so much hope in the pages of Levy’s memoir. I listened to the book on audio as I packed up my stuffy flat. My editor had recommended I read it, to get a sense of the narrative voice Levy uses. She thinks it will help me fashion a voice of my own to fit the project of my second book.
Everything Levy says about the cost of love shattered and rebuilt me. It was everything I had been thinking for these last years, put into words in a way I could never have fathomed. Perhaps chaos is the thing that brings us nearer to who we want to be in the world. It certainly was for me.
But here is the most important part. When all is said and done, Levy writes that ‘to separate from love is to live a risk-free life. What’s the point of that sort of life?’
Walking away from a particular kind of love does not mean giving up on it. Quite the opposite. It is learning what we can afford to pay for it and what we can’t. And that means that when we approach it again, it will be with conviction.
I am not giving up on love. I am demanding a better version of it. A version of myself in love that I can live with.
• • •
As I pack up my things that day, I listen to Levy describe her own process of moving out of her family home and into a new, post-marriage flat. She describes the space as both eerie and comforting. It is new and full of possibility. She writes books on the balcony and she renames the creepily lit hallways as the ‘corridors of love’. She is happy even though she is heartbroken, I can tell. I have been there.
I begin to sentimentalise the fact that I am moving house just as Levy—or the version of her narrating her audiobook in that moment—is moving house. To romanticise everything is an instinct I cannot tame.
But as she describes the building on the top of a hill in North London, with art deco interiors and a 1930s council flat exterior, I realise that it reminds me of the building I am moving into later that day.
The next morning, I chat to a fellow resident in the lift. I am elated and full of purpose, walking to the plant shop in Crouch End again and again to show my new flat how committed I am to it. I am holding Levy’s memoir in my hands as I empty out my handbag, searching for my keys. ‘Ah,’ my lift-mate says. ‘Did you know she lives in this building?’ •
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a writer and journalist. She is the author ofI Choose Elena (Allen & Unwin, 2020) and My Body Keeps Your Secrets(Allen & Unwin, 2021).