Last time I visited my Talespinner, she said something really interesting, something that has stuck with me. I’d never heard it framed that way before, but the minute she said it, it clicked: not only what I am, but what all my lovers in all my best relationships have been.

Kitty, wearing the very top hat that you’ll see on the cover of the re-release of my novel Black Iron, due out June 2024.

We are in a long-distance relationship. I occasionally fly out to see her, something that’s complicated by her unusual work schedule. She’s basically gone two days out of the week—she works full-time in two 20-hour shifts. On the occasions when I visit her, there are a couple days of each week where she’s just not there at all.

On one of those visits, she told me, “I don’t worry when I go to work, because you’re self-entertaining.”

There are a lot of other ways to frame the same: self-reliant, self-sufficient, complete in yourself, whatever. But what I like about “self-entertaining” is there’s a nuance, a sort of subtext that missing from words like self-reliant or self-sufficient: You can be self-sufficient in the sense that you can care for yourself and look after yourself when you’re alone, but what I like about “self-entertaining” is the connotation you can be happy by yourself.

See, I’m an extrovert. I like being around people. Being around people energizes me. But I’m self-entertaining in the sense that I’m not reliant on other people for my happiness.

And a big part of that is there’s always, always something I want to do, something I want to learn, some project I’m working on, and something new I’m teaching myself.

Okay, that’s not actually correct. There are always dozens of things I want to do, dozens of things I’m working on, dozens of things I’m learning.

As I write this, I have four novels and a collection of short stories I’m actively writing (one of those novels and the short story collection I’m writing with the lover I’m talking about here!), with one more about to go to the printer this week. I’ve got two nonfiction books and one fiction book I’m reading, a bunch of fun projects I’m experimenting with on my laser engraver, a couple of projects I’m working on with my CNC engraver, a new prototype sex toy I’m getting set to cast, a podcast, an art project I’m working on…

I like people. I like being around people. I like creating with people. But my days do not stretch out in emptiness if I’m alone.

And that is, I think, a big part of the key to happiness in any relationship, but especially in a relationship where you can’t reasonably be expected to be the center of your partner’s world all the time. (Which ought, I think, to be pretty much any relationship at all.)

Suffering when you’re alone

Image: Saiph Muhammad

I’ve had partners—several of them—who say they suffer when they’re apart from a lover. I’ve even had a partner tell me, “I suffer when we’re apart, and I wish you would suffer too.” Which is, I have to say, a bit…odd. And creepy.

I don’t find this romantic, like, at all.

A good relationship enriches, I think, the lives of the people involved without codependency. A fully realized human being is capable of being happy alone. Only when you are good company for yourself can you truly be good company for others.

How do you get there?

What works for me is to approach life with boundless curiosity and endless enthusiasm to make and do new things. Set a project and work on it. Always have something new to learn, do, see, explore.

And yes, I recognize that to some extent, it requires resources to be able to do that. It’s harder if you’re scrabbling for survival. I don’t make a good living—I earn on average less than a fast food worker in Oregon—but at the same time, I also live a life a lot of people would consider bone-crushingly frugal. I don’t own a car, for example, an idea that a lot of Americans find quite flabbergasting.

I like people, but I don’t look to people to provide my happiness. I don’t look to things to provide my happiness. I am self-entertaining; I find incredible joy in making new things and learning new things.

Does that work for everyone? I don’t know. It’s possible I have privileged brain chemistry. I’ve only ever had the experience of being me.

But in my experience, all the most vibrant, most healthy relationships I’ve ever had have been with people who share that magical quality of being self-entertaining, and whole and complete in themselves.

I could say that the inability to be happy alone is a red flag, but these days I tend to look at green flags, not red flags. What’s the difference? When you’re looking for red flags, you’re starting from a default of being willing to date someone, unless you see a reason not to. When you look for green flags, you start from a default of not being willing to date someone unless you see positive reasons why you should.

After years of doing the former, and often neglecting to notice red flags that should have been obvious (when you see the world through rose-colored glasses, red flags just look like flags), it’s been my more recent experience that looking for green flags is more likely to lead to awesome relationships. And being self-entertaining—the ability to be happy alone—is an enormous green flag.

This essay is an expansion on an answer I wrote on Quora

Categories: Uncategorized


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