Dear Romanswer: What if one isn’t the loneliest number?

You already know this, but romance fans are very knowledgeable about matters of the heart. The mainstream media may joke that we’re holding out for perfection, but the very opposite is true. We know what real, messy love looks like — and we know that we deserve it. And so, we bring you The Romanswer, aka Brianna Hunter, who answers your love queries using the very best examples there are on the subject — romance novels.

Dear Romanswer,

My partner and I are taking the first “break” in our long, monogamous relationship. At first I was terrified: my life had been turned completely upside-down! In spite of my fears, I am beginning to thrive in my new life. I go on dates with interesting people, I am more open about my feelings and I have so much more time than I used to for the work I care about. The thing is, I still love my partner very deeply. How do I talk to them about all the things I am learning about myself without making it seem like a rejection?

Yours,
XO

To my sweet XO,

Your letter is heart-wrenching, and I have read it again and again. There are so many implicit questions within it, in addition to what you have ultimately asked. You want to know if you can love someone in more than one way, or if romantic love is a culmination against which no friendship will suffice. You want to know whether it is all right to love yourself only for yourself.  You want to know how to know yourself.

I understand the “break” in your relationship to mean separation: not necessarily formal, marital separation, but simply a period apart. Every romance novel depends on some kind of separation, a symbolic death that the two main characters must overcome in order to find each other in the end. Sometimes this is because of an illness or a physical transformation. Sometimes, however, it’s due to an internal change. This kind of change can mean that a character’s orientation toward life shifts. Of course, when that happens, her orientation toward herself and her beloved shifts, too.

Julie Anne Long’s newest book, The Legend of Lyon Redmond, begins with two main characters who have already fallen in love, but they have been separated for five years. (Mild spoilers ahead. – Ed.) This painful time period has also presumably been felt by the reader, since in previous books both the hero’s and heroine’s family members have fallen in love under the shadow of their siblings’ unhappiness. At the beginning, we don’t know the circumstances that prompted Lyon to abandon Olivia so long ago; we only have small clues from other books. The story unfolds in the form of flashbacks and memories stitched to the present, as Olivia prepares for her wedding to another man. When Lyon reappears in her life, she is unsure of whether they can recapture their feelings for one another with the same intensity.

Sometimes the tone of a relationship can change; instead of monogamous partners, you can become friends, or you can become polyamorous, or you can become occasional lovers. I have written before about how a relationship is more than the sum of its parts; you are not only yourself and your partner is not only your partner; of course you are each yourselves, but you are also a joined entity.

I am not certain you can find a new way to be together until you are both sure of how you want to be when you are apart. And I think it’s often difficult—but not impossible—to discover how to be confidently alone in the world if you are connected to another, consistently measuring yourself with and against the other person.

For example, in the first half of TLOLR, Olivia imagines her relationship with her new fiancé as an inescapable form, one that constrains the way she wants to move through life:

“They had walked about like a pair of horses in harness, clearly heading in the same direction with the same objective, but seldom really touching one another.”

In TLOLR, however, there are actually several separations: Olivia and Lyon are separated from each other. Later in the book, Olivia is separated from her betrothed, Landsdowne. And throughout the entire series, Lyon’s father has been separated from his first love. I want to draw attention to each of these breaks, because they all function to allow the narrative’s forward motion. This is one of the reasons a series of books can be so compelling; a single romance novel is the story of one relationship, but a series can accommodate changes in course.

Olivia and Lyon are different people when they encounter each other again after such a long time. They haven’t communicated at all in five years. They have to readjust, to test each other to find out if their new, bigger selves still fit together.

You write that this is your “first” break; you are thriving in your “new” life. To me, it sounds as though you are still discovering who you are—and who you want to be—when you are alone. You don’t have to wait five years, but you may want to wait until you have expanded into the world you want to live in before you rekindle your relationship, whatever kind of relationship that may turn out to be.

Do you have a query for The Romanswer? Of course you do! You can reach Brianna via Elissa@RTBookReviews.com. We reserve the right to edit your question for content and clarity. Stay tuned for another Romanswer column next month, and you can find Brianna’s archives here

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