How Cooking Gives Me Independence Within My Relationship
I’ve been with my partner my entire adult life. Cooking gives me a way to express myself.
I remember the first time I cooked a meal on my own.
I was in my third year of university, twenty years old, in a flat shared with a few other people. I’d made sure they were all away while I covertly Skyped my boyfriend who was teaching me to make that student essential: Spaghetti Bolognese.
“So you’ve got your mince browning, and your pasta is boiling — do you have your chopped tomatoes ready?” he asked, trying to peer into the kitchen via my iPad, propped up on the microwave. I flapped a hand at the camera nervously while I focused on dicing my onions.
Step by step, he coached me through my first-ever meal. I sauteed, I fried, I chopped, and I stirred. Finally, I sat down at the end, sweaty-handed and heart still rocketing, to my triumphant meal for one.
“And the great thing is,” said my partner, now resting against some cans of beans across the table from me, eating his own meal two hundred miles away, “is that you’ll have leftovers for lunch tomorrow and maybe even dinner, too.”
My partner always cooked.
We got together my first year of college. He was in his third year. He was a great and enthusiastic cook, so he always invited me over for dinners he’d made, or he’d offer to cook at my apartment.
(Obviously, I’d always clean up after.)
But he did the vast bulk of the cooking. For my first and second year of college, it was rare that I had a meal not prepared by him. On the odd nights when he was busy, I’d eat in the college cafeteria, or eat out, or heat up a pizza. The year he moved away to start his PhD while I finished college, I actually lost weight because I’d often just have a can of tuna or some boiled eggs for dinner.
My entire adult life up until that point, I’d been with someone a little older, a little wiser, and a lot better at cooking. The sudden absence of all that took its toll.
When I finally asked him if he’d teach me to cook, he was happy to. I could have cracked open a cookbook, I could have looked at one of the many recipes online, but it was a nice way to stay connected with him while avoiding the scary world of unassisted cooking. It’s hard for me to remember now, but there was a time when I was terrified of the prospect of cooking a spag bol from scratch.
Through him, I learned how to make spag bol, fajitas, pasta carbonara, palak aloo, and bean burgers. I was sad, struggling through long-distance, but cooking was my lifeline. And as I grew braver in the kitchen, and started relying less on his tutelage, and branching out in experimental cooking, I learned that it’s actually wonderful — surprisingly — to be able to feed yourself.
We finally moved in together a year later, and I was happy to contribute to the cooking. I enjoyed looking up new recipes, trying new ingredients, and surprising him with interesting concoctions based on whatever we had left over in the fridge.
Cooking meant I didn’t have to rely on him to feed myself — and although it was nice to have that initial reason to stay in contact, it was much nicer to have it as a shared interest and hobby. While I missed him terribly when we tried to make our relationship last long-distance, cooking for myself meant I was doing just fine. It gave me my independence.
There’s something incredibly satisfying in choosing your meal, selecting the ingredients, preparing them all just so, and watching as out of individual components comes a whole meal greater than the sum of its parts. Just for yourself.
Cooking for two gave me a reason. Cooking for one? It gave me an excuse.
I’ve learned that an odd thing happens when you spend the vast bulk of your time with one person: you start to depend on them. All your life’s patterns, your daily routines, they all revolve in ways both small and large around that other person.
My partner and I lived together long enough that we fell into these codependent habits. We grew used to leaning on one another. We forbade screens from our dinner table and focused only on each other.
When we were together, we were fine, happy, fulfilled, chasing other passions. We had separate interests, of course, but the vast bulk of our lives were shared. We woke up together, walked to work together, cooked and ate dinner together.
However, when he went away for any period of time, I struggled. Even when he was just out for the night, I was much less likely to keep the house clean. I often stayed up too late browsing Twitter, missing the cue to go to bed. I didn’t care to exercise as much.
And I reverted back to my bad dinner habit.
There was no motivation for me to cook anything, and it was just easier to be lazy and eat a pizza. I’d cook it, eat it joylessly while watching Netflix and feel like garbage for not making an effort with the meal. I’d either binge on junk food or forget to eat altogether. Alone, I didn’t take care of myself.
Here’s the kicker: there’s no reason for me to be like this. I’ve got plenty of free time, a grocery store a five-minute walk away, and the knowledge and finances to cook myself whatever I damn well please. There are no excuses — when my partner is away, I simply don’t feel it’s worth it.
When I cooked for two people, it gave me a reason: a reason to experiment, a reason to explore different flavors and styles, a reason to really get into the cuisine. When it was just me? It gave me an excuse to drop all my good new cooking habits and default to the easiest thing to do.
It sounds ridiculous writing it down, that I was so dependent on my partner’s presence that without him I couldn’t be bothered to look after my health properly. But it was true. I slept worse, I exercised worse, and I ate worse.
I’ve made a pact with myself.
Things came to a head when my partner was out of town for a week. Morosely, I took myself to the store and bought five frozen pizzas. I was eating the first one, alone at the kitchen table, watching Buffy, as I watched my cats munching down with gusto the dinner I’d prepared for them.
It occurred to me that I’d put more effort into their dinner than mine.
I’ve always been a huge proponent of independence within relationships: I have a FOF (f*ck-off fund) in case things ever go south and I need to be financially secure on my own for a few months. I firmly believe in the importance of individual hobbies and interests. I encourage the both of us to cultivate diverse friendship circles.
But for some reason, I didn’t think I was worth cooking for. For myself and my partner, I’d cook elaborate soups, exciting slow-cooker recipes. For myself? I was worth only a single, cooked-from-frozen pizza. And that wasn’t right.
So I decided that every time he was away, even if just for one evening, I’d never stoop to a frozen pizza, or a microwave meal, or take-away. I meal-plan. I prep. I use the ingredients we have in the fridge or I buy new ones. And I cook myself an actual meal.
I’m worth a gourmet meal.
Having spent nearly the entirety of my adult life in a relationship with a single person has shaped me. It’s had to — such sustained relationships affect us all, whether we like it or not, in ways we like and ways we don’t.
And I found I was far more reliant on my partner than I wanted to be. I wish I didn’t get mopey when he wasn’t around. I wish it didn’t affect my sleeping patterns to fall asleep on my own. But I do, and it does.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re happy together, and we lead independent lives, but when we’re so entwined that I can’t fathom the thought of cooking just for myself, I can recognize it’s time to change something.
For me, learning to cook was a way of learning to value myself, my health. It was a way first of proving that I didn’t need to be cooked for, that I was my own adult, and then that I valued myself enough to cook healthy, filling, robust meals — just for myself.
And honestly? Sometimes I still mess up. Sometimes I’m so down and sad and feeling lonesome that I can’t help but order pizza, or boil the single egg in the pantry. Sometimes the cats still eat better than I do.
But I’m getting better. At cooking, at looking after myself, at finding the independence in what’s likely to be the longest relationship of my life. And I’ll keep on improving.