When John and I met in 1998, I was a student and he, a well-established businessman 12 years my senior. I was sitting on the patio of one of the restaurants John owned, and he bought me a drink. Right away I was drawn to his confidence and charm. But as we built a life together, my sense of self slipped away so gradually, I barely noticed. John handled everything financial while I raised our son, cared for our home, and wrote on the side. If a little old-fashioned, the arrangement felt cooperative, like teamwork. Over time, though, the imbalance of power deepened until it eventually tore us apart.
Only then was I aware of how dependent I'd become: I was 38 and had never bought a car, negotiated a mortgage, or invested money. I'd barely paid a bill in a decade.
The day John moved out, I curled up with my laptop and searched the Web for a psychology study on autonomy that I'd skimmed weeks before while reporting an article for the local paper. That study led me to another, and soon I was poring over the archives of journals, where I found a bit of hope: A growing body of research is revealing that independence is linked to happiness—and may even be its very foundation.
The next day, I reached out to Diana Boer, PhD, a researcher in Bremen, Germany, who had analyzed data from 420,599 subjects and found that having choices and control over your life is a better predictor of well-being than having money. "Everyone has a unique definition of themselves,"Boer told me, "so it makes sense that every person needs to follow her own path to a full life."
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness
agrees. She pointed to research that showed that lack of autonomy leads to greater stress and even poor health. Singlehood was suddenly looking up.
Then the furnace broke down and the sliding door derailed. In winter. In Canada. I found out that friends had hosted a get-together and, to avoid choosing between me and John, hadn't invited either of us. Thanks to an error I made with online banking, I neglected to pay the cable bill, the gas bill, and the car insurance. When my cat ran away, I was convinced he'd given up on me.
But something Boer had said stuck in my mind: The way to independence is with little moves. I liked the notion that I could start small, so one morning, I woke up from a rare good night's sleep and decided to throw a dinner party. It was fabulous—like old times, but without any gibes from John about how messy I am when I cook. I was starting to see that independence is more basic than I'd ever imagined. As Boer had put it, "independence means cultivating faith in yourself at a fundamental level." To that end, here are three baby steps she suggests for creating a more autonomous life.
Next: Resist the urge to explain yourself