I’ve spent the better part of the last 11 years loving someone who didn’t love me back.
I wrote this about him three-and-a half-years ago: “I think 7 years is way too long to be in love with someone you will never be with. And now feels like the perfect time to attempt to let go.”
I didn’t let go.
It’s pretty unbelievable what kind of damage can be done by following the sliver of light that shines through the crack in an open door. For a decade, I clung to that little light because it gave me hope. It made me feel like I had something instead of nothing.
As long as the door’s not completely closed, there’s a chance.
* * *
I think he really did love me a long time ago. I have to believe that because otherwise this story would automatically be like 10 levels more embarrassing and sad than it already is, and trust me: no one wants to be around if I have to come to terms with that. When our relationship ended, it wasn’t because we didn’t love each other.
I can vividly remember breaking up over the (flip)phone, sitting on my bed in my little room in Nashville. (This is where I implore you to not get involved in a long distance relationship unless you’re fine with being sad at least 75% of the time.) I told him I didn’t have any sure things in my life: I wanted to quit my job and possibly leave my profession, I was thinking about leaving my life in Nashville and moving back home to Indiana. At 24, that felt like more chaos than I could deal with, and all I wanted was to know that he was a sure thing.
He couldn’t give me that. We were young. It was complicated. And suddenly it was over.
But to steal everyone’s favorite line from the cinematic masterpiece The Notebook: “It wasn’t over. It still isn’t over.”
* * *
I’m not a person who bounces back effortlessly. The kindest way to phrase it is this glaring understatement I’ve delivered to every therapist I’ve ever had: I don’t recover well. No, resilience is not on my list of Top 5 Best Attributes, but baby, I was born this way.
Being an Enneagram Two, my very nature makes it pretty impossible to NOT get invested in a relationship quickly and deeply and then keep giving and giving even when it hurts. Here are a few ways The Enneagram Institute describes Twos:
- Empathetic, self-sacrificing, people-pleasing
- They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs.
- They believe they must always put others first and be loving and unselfish if they want to get love.
I wish I could be one of those girls in a song about having a crazy night out with her girlfriends to forget her ex, and then *poof* ALL BETTER. But I’m not, and I never will be.
* * *
After we officially broke up, there were periods of time when we weren’t in communication for one reason or another, usually months at a time. There was even a year when I moved to New Jersey, partially to get away from him and anyone who knew him. I had spent a year-and-a-half in grad school, existing with a cloud over my head because we lived in the same little town and had a lot of the same friends, and I didn’t know how to not be weird about it. So I wanted to move away to a place where I knew zero people, and I did.
I won’t go back to 2008 and give you a full timeline of everything that’s happened since then, but I could. I remember everything.
I remember the magic in the very beginning, lying awake on a twin-sized bed, listening to records, summer air drifting through an open window. I remember when he told me he loved me the first time and the day I met his parents. I also remember the time he told me he didn’t miss me. I remember trying to un-break up with him and every time I said I wasn’t going to contact him and then caved. I remember every time I left an event early, crying, mad at myself for not being OK when he so clearly was. I remember seeing him secretly for months after both of us had been hurt by other people. I remember telling him I loved him the last time I saw him before he moved abroad, and he told me he loved me, too. I remember thinking I’d never see him again when he moved away and the times we were together when he came back home to visit. I remember closing the door behind him every time he left and realizing all over again that it didn’t mean anything to him.
It’s hard to know that I’ve let him keep me from being happy with someone new. For years I tried to convince myself that I was ready to try, but I can say without hesitation that if he had shown up at my door at any point, it would have been over for anybody else.
* * *
I just finished a book on my friend Emily’s recommendation called Attached. The subtitle is The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love. So yeah, it’s fully a self-help book that her therapist gave her. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I am here to confidently proclaim that reading this book was one of the most validating experiences of my life.
If you’ve never totally nerded out over Attachment Theory, here’s the super short version.
There are 3 main attachment styles: Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure. The book claims that 50% of the population is Secure (I’m skeptical.), and the rest is split between people who are Anxious, Avoidant, or a combination of the two.
- Secure: Someone in a stable relationship with effective communication, a clear understanding of what their partner needs from them, and a willingness to fulfill those needs.
- Anxious: Someone who desires extreme closeness with their partner and is always on edge unless those desires are completely received and reciprocated.
- Avoidant: Someone who feels their independence is in jeopardy when they enter into a relationship who often has trouble committing and attaching on a deep, intimate level.
I’ll give you exactly one second to figure out which attachment style is mine.
Of course I’m Anxious. OF COURSE. Pair that with my Two-ness, and every mystery surrounding my disaster of a love life is solved. Every description of Anxious attachment in this book brought 10 years of pain and confusion into crystal clarity, especially in my interactions with someone who’s classically Avoidant. The book describes a “gravitational pull” between people who are Anxious and Avoidant, and, um, yeah, HI. THAT’S PRETTY TRUE.
Being with him (even though I knew he didn’t love me) made me feel like maybe I wasn’t actually alone. “The emotional circuits that make up our attachment system evolved to discourage us from being alone. One way to nudge us back to the safety of our lover’s arms is to create the sensation of unmistakable pain when we find ourselves alone.” (pg. 209)
Every time I heard from him, I got wrapped up in the hope, nervousness, and excitement all over again. “(Anxious people) start to equate the anxiety, the preoccupation, the obsession, and those ever-so-short bursts of joy with love. What you’re really doing is equating an activated attachment system with passion.” (pg. 92)
I conveniently forgot all the ways he had hurt me in the past. “Once your attachment system becomes activated, another interesting phenomenon is triggered: You will get overwhelmed by positive memories of the few good times you had together and forget the multitude of bad experiences.” (pg. 209)
He knew I would let him back in every time and that he wouldn’t have to give anything in return. “The Avoidant person can have their cake and eat it too, so to speak — he can enjoy the thrill and closeness you naturally project when you are together without having to consider your needs for intimacy and togetherness the rest of the time.” (pg. 98)
I let this painful cycle go on and on because I thought I needed it. I needed to care for him and be hurt by him and say yes to him and love him because if I didn’t, the door would close, and I would have to deal with my alone-ness.
* * *
Last fall, after allowing myself to be hurt by him again, I knew that I had to do something drastic if I wanted to have a chance at happiness with someone else — anyone else. He texted me out of the blue, and I told him as much. I un-followed and blocked all of his social media accounts. I deleted every email exchange I had left in my inbox. I deleted his number.
Not knowing what he’s doing is hard for me. It’s tempting to unblock him just to take a peek, but I know nothing good can come of it.
I started taking guitar lessons in January. Yes, I wanted to learn how to play guitar, but I started doing it at a time when I just needed to remember what it’s like to learn something new. I’m pretty good at getting bogged down in patterns and habits, especially when it comes to him, so the timing of my new endeavor accidentally became this metaphorical, existential experience.
The first song I learned to play all the way through was Motion Sickness by Phoebe Bridgers. It’s about conflicting feelings re: a tumultuous relationship, so for almost every line about how bad it was, there’s one about missing it. At the end there’s this little line: “I try to stay clean and live without.” I feel like that a lot these days. I quit him — the hope I had in him — cold turkey, and staying clean isn’t easy. It takes effort.
Someone once asked me what my favorite feeling is. Not my favorite emotion, but a feeling, a sensation. After thinking for a second, I came up with two answers:
- Those last couple of seconds right before you fall asleep when you’re acutely aware that you’re about to fall asleep.
- The moment a headache finally dissipates and you realize it’s gone.
Those might seem like strange responses, but I consider sleeping a hobby, and I’ve suffered from headaches for 30 years, so I stand by them.
Over the past few months, I’ve had these moments of realization that I went a whole day without thinking of him. Or two days, or three. Those moments feel so much like a headache fading. It hurts and hurts and hurts until it finally doesn’t anymore, and the instant I’m conscious of the lack of pain is the most beautiful part.
* * *
“Anxious people may take a very long time to get over a bad attachment, and they don’t get to decide how long it will take. Only when every single cell in their body is completely convinced that there is no chance that their partner will change or that they will ever reunite will they be able to deactivate and let go.” (Attached, pg. 211)
I don’t talk about this relationship in detail very often because it feels embarrassing and foolish that it’s taken a decade to get to this point. But I didn’t get to decide how long it would take. Every single cell in my body had to be completely convinced, and they finally are.
I almost texted him on Christmas to tell him I loved him (for any number of reasons that I detailed earlier), but I didn’t. When I woke up the next morning, I was so relieved because I don’t think I love him anymore — at least not the way I used to.
I thought he would have to be the one to finally close the door once and for all. I didn’t think I would ever be strong enough to do it myself.
But here I am: Lights out. Door closed. Conscious of the lack of pain.