You Win Some, You Lose Some: One of 2017’s Biggest Lessons
Here’s to being vulnerable…
As I sit here, contemplating the last post of the year (which isn’t saying too much given my record for 2017), one of the things that made this year different was my love life. For most of adulthood, it’s been pretty non-existent, but this year I spent a lot of time with a great guy. It didn’t work out for us in the end, but I’m fortunate to still call him a friend.
Not long after we called it quits, I sat down at my computer to write about what I learned from our relationship. I originally intended it to be a blog post, but after deciding it felt too personal, the only person I shared it with was my therapist.
In my previous post, I mentioned that one of my goals for 2018 is to be more open and vulnerable, in all aspects of my life. Because of that, and the fact that this is some of the most honest, personal writing I’ve done in a long time, I’ve decided to share a slightly edited version of the entry I wrote back in September here, now. Warning: it’s a bit long and navel gaze-y.
Post Mortem: An entirely one-sided account of my breakup
“There are no bad relationships.” That’s what one of my best friends told me as I cried into the phone telling her that my boyfriend and I had just broken up. We had been careening toward splitsville for a while, neither one of us stepping up to actually pull the plug. Instead, we grew quiet and distant, which for me and my anxiety, was wreaking havoc on my sleeping and eating habits. (I wasn’t and I wasn’t.)
“I’m proud of you for opening yourself up and being vulnerable,” she said. “Think about how long we’ve known each other and this is your first breakup we’re going through together. There are no bad relationships; each one is an opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself and what you want.”
I thought about her words. She was proud of me for being vulnerable. But I don’t know how vulnerable I actually allowed myself to be. More than I have in the past for sure, but certainly not all in. There were so many things, throughout our entire relationship, that I wanted to tell him. About myself, about my story. But I never did, and if I think about it now, he didn’t ask either. Something was always holding me back from being completely open with him. I felt like if he wanted to know more about me, he would ask.
In the time we were together, I often found myself returning to a text he sent me after our first date. He was all over the place, he said. He’d just gone through a breakup and didn’t want to hurt me…I seemed like a great person. I replied that I understood and if he ever wanted to hang out as friends, I was in the neighborhood. Still relatively new to Nashville, my social circle was on the small side. I knew I had fun with him and thought we’d get along great. I thought he was handsome and charming, to be sure, but I didn’t let that stop me from pursuing a friendship. A few weeks later, I texted him to see if he wanted to grab a beer. How about dinner, he replied, I’ll pick you up.
I remember texting one of my friends halfway through the night – “he’s sure touching me a lot if this isn’t a date.” I didn’t know what it was. I thought we were just getting together to jump start our friendship. But he rested his hand on my leg, rubbed my back, paid for our dinner. He held my hand on the way back to the car as we shared an umbrella in the pouring rain. We made out in his car for what felt like forever. I thought it was a date, but maybe I was wrong. The butterflies in my stomach knew what they wanted it to be.
Over the next couple of months I did a lot of overthinking our situation. I was worried that I may have accidentally fallen into a friends-with-benefits situation when I was looking for an exclusive relationship. I left his house one morning to meet up with some friends; he and I had plans to get together again that night. In the time between leaving his house and coming back, he updated his Tinder profile. My gut told me I should cut and run. That clearly he wasn’t that interested in pursuing something with me if he was still trying to match with other women. But still, I stayed and remained silent. I tried to be the cool, go-with-the-flow girl I thought he wanted. Sometimes it was easy. We always had fun together. But the moments in between got me into trouble. The moments alone with my thoughts where I knew that I probably didn’t mean to him what he meant to me.
I decided if he wasn’t serious about seeing where things would go with me, I wouldn’t be serious either. I scheduled a date with another guy. Then he opened up to me about some deep, dark shit he was dealing with. I wanted to cling tighter to him. When people I care about are struggling, I pull them in as close as I can. I turn myself inside out to try and do what I can to support them. My mind was all over the place when I went on the date with the new guy. I felt like I was betraying someone who had never said he wanted exclusivity because I now knew this deeply personal thing about him. I felt like he needed me. I politely declined the second date, saying that I had been seeing someone else for a few weeks, and my mind kept going back to him so it wouldn’t be fair to pursue anything else. New guy said it was a bummer but he appreciated my honesty.
I remember my heart skipped a beat when T texted his neighbor one night that he was hanging out in the yard with his girlfriend. Maybe I didn’t have to have the define-the-relationship talk after all. In the weeks that followed, I knew I should’ve clarified in that moment, when the opportunity presented itself. I felt good when I was with him. Be in the moment, I told myself. Everything will work out the way it is supposed to.
One night we had a fun, not-entirely-sober evening at his house that I don’t think either of us will ever forget. Even though he was in crazy party mode, and I most certainly wasn’t, I found myself biting my tongue all night. “You’re lucky I love you,” I stopped myself from saying over and over again. I remember him teasing me about selfies. I made a quip about never taking a picture with him. A comment so small, but ended up being something I held on to the whole time we were together. We didn’t have any pictures together. It didn’t seem to matter to him. It made me feel temporary, like he didn’t need to document our escapades because I wasn’t going to be around long enough to bother.
That night he told me he loved me for the first time. I told him I loved him too. The next day I reminded myself to take it with a grain of salt. He wasn’t sober. He might not even remember he said it. I loved him; I meant it every time I said it. He was someone I thought I could see myself falling IN love with. I think maybe he just loved the way I made him feel in the moments when he said it, but didn’t really love me. How could he? He still didn’t really know all that much about me. I’m not angry at him for this. I don’t feel manipulated. I’m happy I had the guts to tell a guy I loved that I loved him. You should never feel bad about telling someone you care about them. In fact, I hope I’m never too scared to let “I love you” fall out of my mouth when I feel compelled to say it.
I told myself throughout our relationship that any anxiety I had about us was normal. You suffer from more than one anxiety disorder, I told myself. You would feel this way no matter who you were dating. Maybe…maybe not. I know I should’ve asked the questions I needed to ask when I needed to ask them. Instead I kept them to myself and let the thoughts about them spiral out of control. I tried my best to spare him my anxiety and depression. Even though I had alluded to it in the past, trying to let him know that I’d been there and could relate to what he was feeling, I don’t know if he really got it. I think I did a pretty good job keeping it from him for a long time. “Who would want to date someone like that? Who would want to put up with my crazy?” I remember saying through tears to my friend one night on the phone. I didn’t think he’d want to be with me if he couldn’t have happy-go-lucky-Pollyanna Erin all the time. I started to internalize everything. I became a smaller, quieter version of myself. So many of our conversations revolved around what he was going through, how he was feeling. I just wanted to make sure he was okay and not rock the boat. In doing so, I chipped away at myself, compromised my wants and my needs to try to be what I thought he wanted and needed. I don’t blame him for this, I did it to myself. This is a big lesson I’ll take with me into my next relationship. I’ll try to do a better job caring for myself, while still showing up for my partner.
I think I really started to unravel in the few weeks leading up to the night he first met one of my friends. I’d always wanted to introduce him to “my people.” In a way, it didn’t seem real since none of them knew each other. I don’t need to rehash that night or the week after it. I knew that my anxiety and insecurities about our entire relationship had finally reached their boiling point. I didn’t know what he was after, messaging my friend who he’d met one time…who he didn’t really know. The two of them talking about hanging out again without me knowing they were communicating at all. What I do know is that it brought up a lot of trust issues I have always had. Things that I wanted to tell him, but couldn’t find the words to say.
Being cheated on has always been one of my biggest relationship fears. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve preferred to stay single. Even though I know being afraid of it won’t prevent it from happening if it’s going to happen, it is a worry I will probably carry into every new relationship. My dad cheated on my mom for most of their marriage. I remember coming home one day from dance class and finding a t-shirt that said “secretaries are beary special” with a bunch of teddy bears on it in the dirty laundry. I can still picture that yellow t-shirt that belonged to my now stepmom. I learned early on that that’s what men can do to the women they’re supposed to care about. (Of course, women cheat too.) I hope it never happens to me. Last year I was emotionally manipulated by someone I met on Tinder. Someone who was talking to, and sleeping with, other women behind my back. I didn’t know it until he told me he hooked up with his ex after a friend of his overdosed. I wasn’t his girlfriend so I couldn’t be that mad right? But it still hurt. Someone who had ghosted me on more than one occasion, but who I kept forgiving and let back in. Someone I thank God I was never physically intimate with, because who knows where else he had been. I deleted his number. Good luck with your ex, I said. I meant it. He popped back up at the end of January shortly after I started dating T. I think deep down, I knew he would. It didn’t work out with his ex. He couldn’t stop thinking about me. He stopped by the gas station across the street from my apartment complex a few mornings a week, hoping he’d run into me there. Could he just meet me for a drink, he asked. I told him the only thing I would even consider offering him was friendship, and he’d have to earn it. I told him I had recently met someone I really liked, and I didn’t want to mess it up. He asked if we’d slept together yet. I said it wasn’t any of his business, and he called me a slut. I remembered why I was glad he was out of my life. He started sending me pictures that I definitely didn’t want. I told him he clearly wasn’t interested in a friendship and blocked him once and for all. I reminded myself to trust my gut with the next guy.
We all carry baggage from past relationships; we’re human. I know where my trust issues come from, but T didn’t. I don’t know that anything would’ve been different if he did.
After my anxiety started spiraling, I knew I had to ask where we stood. It had been on my mind for months, and I couldn’t go on without knowing. He’d called me his girlfriend more than once, but is that what I was? What did I really mean to him? So I asked, we’ve thrown the term around, is that what we are? He didn’t say yes. He said he was happy. That didn’t clarify anything. When I tried to revisit the conversation a few days later he told me “I thought you were my girlfriend.” My mind raged. Then why didn’t you say that when I asked you a few days ago, I thought. Later that night I told him that sometimes I felt like he was keeping me around until something he perceived as better came along. I didn’t tell him I felt that way because he could list qualities he liked about me but not what I meant to him, because I felt temporary over the stupid picture thing, because I knew he’d still been on Tinder, because maybe he thought he’d been clear about how he felt about me and what he wanted, but I still didn’t know. My anxiety got the best of me, and I know I wasn’t being clear either. I wasn’t being truly honest about where I was coming from…not lying, but withholding. I was afraid to break myself open and show him everything that was in my heart. When he asked for space afterward, I told myself I’d made the right decision to keep so much to myself. To me, it felt like I pulled him closer when he was struggling, but when the tables were turned, he pushed me away. I’m not angry, but I am aware that I have to push myself to be more open next time around. And I need someone who won’t shy away from the hard conversations like I do. Someone who will see things like my panic attack posts and ask to talk it out with me because he wants to know that I’m okay. Someone who will ask “what’s making you feel that way” until I let it out. Someone who knows I rarely offer up the most personal pieces of me without being asked. Someone who knows how strong I am and that, no matter how life and my own mind can try to kick my ass, I always come out better for it the other side.
I became even smaller and quieter in the subsequent weeks…less like myself. Less the girl who makes jokes about Michael Bolton and more the girl who doesn’t make jokes at all. I thought if I didn’t freak out or push too hard, things might get back to “normal.” I wasn’t ready to face what I might have known all along. That he didn’t want a serious relationship (or at the very least, didn’t want a relationship with me) and that no amount of giving up the things I wanted and needed was going to change that. When we called it quits, he told me that I was loyal and kind and caring. And I am all of those things, plus so much more than he realized, but I think he stopped trying to get to know me better a long time ago. On the drive home, I felt at peace…relieved even. I finally had my answer, though it wasn’t the one I had hoped for. The tears came after. Of course I was sad. I cried for all of the intimate, couple-y moments with him I would miss; the idea of us that I knew would never come to fruition; the things I could imagine us doing in the future that we’d never do; and the fact that someone will come after me. Someone who will stare up at the stars on the trampoline with him and cuddle on the couch listening to John Prine. Someone who will inspire romance in him again, even though he thinks that part of him might be gone forever. Someone who will make him want to be the best boyfriend ever. How could I not be sad that person isn’t me? Nobody enters into a relationship betting it won’t work out. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful. I believe there is someone out there who wants the same things I do. Someone who wants to make memories together by exploring our city and checking out places we’ve never been; someone who will be excited to plan trips and adventures; someone who will be proud to introduce me to his friends as his girlfriend. T isn’t a bad guy for ultimately not wanting to do those things with me. He just might not have been the right guy for me in the long run.
Relationships are about timing. I’m so thankful for what we had and how much I’ve learned about myself because of him. It takes two people to make something work and two people to make it fall apart. Just because we didn’t last doesn’t mean what we had wasn’t worth it. While I wish I could’ve said some of these things when they might have mattered, I have no regrets. And because I believe everything works out the way it is supposed to, I think we would’ve ended up right where we are either way. Most people aren’t meant to be our forever. Most people are like comets, that seem to appear out of nowhere and light up your life for a brief period of time. I started dating this year because I finally felt ready for a serious relationship, but for now, I’m going to focus on me and getting my spark back. When I’m ready to date again, I’ll make sure I’m on the same page with someone else from the get-go. I’ll make sure I listen to my gut. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to be a little more vulnerable because of what T and I had. At the end of the day, he was really good for me. I hope, in some small way, I was good for him too.
T – if you’re reading this, thank you for being you and for being an important person in my life. This year wouldn’t have been the same without you.