I hadn’t seen the breakup coming. On Friday night we had dinner with his daughters and talked about summer plans and on Monday he ended it. He’d been separated when we started dating, but his divorce wasn’t final yet and he realized that he wasn’t ready for a relationship and couldn’t make me happy. I didn’t just feel my heart crack, but my whole body. I was in love and I’d never been with anyone I had so much in common with or been so vulnerable with. How could it be ending? I cried, but then he talked about how awful he felt for hurting me and how scared he was to lose his best friend. He asked for my forgiveness, which I immediately gave. How could I be angry with him for expressing his feelings? It would be far worse if he pretended to feel something he didn’t.
First Comes Sadness
For a week, I allowed myself to feel hurt and sad starting with a day in bed watching romantic movies. I grieved for the loss of all the fantasies I had built up around the relationship. I loved him and had thought that he loved me, that he was going to be my person and I was going to be his. He was supposed to be the happy ending to the memoir I had been writing about my journey to love myself. Wasn’t passionate, romantic love the reason I had set out to learn to love myself in the first place?
The loss of these dreams led to an accounting of my failures, however. If he was my reward for having learned to love myself, then his breaking up with me meant I had not really arrived. Worse, at age 46, after years of therapy to learn to feel my feelings and take the risk and share them, I thought I had been doing everything right only to now suspect that I had become too needy.
I reasoned that if I could have just accepted what he was able to give instead of asking for him to prioritize me, we’d still be together. Perhaps the old me, the one who pretended not to have needs, had been right after all. And while I could tout my success that this relationship lasted two months longer than my historical length of six months, it seemed like a hollow victory. So one week of grief, turned into multiple weeks of wondering what was wrong with me.
We continued messaging for a while; it was hard to let go of a habit developed over eight months of communicating about the minutiae of our days and I thought maybe we really could be friends. Yet every message we exchanged sparked a hope that perhaps he would change his mind. I couldn’t move on with him still in my life. So I sent him a long and convoluted e-mail explaining my fear of losing him, but asking him to stop contacting me.
Then Comes Anger
The next day I had a casual message from him, a news story about Eritrea and Ethiopia reaching peace. In itself nothing significant. He knew I had lived in Ethiopia during the war and thought I’d like the story. But it caught me in the midst of a horrible cold and hearing the squeaking of my housemates’ bed any time I left my room, reminding me that she was in the early throes of falling in love and I had bombed, yet again.
So while I couldn’t be angry at him for not being in love with me, I was pissed that he had ignored my request to stop writing to me. I sent a series of messages with angry zingers, hoping to draw him into a “screaming” match, to give me reason to be pissed at him.
My attempts, though, failed because he would only apologize and tell me how bad he felt about hurting me. “Fuck you. I don’t want your apology. . . I say I deserve better, but obviously if I need to say it, then I’m not really believing it. . . And what do I have to complain about? Nothing really. I have people that love me and care about me. But fuck, the one thing I want is just one person to love me and prioritize me. And I can’t find it. I just want to be happy with what I have, but I can’t let it go.”
That was the gist of my anger. I wanted to be someone’s priority and I couldn’t let go of that desire. Over my life I had had best friends, both male and female, but eventually they would find a partner and get married and while they continued as close friends, I always ended up the third wheel. For once, I wanted it to be my turn.
Later in the day, after my anger subsided and rationality returned, I apologized. “Despite my anger, I still think you’re an amazing man and I wish you could see it in yourself instead of being so hard on yourself. I hope you’ll get there. I truly wish you to be happy.” And then I offered him the Punch Brothers concert tickets that I couldn’t use.
Since I couldn’t be mad at him, however, my anger had to go somewhere. I chose the world. I chose God. The anger sat like a snake deep inside my organs that might never find its way out.
When the snake hissed, I wanted to give everyone I passed the middle finger. I had never understood the jilted lovers in movies burning clothes or slashing tires, but now I thought perhaps I did. Being from Minnesota, I usually smile at everyone I pass while walking and greet them. I want everyone to feel noticed and I will apologize profusely if I accidentally get in someone’s way. So to avoid my Minnesota Nice tendency, I took to wearing headphones. I listened to music and pretended to be alone in the world while I walked, trying to imitate those no speak, no hear, no see monkeys with their hands over their eyes, ears, and mouth.
Then Comes the Commemorative T-shirt
Instead of giving passersby the finger, I bought a t-shirt with a big red heart on it and a middle finger sticking up in the middle of it. At the bottom I wrote – “Yes. This means you.” In my mind it conveyed how I was torn – on the one hand, I still loved people and didn’t really think they were bad, but I also just wanted to tell all of them to fuck off.
I wore the t-shirt only once in public. I walked out with a scowl plastered on my face daring anyone to get in my way. My mood lifted considerably when I stopped to talk to some neighbors, one of which was a six-year-old girl. I forgot what I was wearing until the six year old asked, “is that a middle finger on your shirt?” I didn’t mean her. And now I could add corrupter of children to my list of offenses.
The one good part about the anger was my increased compassion for wrathful people. While driving one day, I saw a car with signs that said “fuck you” plastered around the windows. In the past, I might have thought that person needed therapy. Now I said, “I hear ya.”
I tried to accept the anger and be with it, trusting that it would dissipate, but it went on and on and after almost three months, I worried I was in danger of wallowing.
Finding Peace Hiding in New Mexico
I squirreled away in a friend’s condo in New Mexico a month later, reading old journals, finishing the drafting of my memoir and processing. Occasionally I called friends to help me work through painful places. But mostly I was alone. I prayed and meditated a lot. During the full moon, I did a ceremony to release beliefs that I recognized no longer served me, including my deep well of anger. To commemorate my liberation, I burned the middle finger t-shirt. When I returned to Washington, D.C., I thought that I had truly let go of the pain of the breakup.
Maybe We’re Ready to Be Friends
Convinced I was finally at peace, I wrote my ex telling him that I thought I was ready to be friends. I didn’t hear back from him for five days during which I incessantly checked my e-mail. When I finally received his response, my throat dropped into my stomach, “let’s give it more time, I think.”
Or Maybe Not
It wasn’t the reply I had expected. Without admitting it to myself, I had hoped that he’d tell me that he’d made a mistake in breaking up with me so I could tell him that he wasn’t ready – that he needed to take a year, date some other people, and then let me know. If I could reshape the narrative of the end of our relationship, I wouldn’t be the failure, the weak one. Instead, I would gain control and no longer be vulnerable to being hurt.
Fortunately, I received his response while relaxing in the mountains with a couple of supportive girlfriends and I processed it with them. I told myself it was a good thing. No more fantasies. Now I could really move on.
The next day though, as I described in a previous post, I launched an all-out assault on my neighborhood construction workers for blocking my driveway. I regained control by officially becoming a crazy bitch. Something every little girl aspires to.
But then there was the crash of the shame of my behavior and apologizing to the workers. I thought, again, that I had put my anger behind me.
I didn’t respond to my ex’s message because he said he needed more time and I honored that. Clearly I needed more time too.
I spent more time with the people who loved me, trying to staunch my sadness. But I had been using this method my whole life and it was never enough. I still desperately wanted to be someone’s priority. Perhaps, the problem was that I wasn’t my own priority. And frankly, I didn’t really know what that meant. I was still that 29 year old woman writing in her journal that she loved herself while noting all the ways she had failed. So perhaps the real goal was to figure out what it meant to accept and love myself. More on that endeavor next week.
I have been told that I have very little empathy. I would agree, except for my kids….the children I serve. They have little control over their lives, unlike we adults. Thus, I try to help children gain more control, by my listening and doing what I can to give them some ability to be themselves….to find some joy in life beyond their control. From extreme sadness to finding joy, admitting I fail daily but I can be the light again.
Thanks for the comment Ron. It’s lovely to see your name here. I don’t recall you as not having empathy, but your point about kids is well taken. I’ve been learning so much from spending time with my niece and nephew and this will come up in future posts.
Great writing Jen, you are very brave and so open about yourself that shows that you are very strong and more insightful than most others. I’m sad for you loosing this great guy. It has nothing to do with you, it seems that he has many other issues that hinders him from being with you. Some day he will want to come bsck, but by then I really hope you have found somebody else. There are more great guys waiting to find you. You are a gem
Thanks Biga. I am so happy to see you here. And thanks for your kind words. Much of my sharing these stories is that I’d like people to know they aren’t alone. I feel like so many of these issues we don’t really talk about. I’m looking forward to sharing more of the journey, although also terrified. Its lovely to have your support.
Thank you for your brave sharing, Jen. Your honesty does indeed remind me that I’m a member of the human race: others feel like I do.
Thanks Judson! I’m so happy to see you here. You and I have had some amazing conversations on these issues and no doubt pieces of those conversations will be making an appearance here at some point.
Great post, Jen. And i love the t-shirt!
Thanks Gina. Hahaha. Yeah, I’ve joked with some friends about selling them. It’s been quite popular.
I linked to this from a piece you wrote in Medium. I’ve been where you are. I’ve written about it. Here’s a link if you’re interested in reading. Either way, I wish you well in your journey. It’s a tough one. https://medium.com/@slm274dec2010/leila-good-eagle-and-1484-742f80f12b23?source=friends_link&sk=43693163337fea7cdcb2bea17e103db0
Sharon, thank you for sharing your story with me. I’ve put a longer comment on your story’s page, but as you said it would, it resonated deeply. I hope that we may continue to stay connected on this journey.