When my girlfriend Ruby and I broke up after about four and a half years of dating, I was told by a friend of a friend that her friend says that it takes one month of being single for every year of the relationship to get over it. (There’s a formula! Time goes in, time goes out!) So around the beginning of month four, I started thinking about how my recovery process would look in the light of this maximally-authoritative maxim.
By then, I was working on a proposal deadline, had a week-long out-of-town conference, and had just found out that I needed to find a place to live in another state, so now I’m just in time for a reflection on the five-month mark instead.
Still, I can’t do a very good job of answering whether I’m over it yet. What would that even mean? Here are some trial answers:
- I am at a level of risk indistinguishable from zero of harming myself or others.
- I enjoy many of the things that I do.
- I routinely perform tasks at a significant fraction of my best, and sometimes perform at my best.
- I am interested in dating other people and excited about the prospect of a healthy new relationship or set of relationships.
- The breakup has not significantly damaged my sense of self-worth.
On the other hand, what would it mean for me to not be over it? Again, some trial answers:
- I think about Ruby every day.
- Though I don’t get sad every time I think about her, I do get sad at least one of the times that I think about her each day.
- The thought of running into her makes me physically uncomfortable in a way that seems associated with some combination of anxiety and terror.
- I routinely have dreams about her, which I usually experience as being unpleasant.
- Our breakup has significantly compromised the sense of narrative coherence I had for my life.
Maybe this ambiguity is intentional. When people ask me, “do you think you’re over it” or “are you okay,” they want me to be comfortable answering however specifically or vaguely I want. The problem is that it is always uncomfortable for me to communicate imprecisely, and even the answers that lie deeply within “answering specifically” territory still feel so vague and general as to be completely misleading. So whereas I probably ought to say, “I don’t understand what the question means, and in any case, I’d rather not answer it right now even though I appreciate the concern,” I mostly just feel confused and unsure of how to respond. This is no less true when I’m the one asking the question.
My confusion hasn’t been alleviated much by the advice I’ve gotten. For the most part, it’s been stuff I know already (e.g., “you’ll find someone else eventually!” as if I believe that I’ll be miserable and alone forever); or it consists of comforting words that live in some weird, irrelevant, alternative universe where things look the way I want them to (e.g., women my mom’s age saying “any girl would be lucky to have you!” when this is evidently not the perception of the age-appropriate women whom I would like to feel lucky to have me); or they’re statements of simple fact carrying no semantic content that I can parse (e.g., “this just means that you’re transitioning to a new stage in life”).
Many of my friends have done much better, mostly by just listening and making sure that I know that it’s okay to feel whatever I’m feeling. Sometimes when I express hesitancy about the way I’m reacting to something, they’ll say “no, I don’t think that’s unfair of you,” or “yes, that’s a little unfair and at some point you’ll get to a place where you aren’t upset about that anymore, but it’s okay to be upset about it right now.” Sometimes, they’ll talk about how they’ve experienced analogous situations in the past, without overgeneralizing and suggesting that I need to be doing what they wish they had done then. They’ll make kind gestures like going to a bar with me and helping me meet women so I can see that it’s not scary (it is) or weird (it is) or hard (it is) and that people won’t be mean to me if I express interest in them (they won’t!). Most importantly by far, my friends have done better by being awesome people who love me and whom I love and by doing all sorts of fun and gratifying things with me that have nothing to do with any of this.
Yet as critical as that support is for my well-being, it hasn’t gotten me much closer to knowing what successful coping looks like or how to achieve it.
No good breakup is complete without ignoring all of the wisdom of loved ones and seeking emotional refuge in breakup songs, anyway, so let me start there.
There’s a line in “Boulder to Birmingham” that says, “the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive.” This song was associated with a deceased friend of Emmylou Harris’, so it’s easy to interpret the line as being about something like the overwhelming prospect of indefinitely continuing to cope with loss. However, when it resonates with me, it means something else.
What’s at stake for me in adapting is not just whom I spend time with, or whom I’m in love with, or what kinds of things I spend time doing. It’s who I am and who I want to be. I loved Ruby and wanted to make her a more central part of my life. That love drew on my most personal values, and the time I spent with her fed into every corner of my worldview. More to the point, what’s at stake is who I don’t want to be–someone who wouldn’t fall in love with her; who wouldn’t have stuck through geographic inconveniences for two years to be with her; who wouldn’t have wanted to leave the city with his great work environment and kind, thoughtful, supportive friends who are so incredibly fun to be around, in part to be closer to her and make things work out in the long term.
I guess no one is asking me to be that person, but somehow it feels like it’s who I’m supposed to be when people tell me that I’ll find someone better for me, or that these things tend to work out for the best, or that meeting new people will be a (more) great, (more) exciting (better) adventure.
If all of that is true, then how untrustworthy is my judgment and what the fuck was I doing all that time?
I’m not worried that I won’t find someone else eventually. I’m worried that I’ll think this was all for the best. The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive, but not as the person I wanted to be.
Seeing as I haven’t gotten advice that I’ve been able to put to good use, I’m going to give the advice to myself that I think I should have heard a few months ago:
JR, it’s not your job to think it was a lucky break that you and Ruby split up. It’s not your job to not feel sad about it. It’s not your job to want to date other people right now. It’s not your job to understand what happened. It’s not your job to talk to her when you don’t want to. It’s not your job to get over it.
Your job isn’t to not want the life that could have happened if she were on your page about commitment levels. I mean, who wouldn’t want it? It sounds fucking awesome.
Your job is to explore the things you love, or might love, and let them shape you.
Ruby, happy quintmensiversary of being on your own. I hope you forgot it. I hope you’re meeting lots of great people if that’s what you want to be doing. I hope you’re figuring out exactly which wonderful person you’re going to become. I can’t tell you how excited I am to meet her when I’ve become my own new person, too—one who can be proud of the decisions you’ve made, not because I need to be or because it’s too painful to stay the way I am, but because that’s where my life will take me on its own natural course.
I’m okay, but I’m not him just yet.