[Content note: one-year retrospective on a breakup. If you are any of the people who broke up with me a year ago, you’re still welcome to read this as long as you know what you’re getting into. I also discuss facts about my relationship with sexuality (respecting others’ privacy, of course) that some people might conceivably be embarrassed for me upon reading. On second thought, everything in this post might be pretty embarrassing.]
It’s said that you can’t logic yourself out of something that you didn’t logic yourself into, and that is indeed the case. For people with my temperament, it’s an observation that deserves forceful and frequent repetition. Even more so—and this is the ultimate tragedy of the human condition, in case you were wondering—it must be said that you can’t logic yourself into something that another person didn’t logic themselves out of.
Just over seven months ago, I published a five-month reflection on a breakup, putting my split with Ruby about a year in the past.
It is absolutely astonishing to me how much time I have spent thinking about it since then. At least a few minutes almost every day, and quite a bit more on a regular basis. Most of the time, these thoughts consist entirely of sentiment. Anger—not as a feeling so much as a sentiment. Regret—not as a judgment, but as a sentiment. Sadness—not as a consuming state of being; only sentiment. Maybe this is part of “working through things,” but I think it’s more likely to be mere compulsion.
I’ve spent a lot of time missing her. I worry that this is just another sentiment that has little connection to her as a real person whom I care about. There’s no doubt that this happens sometimes. It’s good, with that in mind, to remind myself what it is that I actually miss.
I miss her buying me flowers.
I miss making breakfast with her and her roommates, who were also my friends.
I miss finding that she’d pinned my drawings to her refrigerator even though they weren’t very good.
I miss the way she laughed at me when I said I’d better not have another drink because I was already on my second beer.
I miss the way I kissed her when she showed me my quilt, which she made herself, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever given me.
I miss her sewing up the holes in my clothes.
I miss her offering to wander around with me outside when I got antsy in the afternoon, and when I insisted that she didn’t have to come, she would protest, “no, no, you need to be walked every day.”
I miss picking her up from the train station.
I miss the way she would talk me down and ground me when I got stressed out.
I miss recommending her books.
I miss the way she encouraged me to be irresponsible because she knew I wouldn’t play along.
I miss her asking me to visit her parents with her, and going.
I miss her understanding things about me that no one else around me understood because she had been a part of my life in college, and because there are things about me that no one else anywhere understands.
I miss trying to find her desserts that she could eat.
I miss seeing her, and falling asleep with her, and waking up with her, and meeting her for lunch. I miss telling her about my day. I miss hearing about her job, and her family, and her friends.
Sometimes, more animated feelings break through the surface layer of idle mental foraging. After I saw Ruby in person for the first time since our breakup, about seven months later, I did what I can only describe as short-circuiting. On the train home, I contained my agitation below the threshold to actively scare the other riders only through a substantial effort. Biting my hand and squeezing my temples were essential tools in this effort. When I got home, I was completely useless for any productive activity other than repeatedly hitting myself on the head, which I am proud to say I refrained from engaging in for much of the evening.
[PSA interlude! I was able to mostly pull out of this funk within about a day, because there is no pain that reading the Bad Advisor won’t heal. Love from my friends also helped, I guess.]
Similarly, the day after I had sex with someone else for the first time and she raised the question of monogamy—just about two months ago now—I cried myself to sleep. I was overwhelmed by a lot of feelings and half-thoughts I couldn’t make sense of, but if you’d asked me in that moment why I was crying, I suppose I would have said it was because Ruby was still the only person I wanted to be committed to.
[PSA interlude! If sex is intertwined with monogamy for you, then you should let your partners know that before having sex. You should also let your partners know if it isn’t. On the more general theme of using your words, I recommend the considerably less bad advisor, Captain Awkward.]
These experiences are not very representative; most of the time I’ve been well-adjusted, if not actually cheerful. In fact, they are not very many things at all: not very illuminating, not very influential, and not very interesting. Still, they provide some novel information by showing how much weaker I am than I would have imagined. So fragile, seeing someone’s face can break me. So afraid, just the intimation that another person cares about me can make me retreat into the dead zone between fantasy and despair.
Pretty weird, huh?
Observing my fantasies has had some educational value as well. I often catch myself imagining scenarios in which Ruby asks me to go out with her again. These fantasies rarely involve the big discussions that would in fact need to occur about what happened a year ago and why things have changed since then. Instead, they embody a metamorphosis of her not wanting to be with me into some kind of misunderstanding. I’m never sure whether I actually want to accept her offer for a date, but that’s not the point. If anything could be read into this, I would infer that it’s less important to me at this point to actually be with her than it is to receive affirmation—to feel loved or to know that our relationship was not a mistake while it lasted.
The pattern of my sexual fantasies seems more bizarre. For at least six months, I found it difficult to think about having sex with anyone besides Ruby, and this problem still hasn’t entirely abated. Even though I think it’s completely idiotic, I’m inclined to feel shame when I realize she’s become part of a fantasy, as if I’m mentally violating her. This isn’t a very important part of my life, but it is jarring enough that when I’m especially short on emotional resources, I’ll abstain from masturbation so that it can’t arise in the first place.
[No PSA needed here! Obviously no one else would ever feel irrational shame about their sexuality.]
This is, I think, more or less to be expected. The majority of my sexual experience, and all of it for a span of five years or so, had been with Ruby. It would be surprising if I did not strongly associate sex with her specifically. That’s how brains usually work. The persistence of these associations, however, seems to exceed what might be expected on this basis alone.
One of my high school teachers told me a little bit about how he came to terms with his homosexuality. For a long time, he said, he misled himself because he couldn’t imagine kissing another boy, or holding his hand. That’s stuff you do with girls. But could he imagine having sex with a dude? Oh, god, yes.
Similarly, I think I’ve misunderstood my attitudes about polyamory. At least ever since thinking about it seriously, I’ve never had anything against polyamory or polyamorous people. I know people who judge their lives to be better for it, and I completely trust them. It just didn’t seem right for me. In part, I wouldn’t mind never navigating the ambiguity of meeting someone cool and not knowing whether the compatibility is leading toward something sexual; escalating friendships is already confusing enough. Besides, as long as I’ve been with the right person, I’ve never felt myself missing fulfillment with a single romantic partner in a way that can’t easily be found through friends. Polyamory does have some appeal; it’s just not sufficient to compensate the cost of additional social ambiguity. It’s not like I don’t find a lot of women attractive. Even if I’m in a committed relationship already, it could sound kind of nice to flirt with other women (or at least it probably would if I could figure out what flirting is), or to hold their hands, or maybe to kiss them.
But having sex with them? Oh, god, no.
Maybe this is a window into my monogamosexuality (which isn’t a word to my knowledge, but I don’t have a better alternative at hand) in the same way that the analogous thought experiment was a window into my teacher’s homosexuality. If such a window escapes being spurious, then it also fails being earth-shattering, but I’ll take new information about myself where I can get it.
A few weeks ago, I saw Ruby for the second time since our breakup. For the most part, it went much better than the first. It wasn’t natural, exactly; we were operating in a mode of catching up rather than hanging out as friends. But it was nice to share good will with each other again.
As expected, though, the interaction was asymmetric. Her life is where she wants it to be and mine isn’t. Moreover, for the first time I saw how her life wouldn’t be where she wants it if she were still with me.
I’ve believed, abstractly, that she made the right choice because I trust her and I know how important I was to her. She wouldn’t have ended our relationship if she hadn’t needed to. However, I hadn’t yet seen it for myself.
She’s happier, I think, than she was with me. She spends most of her evenings with her new partner. She’s doing what she wants to do, which is meeting a lot of people and having fun with them. She’s increasingly sure that she wants to have kids and, it seems, is increasingly considering whether she’s found the person she wants to have them with.
I don’t intend to gloss over how much this hurts. Less than a year after she left me, she was (I gathered) planning to move in with another man, even though when I wanted to move in with her after so much more time together, she wasn’t prepared for it. She had been terrified that I placed her centrally enough in my life to make long-term decisions around her, but there are other decisions she’s allowing this man to make her a part of that seem even more life-altering than the ones I was faced with. What she understood at the time to be discomfort with entering into a certain kind of relationship was (or at any rate, has become) a discomfort only with entering into that kind of relationship with me. The Doctor has kindly re-enacted my first, second, third, fourth, and fifth reactions to having all of this revealed to me.
By my sixth reaction, I was able to find something comforting, even in a selfish way, about seeing her land so well. For the first time, it makes sense to me how things turned out.
While she wants someone to come home to, I want to contribute good science to the world and pull my weight on my team, which means coming home at 10:00 or 11:00 at night not too infrequently. While she wants to spend her weekends meeting people and share that experience with a partner—as I do, to some extent—what I want even more is to develop myself in a more solitary way, spending most of my weekends reading and writing. While she wants to raise children with someone, I don’t. The very best version of myself is not the person she wants to share her life with and the very best version of my life is not a life that she wants to be a part of. I can begin to appreciate, as strange as it seems, that the very best version of her life might not be a life that I want to be a part of, either.
This is hard to accept, but it’s also deeply relieving. I did fall short of who I wanted to be in some ways, but even if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been enough. I would have simply needed to be a different person.
A strange thing happened after the last time I saw Ruby. With a small shred of understanding finally in hand, I found myself prepared to call it quits.
I’ve hoped to become friends with her again as a sort of end-game of “getting over it.” I valued her friendship for a long time. I care about her. It would make me happy to remain a positive element in her life. But I haven’t known what friendship would look like between us now, and I wonder whether it’s something I really want at all.
Her current romantic relationship seems like a bad situation from what I can tell. I can’t tease apart being worried from being hurt, but fortunately, I don’t need to because her new relationships are damn near the top of the cosmic List of Things That Are Not JR’s Problem. Less fortunately, people whose relationships are on that list don’t generally make for good friends, nor do people whom it depresses me to see happy.
When my grandfather died and the ensuing circumstances dug up a lot of upsetting family dynamics, she was the only person I found myself wanting to talk to about it. As friends, talking to her about things like that would be something we did, but only in the way I talk with my other friends. There is a difference between being a person I talk to and being the person I talk to.
When I identify friendship as something I want with her, what I seem to have in mind is little more than romantic partnership with the kissy parts conspicuously censored. The truth, though, is that friendship is more subtle than that. We would need to renegotiate everything. There’s probably some optimal arrangement that lies between never talking and thoroughly entangling our lives, but when I’ve tried to figure out what that arrangement is, I haven’t had any fun. When I imagine myself figuring it out now or in the future, I don’t seem to be having any more fun.
If becoming someone’s friend doesn’t sound fun, then it shouldn’t happen. What more do I need to know?
Rilke’s first Duino Elegy has been an emotional compass for me since I was seventeen. It’s a long poem and different parts have seemed most salient to me during different stages of my life. In the last several months, the part that I would run over and over through my head like a litany was this:
Isn’t it time that these most ancient sorrows of ours
grew fruitful? Time that we tenderly loosed ourselves
from the loved one, and, unsteadily, survived:
The way the arrow, suddenly all vector, survives the string
to be more than itself. For abiding is nowhere.
Like everything else in this post, I have mixed feelings about that verse because it’s so beautiful and true and perfect, only I don’t think there’s much more fruit to be grown. Ruby and I grew fruit from our sorrows and joys, together and individually, for a long, long time. Why should this soil still be fertile?
I’m a couple of weeks late in finishing this retrospective for the best possible reason: it was boring to write. I’m sick of thinking about Ruby, and of trying to squeeze more meaning out of memories that have nothing to feed on but time. I’ve been unable to say anything definitive and unqualified aside from the first paragraph, which is so grandiose that I can’t take it seriously. If there’s any more insight to scrape, I’d just as soon pass it by.
My guess is that there is more insight, somewhere—more fruit to grow—and that I won’t pass it by, after all; that I’ll make up my mind about a few more things. This can be true and still be answering the wrong rhetorical question.
The right question comes about two dozen lines earlier in the Elegy.
You still don’t see?
The lines that follow seem to be not so much advice as Rilke’s own answer.
Cast the emptiness from your arms
into the spaces we breathe: perhaps the birds
will sense the increase of air with more passionate flying.
This solution, I think, is the correct one.