If there’s anything I learned from writing my blog post “Heartbroken & hopeful: 6 quotes that got me through 2016“, it’s that heartbreak is unifying. Friends, both old and new, reached out to me to say they had been where I had been and eventually found the strength to move on. Their warmth encouraged me to write more.
With the following personal essay, I merely scratch the surface of the five-year relationship that broke my self-esteem. I wrote this essay six months ago, just days after the breakup, and learned how cathartic it is to put your pain into words.
I hope my story finds its way to someone who may need these words the most.
Personal essay: My 5-year breakup
“If you’re an eight out of ten, then those girls are a four.”
Oh, OK. I guess I’ll take that. I was pretty happy with my personality, my career, my thirst for learning, and my ability to rock a well-blended smokey eye with flamethrower red lipstick. It wasn’t like I needed any extra validation from him, but it was certainly the nicest thing my boyfriend had said so far in our confusing and strained five-month relationship.
“Is this your way of saying you actually like me?” I asked him.
“I do like you,” he said, rolling his eyes as if I had asked something ridiculous. “It’s just…” he started and I waited for him to finish that sentence.
He never did finish that sentence, so I ended the night and our relationship there. But as a writer and web producer, I stubbornly put in the time to hack away at things until they’re exactly how I envisioned. So after a month of waiting for him to call and say he made a mistake and wanted to try harder, I called him to say we owed it to ourselves to give it a second shot.
I was so blindingly in love with this man. I would tell him all the ways he was smart and talented, and how lucky I felt to be with him. Meanwhile, I’d wait for him to notice and express things about me that he could fall in love with. When I’d ask, “What do you like most about me?” He’d respond, “I like the time we spend together.”
As time went on with no concrete answers, I continued to wait for more emotional balance in our relationship.
Here’s how I see it: most relationships aren’t truly balanced. There’s usually one person who loves the other more. The scales float up or slide down with every interaction we have with our partner. But to me, true love means working towards that balance; loving one another equally. Because the further the scales rise or fall from one another, the more space there is for irreparable conflict.
Our love was about waiting and weighing.
On our first date, I waited for him to ask a single question about me. The only question he asked was, “What else do you want to know about me?”
After a few months, I waited for him to want to see me more than once a week while I trained myself to want him a little less.
I waited to stop being his secret girlfriend so we could be more open about our relationship. He said, “Fine, I’ve been wanting to delete all my social media accounts anyway.”
I waited for him to understand how hurt I was when he said, “My friend, who is obviously drop-dead gorgeous, said you were a babe, so you should feel good about that.”
I waited for him to apologize for groaning in disappointment when I said, “I’m taking my makeup off for the night.”
I waited for him when he’d say “I’ll be back” and he’d frequently disappear from the table for 20 minutes at weddings, parties, and even my own birthday. I’d find him by the bar, hanging out with cooler, more interesting people.
I waited for him to take more interest in my hobbies, instead of avoiding them because they were foreign to him.
I waited for him to stop tuning me out and interrupting me mid-sentence to spin the conversation back to him. It was as if every word I spoke was weightless, every phrase evaporating before ever hitting the ground.
I waited for him to want to spend our lives together for reasons other than “because it’ll save a lot of money” and “I don’t want to die alone.”
I waited for him to place more weight into our relationship so our love could be more balanced.
There were times, I like to tell myself, when our love did balance out. When he kissed me on the top of my head at a hockey game because he enjoyed the way I danced and celebrated my team’s win. When he knew how choked up I was after reading a book I loved, and he showed up the next day with flowers and ice cream to cheer me up. When he didn’t understand the point of Instagram but said, “I absolutely love taking your photos, and seeing how happy you get when we nail that perfect shot.”
This was it, I thought. We’re finally equally in love. Sure, there were some bumps along the way, like losing our jobs and having to find new places to live, but we endured them together and supported one another. For a couple years, we were a solid team and this made all the waiting worth it. His icy detachment had thawed and I could now bask in the warmth of knowing the man I adored also adored me. I loved this feeling and I was hungry for more.
So I started doing something differently. Instead of waiting, I started asking. Are we ever going to go on a trip together? Are we ever going to get married? Are we ever going to have kids?
I waited two years, then one year, then six months — all those timeframes he said would end with us getting engaged. They never ended. Time just stretched and the years blended together. I asked for status updates. I asked if he was putting it off because there was something about me he couldn’t commit to. He’d either ask me to wait a bit more or tell me to “stop shitting on him.”
One night, on the Canadian edition of Thanksgiving, I called him, gushing with excitement.
“You know what today is?” I asked.
“Umm… October 10th?” he guessed.
“Well, yeah, but it’s Thanksgiving Monday,” I said. “We met five years ago today. Isn’t that crazy? You asked me if I was the girl in the Leafs shirt from the week before. I was like, ‘Yes, why?’ And you were like, ‘Oh, because I’m a Habs fan, so I did not approve.’”
Our Romeo and Juliet story of how we met — bonding over our rival hockey teams — was always my favourite story to tell people. I was eager to reminisce with him about that sweet memory. Instead he executed a swift subject change. Maybe he just didn’t hear me? So I made a few more subtle attempts. Silence. Subject change. Silence.
I hung up, logged onto Twitter, and typed: “Do you ever just sit and watch an important date on the calendar just pass you by and fly away from you like…” Attached was a photo of Pope Francis, wide-eyed and mouth agape, releasing a flapping white dove into the air. I mean, if you’re going to subtweet your boyfriend about that empty, life-sucking feeling that he doesn’t give two flying doves about the day you met, at least package it with some humour, right?
A month later, the moment eluded us again when our official five-year anniversary came and went. He sent me a “Happy five years” text and that was it. That was how we celebrated.
It was like the experiment had conducted itself: would he care enough to plan something romantic on his own and commemorate the milestone if I didn’t initiate it? The answer was a cold, hard no. I didn’t need a fancy dinner or gifts, but I did need to know that our anniversary meant more to him than just an obligatory, three-word text. Meanwhile, I had his upcoming birthday reservations set a month in advance because celebrating his special day was important to me.
A friend once told me, “You can’t expect to receive love the way you give love” and I believed that. When he’d get sick, I’d send him home with a care package of my tried and tested cold remedies (mānuka honey lozenges, low sodium chicken noodle soup, peppermint-eucalyptus tea). When I’d get sick, he’d send me — you guessed it — a three-word text (“aw, feel better!”). We simply had different ways of giving love.
But his reticence towards our anniversary felt like something else. It felt like the imbalance was back with a vengeance and this time it wasn’t going away.
How do I know our problem was imbalance? I’ve been on the other side before. An old university boyfriend wanted me to go on vacations with him, marry him, and grow old with him. But every time he asked me why I didn’t want that, I didn’t have a real answer to say out loud. However I did know the answer in my heart: I just didn’t love him that way.
So while I was devoted to the man I was now with, I realized how far my scale had sunk past his. I carried an abundance of love for him and it weighed us down because I kept waiting for him to feel the same way.
Over the years, waiting for him was agony, but it was also clarity. Every day I waited, I got stronger by accepting his silence as his true voice. I accepted how much I loved him and how much he didn’t love me.
The longer I waited for our love to find its balance, the more I prepared for a life without him.
I stocked up on all the times he’d repeat zingers I made years ago because he wanted to laugh at them again like they were brand new. I savoured our Saturday nights arguing about hockey. I archived all those little moments to comfort me, knowing one day I’d have to end the waiting.
Waiting helped me realize we weren’t in a five-year relationship. We were in a five-year breakup, and not much had changed since that night he rated me an eight out of ten.
Waiting gave me the courage to finally stop waiting and to end it one last time.
Sometimes the most important thing a person can do is wait.
Special thanks to Adina G., Jeff H., Nicole B., and Bria J., for their help with editing this essay in its early stages.
Photo credit: Marcel Dee