About a year and a half ago I left a 7 year long relationship, and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. This includes sitting next to my mother while she took her last breath. Looking into someone’s eyes while they are trying to convince you to love them enough to stay, and having to repeatedly say “no” is about as much fun as stabbing puppies.
I’m not sharing this for pity, and I hope that I’m not provoking your anger. If I had been recently heartbroken and it wasn’t my decision, I wouldn’t want to read about how hard it is to walk away. If this is you, please kindly read a different post.
As hard as the actual conversations of breakup between my ex and I were, the arguments in my mind were worse. I wanted there to be an indisputable reason that I had to put us through the pain of a break up. It was terrifying to be in charge of making the decision on my own, but the truth was he was sure he wanted to be with me and I was not sure I wanted to remain committed to him.
I talked it through with friends, family and counselors, trying to either convince them that I needed to leave, or let myself be convinced that I could stay. Many of them tried, unsuccessfully, to reassure me and convince me that my issues were solvable.
According to the common wisdom I encountered, I was experiencing a normal committed relationship. No one was abusing anyone, and when I wasn’t questioning whether I wanted to stay with him, we more or less got along. Our dogs were good friends, our families got along. I couldn’t put words to what I was longing for that seemed to make sense to anyone else. And when I tried, all I could come up was “I’m just not happy”.
“That’s what commitment is.”
“You just gotta fake it till you make it.”
I sincerely believe that in the right circumstances their advice would have been golden. I have personally known couples who have have walked through dark times together and come out stronger. Of course leaving shouldn’t be considered lightly, hence the arguments going on inside my head.
Finally one woman advised me: “I think you just have to listen to your body”. She meant this as literally as you can take it. My mind wasn’t helping me, maybe I could try asking another part of myself. How does your stomach feel? How does your heart feel? How does your throat feel? How does your head feel?
Truthfully, my heart was just full of pain. Pain when I imagined staying, pain when I thought about leaving, and the pain of not knowing. Follow my heart? My heart was lost as a blind sailor in a stormy sea.
But I had to admit that when I thought of staying my stomach hurt and my throat felt tight. My chest felt conflicted and my body felt heavy. And when I thought about being single, I felt sad, but my stomach relaxed and I felt hungry, and my throat and shoulders relaxed. My mind thought, “oh shit, you are really going to have to do this.”
“So that’s it, after all we’ve been through, you just want to leave me.”
“No, I hate that I’m leaving you, but I just don’t want to stay.”
Only a month later I understood why I had to leave. I was raw, I was grieving, but I felt alive. My creative energy returned. Reading Janet Woititz I came across the idea that a good relationship not only allows growth but frees you to be more of yourself. “Yes,” I thought, “that’s what I want!”
In many ways once I was single the real work began. Now that my focus wasn’t on either fixing my relationship or figuring out how to end it, I had to put that focus back on myself. When I tell the story it seems that things started clearing up for me quickly once I left, but the truth is things started changing for me once I started putting my attention back on my own life. In my case that coincided with the end of my relationship.
A counselor friend of mine put it this way. “Relationships are all about growth. Sometimes that growth comes from being together, you challenge each other, inspire each other, support each other in such a way you become a better version of you than you would be apart. Sometimes that growth comes in the pain and upheaval of the relationship ending.” One of the last times I talked to my ex, he told me that, though he still regrets we didn’t work things out, he can see growth in both of us that he didn’t think could have happened if we stayed together.
A year and a half later, I can see how I had been a part of creating a relationship that was ultimately unsatisfying. Stories are always easier to tell with the luxury of hindsight. It’s tempting to bombard you with lists of everything I’ve learned about myself and relationships—and life in general—through this process. But they are likely things you already know, or they are things you just need to learn for yourself.
I think most people are familiar with the lotus flower, which is known—among other fun facts—to grow out of dark, murky waters. Today, I’m reminded of my time in the mud and all of us who are slogging through it, feeling like we’re alone. Now that I’m on the other side of my break up, I talk to people all the time who have been through divorce, and many of them are like me; they left because they simply couldn’t thrive where they had planted themselves. What once seemed like a path of isolation has turned into a journey shared by many.