I knew I loved him when, a few months into our relationship, I told him I had sharp stomach pains and he tenderly suggested I go sit on the toilet and wait. The memory of that day still makes me laugh, because in that moment, I remember feeling loved in a way I hadn’t known possible. And I felt that intense, transformative emotion while perched atop a toilet.
That was the special thing about him: He never made me feel like I had to be someone else. Something about that felt infinite. It still does.
When I ended our relationship six years later, the weight of that infinity crushed me. Worse, it crushed him. Our spirits felt separate in a way they hadn’t since we’d met. It was an unfamiliar kind of pain. More visceral than all of that was the lump of uncertainty that sat in my throat. Because I wasn’t breaking up with him, per se, I was breaking up with the quiet war I’d been waging against myself for years about whether I should. And while I hated the ambiguity of it, in time that uncertainty felt like a decision in its own right.
We were happy. The comfy love, the deep respect, the weird quirks, the shared dreams, the comedic rapport. The memory-bloated cocoon we’d built around ourselves and the familiar rhythm with which we inhabited it. So often I thought I could stay there forever. We were us. We were perfect. Why would I leave? I’d asked myself that question a hundred times. The problem with persuading myself to stay was never that I didn’t have the data points, it was that I had to do it in the first place.
The first seed of doubt was planted a year in. It made a habit of returning every once in a while — weeks, months or maybe a year later — like an old, unwelcome friend. With it came the disorienting maiming of my own perception. Maybe this wasn’t it, maybe we weren’t forever, maybe I wanted something else entirely. The thoughts always hit me like a ton of bricks. Panic-stricken, I took care to fall back in love. Quick.
I loathed that roller coaster. All in one day and not the next, with nothing to blame but my own twisted paradigm shift. It felt like such a waste of energy to experience, each time, a tiny hypothetical heartbreak. I was desperate to make it stop. I reasoned that my doubts were delusional, anxious, a side effect of unrealistic expectations. Quietly I feared, with every fiber of my being, that they were my undeniable truth.
Relationships are hard, I’d mentally counter. Doubts are normal, I’d repeat in my head. If I really don’t want to break up, I’d write in my journal, that must mean I want to stay. And so I would. And we’d cook a cozy dinner, goof around and snuggle into bed like we’d done so many nights before. And I’d mistake the myopia of pain avoidance for the utopia of doing what felt right. I’d convince myself that safety and comfort were the same as fulfillment.
One day, after years of this intermittent cycle, I confessed to my mom I was having the old familiar feelings. It was a hot summer afternoon when I realized, in tears, I was done. Not with him — I still loved him a lot — but with it. The battle. The conflict. The denial of what I was beginning to recognize was my gut screaming for my attention. Suddenly it became stunningly clear that no matter how robust my list of reasons to be with him, none of it mattered if I simply didn’t want to.
It’s easy to misconstrue reluctance to leave as desire to stay. Especially when the source of our itch feels frustratingly nebulous and capable of destroying something precious. It doesn’t help that, as women, we’re constantly fed the notion that we ought to hold on to something good. To listen to everyone but ourselves. Cheryl Strayed of the column Dear Sugar once famously said, “Go because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.” Those words had a profound effect on me when I first read them, but what I didn’t understand until much later was the voice saying go wasn’t some mysterious desire I couldn’t help but follow. It was me at my most honest.
When I eventually ended things, I was plagued with a sadness so intense I almost can’t remember it now. It wasn’t long before the answer to my tortured question — Why would I leave? — began to emerge, no longer handcuffed by fear. With healing and distance, our mismatches came into sharper focus. It all made stupid-beautiful sense. Just as I suspected, and as is so often true in life, clarity was waiting on the other side of the hard part.