Eight years into a committed and good — on paper — relationship, I derailed a train that was headed to happily-ever-after town at the age of 30. While a part of me will always feel guilty and selfish for having blown up a “good thing,” I like to think there’s something romantic about giving up good enough to chase the best — or what’s best for you; to keep climbing for that sweet something. In my case, that meant letting go of something that I now see was never right for me, because the type of life that was presented to me in the beginning of our relationship turned out to be more like false advertising. Once you have an idea in your head of what a partnership could be like, it’s very hard to settle for anything less.
Related: What is love, according to science.
A fun and fiery beginning
It started like most relationships in your early 20s – as a rebound. He was my hot soccer coach, trying to rack up community service hours, and I was fresh out of a very tumultuous relationship. I pursued him, rabidly, and he caved.
We were very different people. I was an Oshawa girl with a thesaurus and a chip on her shoulder, and he was an affluent, straight-edge good boy. He had a really strong sense of self. He was stubborn, incredibly self-assured and idealistic. Our differences were stark, but somehow it worked. We balanced each other out. He wanted to be a professional good guy, and I absolutely loved him for that.
In the beginning it was all fun, all the time. We were super goofy together. We would cry-laugh deliriously for hours about literally nothing. He was also objectively hot, so it was fire, fire, fire. Beyond the superficial though, it seemed that we shared some common values and goals — or so I thought. We would talk about all of the adventures we wanted to go on together. He taught me sign language and how to wash dishes properly. I taught him how to dance. We made grandiose plans that made me genuinely excited for the future. He was also the first partner who treated me well. Naturally, I was hooked.
Relationship turning point: Growing differences
At the halfway point, things took a hard turn in a different direction. He changed careers, and although he promised it wouldn’t change him, he seemed more rigid, authoritarian and closed-minded. He later became possessive, paranoid and generally seemed just kind of dead on the inside, to me.
For a long time, I naively saw it as a challenge. I took pity on him for the ways that his job weighed so heavily on him, and I tried to be the uplifting, fun influence I knew he needed. From the outside looking in, there was nothing glaringly wrong with our relationship, so I felt selfish for wanting more.
My desires didn’t change, and I was pretty heartbroken.
Still, the insurmountable differences between us were apparent when it came to fundamental things, like our individual concepts of home. He liked things neat, clean, crisp and quiet, while I am grateful to him for essentially housetraining me (I was a shitty roommate for a long time). To me, home was supposed to be a place where people I loved could drop by unannounced – like Eric Forman’s basement from That ’70s Show. Home is a chaos kitchen of amazing smells, with laughter ricocheting off every corner of every room. It’s a place to be creative and make a mess, and it’s a safe space where our general weirdness could unfurl.
Contrasting definitions of what living your best life means
As time passed, it was slowly revealed that his idea of life at its peak was earning promotions, getting married, having children, visiting an all-inclusive once a year, buying a bigger house and having a bigger lawn – essentially keeping up with the Joneses. My desires didn’t change, and I was pretty heartbroken. Together, I wanted to travel, live abroad for a year or two working for an advocacy group to make a social impact, work on creative projects together, invite others to collaborate and expand our perspectives and our friend circles. I wanted general expansion and personal growth, and to be able to give something back to the world, instead of just sucking air.
I had gotten so skilled at ignoring my inner voice that the intensifying red flags didn’t even register anymore.
For a long time, I felt guilty about not giving in to having kids. The romantic thing for me about the concept of making a family is that you come together to create your own vibe, free of your previous representations of family life and free from the constraints of what sitcoms tell you a family is supposed to look like. It’s your own little planet, your tribe, your save point in the game of life. So it was hard to imagine bringing children into a space that I myself didn’t even feel at home in.
A last effort to embrace someone else’s “normal”
I often felt the need to change my personality and adopt his perspectives to fit with his idea of being “normal.” For most of my life, I had handily evaded letting other peoples’ judgements of me as “weird” or “alternative” taint my self-image. But when the person you come to trust and love with your whole heart begins to plant those same seeds, they can take root. I started to feel really bad about myself. I started to think that there was something fundamentally wrong with me – that I was lacking, and that I needed to change.
For a long time – probably two years too long – I tried to make things work. I was convinced that if things were bad in my relationship, it was my responsibility to turn them around. I read the books, tried the communication techniques and suggested relationship therapy. I tried pulling away, tried getting closer and tried on different personas. I’ve never really known when to call it quits. Eventually, I tried just giving up and doing everything his way.
Turns out, it worked – for him. He seemed as happy as a clam during the period of time that completely eroded my self-esteem and self-worth. I hated who I had become: muted, voiceless, servile, empty – but “normal,” by his definition. At that point, I had gotten so skilled at ignoring my inner voice that the intensifying red flags didn’t even register anymore. I just kept blaming myself.
I think I was testing the limits of his love, and I found them.
I should clarify that he wasn’t a bad person. He was a good boy, and he took care of me in ways that even parents never did. He didn’t outright say to me that I was garbage. But the positive reinforcements – the “I love it when you do this,” the “I love it when you say this” and the “you look so good like this” made me feel like I was being groomed. I take responsibility for the way I reacted. I was the one who translated all of this into feeling that there was something wrong with my personality.
A rebellious release
When I finally saw what was happening, instead of addressing it maturely or ending the relationship like I should have, I did what can only be described as “acting out.” I rebelled. Hard.
He hated it when I hung out with my ex-boyfriend (who I had dated in high school, but who is, to this day, my best friend in the world), so I spent weekends with my friend and ignored his messages, just to piss him off.
He hated it when I went out and left a mess, so I made a point to leave the house in shambles just before he came home from work.
He didn’t like some of the music I liked and he was always telling me to “keep it down,” so I turned everything the fuck up.
He once told me that I looked the best with long dark hair, so one night, drunk in the bathroom, I dyed it blonde and chopped it off. It was tragically bratty and cliché.
I contributed to making both of our lives hell at the end. I think I was testing the limits of his love, and I found them. Once I got through my bratty phase, I settled into a comfortable state of just being myself again. I did what I wanted to, saw who I wanted to and spent little time at home. I tried to be respectful of him when I was there, in the way that a roommate is, and we both watched our spark fizzle, flicker and then finally burn out.
A moment that unleashed change
The sky-cracking moment came when he accused me of cheating on him with my best friend. He showed up in the middle of my Frisbee game and reamed me out. Needless to say, he was dead wrong.
I understand it’s difficult to contend with jealousy when partners have close friends of the same sex, but I had demonstrated years of platonic friendship with this person, and I had never intentionally flirted with anyone while I was with him. One of the few things I take pride in is my integrity.
After all the work I had done, all the bending and stretching and contortionism, I wasn’t just hurt by the accusation – I was livid. I finished my game and came home. That night was one of the only times anger has been my friend. It gave me the strength to pack a bag, scoop up my kitty, get in my car and crash land at my dad’s house. I never went back. He kindly dumped all of my belongings in my grandmother’s driveway one fine morning. I had never had an ugly breakup before in my life, and haven’t since.
Reclaiming and reconnecting with self
Within a few weeks of being away from that house, after the white-hot panic started to subside, I felt buoyancy. As the months went by, I felt lighter and lighter. I reconnected with friends I had unknowingly shunned because he never made them feel welcome in our home. I got my sense of humour back. I felt my creative juices flowing again, and as the disorientation from uprooting my life slowly converted into excitement for the next branch, I knew I had made one of the best decisions of my life.
You can’t rush some life lessons. They take as long as they take.
Once the dust had settled on the sad process of disentangling our home and financial situation, I went through a long, ugly period of absolute floundering. I experienced deep self-loathing and depression that took a long time to claw my way out of. I was an emotional terrorist to those around me. I was dating characters who will certainly end up in a memoir some day. It took me over a year to “find myself” again, and it is still questionable whether or not I can call any romantic relationship I’ve had since then healthy because I haven’t been able to trust myself.
I’ve spent a long time beating myself up about the ordeal, and questioning why I made the choice that I did — when I did. But I’ve come to realize that you can’t rush some life lessons. They take as long as they take. And, at the very least, I can rest comfortably knowing that I held on as long as I could. I really did try.
There is psychological value in every misstep along the road of life. We should celebrate failures as a chance to learn. I think allowing space for foolishness is the attitude that paves the path to wisdom. Every relationship is a lesson, and so regrets are only due when there is nothing learned.
I learned three valuable lessons that I hope will help others avoid the same pitfalls:
- Low self-worth is extremely dangerous. It not only makes you weak, it fosters a tendency to point the finger at yourself when the real problems are out there. If you have personal issues to work out, go to therapy.
- Never contort yourself to fit around someone else. Grow side by side, at most letting a few branches intertwine. Becoming the same person is just erasure. The differences between you are the spice, but if they add more conflict than excitement, you might not be compatible.
- Don’t ignore your gut. It is literally your superpower. Read the signs earlier than I did, and take responsibility to do what is necessary for both of you. Don’t let things fester and turn to rot. That’s where the ugliness can blossom.
See also: 11 ways to improve your self-love now.
While I subscribe to the idea that refusing to settle for anything less than what you want and deserve is terribly romantic, that idealism needs to come with a dose of reality… The reality is that you might never find it. Searching for nothing less than fucking awesome means the odds are against you, but living with the shame and regret of “settling” is something I couldn’t live (or die) with. The bright side is that with every relationship I’ve had since that doozy, I’ve gotten closer and closer. Cheers to my fellow weary travelers.