The Break Up

My favorite non-fiction author, Anne Lamott, had a throw away line in a recent essay: “I had just broken up with a man I loved and who loved me…” My first thought was “HUH?!? How does THAT happen?” If you love someone and they love you, why would you need to break up? Mutual love is a rare and wonderful thing. If you find it aren’t you supposed to hang on as tight as you can and find a way around, under, over or through all obstacles? But now I get it. Now I know first hand that it is possible to love and be loved and still not find happiness, still not be able to make a life with someone.

This is, for the record, enormously sad. To get so far down the field, to make it through casual dating, find mutual attraction and admiration and have that blossom into love and caring, make a scrapbook’s worth of memories together, meet each other’s friends and families and feel their warm embrace and collective joy at your coupling, to do all that and still not be able to seal the deal just seems wrong. John used to say in our earlier, rosier days, “If we can’t make something this good work–shame on us!” But it is not shameful. It is just very, very sad.

It was, perhaps, inevitable. I had filled journal pages with complaints large and small over the past year.  We had already had one actual break up and several near misses. Each time we had hung in by the slim margin of “I’d rather have you in my life than not”. But it now seemed that unhappy together had taken the lead by a hair, that bad times outweighed the good, that the calms between the storms were shorter.

Chief among the woes was our complete inability to problem solve any issue related to behaviors one or the other of us didn’t love about the other.  This still surprises me because John is an actual therapist and I have spent plenty of time in therapists’ offices. But all the rules of civil engagement seem to fly out the door when one’s less attractive qualities are being highlighted, when entrenched behaviors are being challenged, when decades-old coping mechanisms are found wanting.

He had lived alone for 25 years. I was only a couple of years out of a blissful marriage ended by death. Neither of us were young. Neither of us wanted to grow old alone. We both loved old-time ballads, The New York Times and flowers. He was a handsome charmer who was a delight at every social gathering. He whisked me off for weekends in warm places. I helped him choose a headstone for his dad’s grave and tried to organize family photos that made him too emotional to look at. We each loved the heart and spirit, the mind and morals of the other. And our physical connection was profound. But love is complicated. It is full of triggers and land mines. Someone says or does something that reminds us of something in childhood or a past relationship and we are off—spinning into tangents of dissatisfaction and disappointment. (For more on this topic read Alain de Botton’s excellent “The Course of Love”.)

I thought I could side step all this with the brilliant Gary Chapman book “The 5 Love Languages”. When I first read it years ago I swore it could’ve saved my marriage to my girls’ father. If I had known that his love language was “acts of service” and been busy about sweeping the floor instead of try so hard to get fluent in the OTHER languages (words of affirmation, gift-giving, physical affection, time together) we might have made a better go of it. By the time I met John I understood that my love language was time together and told him that upfront. But it did not sink in. He wanted my understanding when he felt he had to work instead of going on a long scheduled vacation, when he went out for dinner with a friend on my first night back in town after a week away, when his priority was to care for the many things in his life rather than the person next to him. But I did not understand. I felt slighted, angry and unloved. I would make valiant attempts at positive self-talk (“It’s OK. He’s a great guy. He loves you. Look at how many nice things he does for you! Quit being so needy.) but they never worked. A little ember of resentment would catch hold and start a firestorm. I would write and write and write and then try to calmly distill my thoughts and talk to him but in vain. He never got it. He had his own unmet needs that mostly seemed to involve being left alone to live exactly as he always had with me in the cameo role of girlfriend.

What went wrong doesn’t really matter.  Now is the time to give in to grief as the unpleasant but necessary first step on the path to healing. In between binge-watching Downton Abbey and binge-eating the very delightful cinnamon sugar donuts conveniently delivered to my door as part of a neighborhood fundraiser (there is a God after all), I have made a very long list of the things I will not miss and a shorter one of the things I will miss very much indeed. John’s coping mechanisms are likely different. At his last breakup he chucked the woman’s pink bunny slippers and complete boxed set of The Godfather movies. But after a year and a half together it is shocking to realize that there is nothing to chuck—-nary a trace of either of us in the other’s home. A bit telling, that.

The lessons to be learned will become clearer as the tears dry. But I can already see that this relationship taught me that my patchwork heart still beats, that I am capable of love even after losing Tom, that you don’t get everything in a mate, but kindness really is the most important thing and is not quite the same as niceness or generosity. And, yes, that my own wilfulness, impulsivity and insistence on my own way might need a little softening to accommodate a partner. Damn. Just when I thought I was perfect.

I don’t know if I’ll try again. The “meet cute” of this relationship–having been fixed up almost simultaneously by two people who did not know each other but knew both of us–seemed like fairy dust and was infinitely easier than the time-consuming back-and-forth, pig-in-a-poke of online dating. But I still believe in love. I’d still prefer to grow old with a partner. I still like having someone be my person. And I really need the pilot light lit in my gas fireplace which I’m scared to do alone. Someplace in my head right now is a tune that must be from the 50s “Oh it’s so nice to have a man around the house” and I can’t get it to shut up.

But I could also move to Japan and teach English. The world is a great big oyster and I’m not done exploring it yet. Not by a long shot. But first I’ll need another box of kleenex–and a couple more (dozen) donuts.

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