Almost three years to the date, I am still pondering my last breakup. Except this time, it’s a really calm, accepting sort of place I’m in compared to years prior. I’ve reached a point of gratitude now, where I can see all of the ways our separation was a catalyst for countless positive changes in my life. I am certain that our pairing — and consequently our unpairing, too — was necessary for my personal growth. It’s hard to feel petty or mad when I see all of the good things that came out of that saga of my life.
Though the list could be endless, I thought I would share ten things that our separation taught me.
Here we go!
1. When you make your choices out of fear, you are not truly making a choice.
When I’m really honest with myself, I can see the ways that fear was making my choices for me. I can recognize now that the fear of being alone was at the core of our relationship where love should have been. At least for me, I know that the thought of being on my own and losing my major support system was too frightening. If I had really considered what I wanted, rather than allowing fear to make choices for me, the relationship might have dissolved much sooner.
This is advice that applies to so many situations in our lives. If we only make our decisions because we are afraid of the alternative, we are not truly making that choice for ourselves. In fact, I’ve found that being afraid is sometimes a sign that this is the decision I should be making — often because the big, scary decisions with the bigger stakes often have a greater pay-off. Fear can tell us a lot about the pros and cons of a situation, but fear alone should never be the reason we make a decision. When fear makes our decisions for us, we lose our self-determination.
Make a decision because it’s what you want — not because you’re afraid of what could happen otherwise.
2. You are not half (or a third! fourth! etc.) of your relationship. You are a whole person, and a good partner sees you as such.
At some point, I think I became half of my relationship instead of an individual. Yes, in a relationship you do become a “we” sometimes, but you should never lose that “I,” either. I started to define myself based on my relationship, rather than pursuing my own interests, having my own friends, and being connected to things and ideas that I felt passionately about. Often times, this isolation can also be a sign of abuse.
Your partner should want to hear your thoughts, and never feel threatened by you having your own opinions, interests, or passions. They should encourage you to enthusiastically pursue what makes you happy, rather than dissuade you. The conversations should also be a reflection of the equality within your relationship. If the conversations are more centered around your partner’s interests and hobbies, rather than an equal exchange of ideas, it may not be a healthy relationship.
My ex-partner sometimes became angry at me when I shared a difference of opinion. He’d accuse me of thinking he was stupid or attempting to compete with him if I tried to explain my perspective. Conversations became about soothing his ego rather than enjoying the conversation. When I began to assert myself as an individual, rather than a passive half of the relationship, a significant amount of tension arose.
Healthy relationships should foster inclusive conversations and allow us to be individuals — they should never stifle our voices or discourage us from being our best selves.
3. A “bad” relationship is not necessarily a waste of your time.
Some days I do wish the relationship had never happened. I start to wonder what my life would have been like if I had spent that time pursuing other relationships, or had just taken that time to become a better version of myself.
However, for the most part, I realize that the lessons I learned from my last relationship allowed my future relationships to blossom. I had a much clearer sense of what I wanted and needed, and felt much more motivated to have healthier relationships in the future. As cliche as it sounds, some bad relationships may have been some of the best things to have happened.
That being said, this doesn’t apply universally to all regrettable or awful relationships. I would never suggest that an abusive relationship or a non-consensual one is for the best.
However, when reflecting on a less favorable ex, part of the healing process can be searching for the lessons learned. I know that what helped me most moving forward was realizing the enormous wealth of knowledge and self-reflection I had gained as a result of the breakup. That alone, to me, made the relationship worthwhile.
4. You are not obligated to be sad after a breakup.
I wish someone had told me this sooner. When I broke things off with my partner, I was continually guilted for not grieving the way that my ex was. My ex would call me, accuse me of having never loved him, and point at my relatively calm demeanor as evidence that I was a terrible person.
If someone hasn’t explained this to you yet, let me have the great privilege of being the first to tell you: You are not obligated to cry a river after a breakup. In fact, you don’t have to be sad at all if that’s not how you feel.
Not being sad doesn’t negate the importance of that relationship. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t love the person. It doesn’t say anything about how good or bad of a person you are. Maybe it just means that you were in a place where you felt ready to move on when the breakup finally happened. Maybe you saw it coming, but your partner didn’t. Either way, it isn’t okay for someone to judge you because you are not grieving the end of a relationship the way that they would like you to be.
You are allowed to react to a breakup however you want or need to. There is a good chance that, if the breakup was a long time coming, you might not feel sad at all. And if you haven’t been single in quite a while, damn, that breakup might be feeling really good. I felt guilty for being happy when my relationship ended, but you know what? I didn’t need to feel that way. Because relationships end in all sorts of ways, and we can’t always predict or control how we’ll feel about it.
Process things however you need to, feel whatever you are feeling, and be kind to yourself. And don’t let some asshat ex accuse you of being a monster for it.
5. Don’t change your vision for the future to fit the person you chose. Choose the person who fits into the vision you have for your future.
When I started dating my current partner, I noticed that a lot of what I wanted had “changed.” Notably, I went from planning to have kids to swearing off children all together; I went from identifying as a female to transitioning as a transgender male.
What the hell happened? I can tell you. I was trying too hard to shape my future around my partner, rather than pursuing the life that I wanted with a partner that supported and wanted the same things.
I had even accepted a marriage proposal from my ex and told none of my friends — because I was embarrassed and wasn’t sure if I was happy. Yes, I had plans to be a wife and pop out children. Ew. For me, anyway. Ew.
I had these plans, despite knowing that childbirth disgusted me, knowing I didn’t have the emotional resources to support and raise children, and believing that reproducing in a world with dwindling resources and countless orphans was not exactly an ethical choice for me personally. I could see that my then-partner came from a traditional family and wanted children, however, and I bought into his vision without considering what my vision even was.
Some of this, of course, was because I was a teenager when we began dating — and I didn’t exactly know what I wanted. But I also think it was because of an unhealthy dynamic in the relationship, wherein I passively became his other half, rather than my own person.
When I told my ex that I wanted to transition and that I was unsure of my gender identity, he told me that he probably wouldn’t be attracted to me anymore. Rather than encouraging me to pursue my personal truth, he told me that I couldn’t transition because I would no longer be fuckable. I did not transition for another two years, after the relationship had ended, despite knowing that I was transgender.
And you know what? Here’s the bottom-line: If you are trying too hard to fit your partner into your vision for the future, or worse yet, opting for their vision over your own, maybe this is not the right relationship for you.
6. A relationship without enthusiastic consent will never compare to the relationships with them.
It took some serious post-relationship reflection, despite having a fucking degree in Women’s & Gender Studies (I should know about consent, right?), to realize that there was not a lot of enthusiastic consent happening in my last relationship. Because, surprise, rather than vocalizing what I wanted and needed sexually, I found it easier to defer to my partner. In fact, fearful of what would happen if my ex realized I wasn’t happy, I did what 30 percent of men and a whopping 67 percent of women have done — I faked it.
Enthusiastic consent should truly be the foundation of every sexual relationship. Not just because it’s assault otherwise, but because the sex will be better. Why? Because when both partners communicate what they like, what they don’t, what they want, and what they prefer — when we’re talking about sex rather than just doing it — there’s a much better chance of getting it right. Instead of faking it, we should be having conversations (yes, plural!) about sex, and checking in with our partners to make sure everyone is having a good time.
And good communication about sex inevitably means good conversations all around. When we practice open, healthy conversations, we strengthen our relationships.
7. Relationships don’t actually have to be dramatic.
The one thing that surprised me about my current relationship was that it was so easy. Coming from a more tumultuous relationship, I had mistakenly believed that love was dramatic, love was exhausting, love was painful, love was difficult. Love was riddled with mistrust, jealousy, possession — and that it was so, so good, but so, so bad.
Of course, I’d like to travel back in time and give myself a swift kick in the ass. Does this sound even remotely healthy? But because I’d never had a serious relationship before, I had come to believe that love was dramatic — it was all that I knew at the time. And every made-for-TV movie I’d seen had always portrayed love in the same way. It was a chase, a headache, a mess, but eventually would arrive at a happy ending. I mistakenly waited for that happy ending, through cheating and screaming and heartache. And you know what? Fuck that. There’s no reward for that. There’s no Lifetime movie deal. There’s no fairytale ending. You know what you get from pain?
Probably more pain, if it’s anything like my last relationship.
My current relationship was a culture shock. There wasn’t any screaming, any chasing, any jealousy, any controlling, any criticizing. There was no drama. We were just in love. We were happy to share our thoughts and experiences, happy to get to know each other and spend time together. Everything came so easily. We didn’t have to fight for it or struggle to make it work. It fell into place and, for the first time, it almost felt effortless — and what effort we did put into the relationship always felt worthwhile, productive, and satisfying.
And yes, love comes in different shades and sizes and intensities. There’s not a universal “correct” way of dishing love out. I’m not here to tell you what it should or shouldn’t feel like, either.
But for me, it was a relief — and it was a little confusing at first, too — to have a kind of love that didn’t hurt me. To have a kind of love that I didn’t feel insecure about, or perpetually afraid of losing. To have the kind of love that I didn’t have to white-knuckle and cling to with everything I had. I could loosen up and just be in the moment.
Love, to me, is liberating.
And while I won’t tell you that your love must feel like that or it’s wrong, I will say that I hope yours feels just as light. Because really, love doesn’t have to feel so heavy all the time.
8. Your first love and major relationship may not be your greatest love.
In fact, down the line, it may not even be all that special. My ex used to say that, even if we’d separated, he believed that we would eventually find our way back to each other. But nowadays, that’s laughable — probably to him, too. It’s laughable because our relationship, after a few years of being apart, seems so unhealthy and undesirable. There’s a cliche that there’s nothing like the intensity of your first love, but for me, my first love was not impressive .
Your first love certainly matters — I wouldn’t be writing this entire blog entry if it didn’t have a significant impact on my life. But to say that nothing will ever compare, or that it is both magical and unique, like some fucking unicorn-sasquatch crossover… that’s not been my experience. At all.
And also, it’s okay if you don’t have the warm fuzzies over that first big love saga. You’re not missing out. This is not a Nicholas Sparks novel. This is real life.
9. Write down what you want so you don’t lose sight of it.
When I broke up with my ex, the first thing I did, no joke, was make a chart. A really meticulous, carefully constructed chart. I wrote down all the things I wanted and needed in a relationship, complete with a scoring system. I had a column for emotional needs, intellectual needs, and physical needs, as well as life values. I worked really hard on that chart. And it was probably the best thing I did.
It’s so important to get in touch with what you want. For me, writing helps, but if there’s some other way that helps you reflect on your needs and wants — a long conversation with a friend, a finger painting, a lego statue, I don’t know — I can’t emphasize how important it is to do it. I’m not sure why, but after years of being told to put myself first, the message never stuck until after I broke up with my ex.
Writing out exactly what we want is both empowering and enlightening. It can also help affirm if a relationship is really right for us. After writing everything out, I realized that my ex was not at all compatible with me. And I’m sure if he made a chart, he’d realize that I wasn’t compatible with him, either.
Hilariously enough, my fiance, who worked in an office with me at the time, jokingly(?) filled it out when I finished it, and got a near-perfect score. So who knows, maybe your chart could lead you to your future spouse.
10. You don’t have to compromise on what matters most to you.
Hey, remember when that well-intentioned friend told you that relationships are all about compromise? Let me do you favor. Listen. This is important.
Feeling liberated yet? Because listen. I understand that some level of compromise is important for any healthy relationship, especially when your visions point to different states for graduate school or different wall colors for the nursery. But the thing is, it should be a choice… not an obligation.
The important thing to remember about compromise is that you are not obligated to compromise. And when you do make a compromise, it should be your choice — one that you make happily. Not because you feel pressured or some obligation because you are in a relationship, but because you have weighed your options together and have arrived at that decision as partners with an equal stake in the outcome. A healthy relationship is all about having choices, not about choices being made out of fear or being made for you.
If your partner is asking you to compromise often, it could be an indication that they aren’t meeting you half-way.
“Compromise” has often been a code word to mean other things. Remember that on the issues that matter most to you, you shouldn’t have to change a damn stripe or spot to make your partner happy. You are not obligated to change your opinions, change your desires, or change your goofy sweater to appease the person you’re with. Because if they’re a quality human being, they’ll support you, your ambitions, and your spiffy sweater. You will find a way to make it work that feels equal and fair for everybody involved.
If it doesn’t, you should go back to that list of wants and needs, and make sure that they’re being met for you.
Now seriously. Go make that list.