Relationships changing, or ending, is often perceived as a failure. Typically, an intrinsically higher value is placed on the romantic or sexual relationships we have with other people, and when those things change to be not sexual or romantic, it is usually considered a downgrade in significance. That “demotion” is often perceived as bad, or as something broken. I am skeptical of this because whenever I have felt inclined to extract myself from a connection, or change it, things have gotten better. Sometimes this happens immediately, and sometimes it takes a little while for the improvement to set in, but there is always something that makes the whole process a net-positive. So, what failed?
When the end of the agreed-upon terms of a relationship comes, I am quick to apply a light switch metaphor: we are on, right up until we are off. Or, we are off until we’re on. The more I have experienced this switch, the weaker that comparison is for me. It feels more like hitting empty on a gas tank: an emotional vat that fuels the ability to keep going in the reality around you as it is. My brain has traditionally recorded the moments things change, I suppose, I can call to mind these transitional points very clearly. They are seared in my mind’s eye, easily accessed. The impact of them is probably something to do with their clarity in my remembrance. Strong feelings, good or bad, seem to be what we hold on to. Moments of change also seem to stick. So, when a relationship is at a point of major shift, there are ripples in the mind and the memory.
It starts in my fingertips, kind of tingling. It works its way up my arms and forms a tightness around my chest, in my lungs, around my heart. In an attempt to relieve the constriction, I will probably take a deep intake of breath. As I exhale, there’s a sort of release that occurs. It feels like the blood coursing through me is cold, suddenly, and draining away. It is as if I have suddenly realized that the well from which I draw resilience is empty save for a drop of energy reserved for whatever exit strategy is deployed. If I close my eyes for a moment, the blackness is comfortable and familiar because there’s nothing inside me anyway. I can see the edges of my shell, bare, exposed and a bit scarred from the strain of trying to keep the connection from breaking. I feel hollow and devoid of care. This is usually past the point at which it would have been a comfortable thing to leave, because if I had done this sooner I would have the energy to deal with the fallout of the separation. I am usually kicking myself later as I struggle to put one foot in front of the other, or complete simple tasks such as making myself something to eat, or being punctual.
I’m always early except when I am surviving on fumes, if anything. The level of strain is indicative in how late I am.
I could have ended it when there was something left in me, and this would all be easier. Since I kept on until I was completely done, there’s nothing to help me cope with self-preservation after. I’ve probably lost weight, and I’ve probably been sleeping a lot more, or a lot less, for a while. My skin probably has less colour than usual, which is laughable. I am pretty pale already.
I know this feeling well enough that I can recognize the onset, now. I used to be surprised by it as words escape my lips and I hear my own voice echo out of me, foreign. I would hear myself speak and think, did I just say that?
The words are in language that represents termination, and usually served very deadpan, or cold. When I reach this point, I haven’t got any time for warming them up anymore.
“I can’t keep doing this.”
“I need you to get your things out of my house.”
“I haven’t been happy in ages. I have to go.”
“Wow. You should probably go.”
“Um, I’m leaving.”
“Get off me.”
“I’m not happy and this relationship needs to end.”
“I don’t want to be with you anymore in this capacity.”
“I am not going to marry you.”
“I need you to stop.”
“I need to stop.”
“This isn’t working.”
“Really? Okay. I don’t want to keep doing this.”
Sometimes I say nothing. I just turn on my heel and walk away, or I hang up the phone. In particularly avoidant moments, I’m walking down the street on a (preferably) overcast day with a coffee in my hand, and I just stop walking in the middle of the sidewalk, and think. Hm. I then will pull out my phone and delete some contact information from it, check social media, and continue on my way.
Sometimes I just cry. There aren’t any words, just sobbing and tears streaming and mascara running lines downward over my face to the corners of my mouth, until I try to wipe away the stains and leave streaks across my cheeks. I’ll find them later when I next meet a mirror. The sudden crying is typically alarming if I’m in the presence of the other party, which is indicative that they have not noticed as the relationship they have with me has become untenable for me to continue as it is. They don’t see me. I’m invisible. Salty tears and smeared makeup under my red eyes, and suddenly I appear to them and we sometimes don’t know how we got here, and where all this salt water is coming from.
I thought we were happy together. Did they think we were happy together? Do we remember?
I thought this eyeliner was waterproof. It says it is on the packaging.
Sometimes that feeling isn’t represented outward by anything at all. Things are just different between me and the other person now. That is strange, when there’s nothing to say or do but just keep on in this alternate way, unexplained differences in speech, contact, familiarity. A slow, silent withdrawal that is barely noticeable until i’m just not around anymore and the other person is wondering when that began. I have been on the other end of that, too. The text message sits unanswered, and they’re just not there anymore.
Maybe they don’t even notice we’re gone; I for them, or them for me.
There is sometimes something left. Pieces of why we were connected don’t get sloughed off with the tears and I have to figure out what can be salvaged. I usually want to remember why I love someone and hold onto that, somehow nurse it back to something positive and functional, even if the connection doesn’t look the same. Usually. I don’t believe that people are inherently good or bad, it is just that sometimes the things they want and do and the things I want or am doing myself no longer align. That’s okay. I want them to be happy.
But, sometimes the withdrawal and need to remove the self is so absolute that everything goes.
He was yelling through the phone at me.
I pace my living room, the carpet soft under my bare feet. I hadn’t put on the stockings he liked yet, and I was supposed to be leaving to catch the train in about 5 minutes if I was going to be punctual. I can feel the garter clips brush against my legs as I move, hanging unattached. My hair is up off my neck temporarily in pins so when I take it down, the curls will be softer. He prefers it down. My makeup is half done: I had been lining my eyes with charcoal in the mirror of my bathroom when my phone lit up. I had seen it out of the corner of my eye on the kitchen counter, only because the rest of the lights in the house were out. I keep my phone on silent, most of the time, and he hates that. He doesn’t understand why I don’t want to be able to answer whenever he calls.
I am late.
I was nervous about this as I answered the phone because he will know I have not left for the train yet. He always wants me to be where we meet first, because I should wait for him for a little while, to show I am committed, and because he should never have to wait for me. Unacceptable. It was really warm out, even in the evening, which he liked because there wasn’t any reason for me to cover up. He would probably prefer I walk around naked, actually, with nothing between me and the world, or him. Exposed and vulnerable.
He had called to give me shit about the date I had been on the night before. He wants to know why I hadn’t answered when he had called before, because didn’t I want to make sure he was doing alright, and why wasn’t I checking in during the date more? Did I have fun with this new guy (what was his fucking name again? right. fuck, what a dumb name)? Was I going to see him again? He didn’t say that was okay. He should make me ask permission to go on dates, and then maybe I would behave better. I was lucky he even let me go. Why did I even want to go on dates with other men when all I needed was available to me from him? Wasn’t I happy with him, wasn’t I grateful? He thought I was going to get over this whole non-monogamy idea once I had a taste of submitting to him, he said. I listened to him go on for a few minutes, and then listened to him talk himself into the reasons why what he wants from me, and for me, was more important than what I want for myself, and how he knew better what I needed.
He thought he knew best what it was that I needed.
That was the moment.
I heard the alarms in my brain. I heard them, finally. They had been going off for months, and I finally heard the frequency that had before been untraceable. It was like tuning a radio. I had been mentally turning dials and then the sirens were sounding and they were just at a wavelength I could not hear before, until suddenly there they were. I wondered how long I had been ignoring them. I stopped pacing and went out onto my balcony, shutting the door. There was a pack of cigarettes out there, and I took one out of its cardboard enclosure, lighting it with a book of matches that was sitting with it. I had left them out here earlier, and would have forgotten them when I left the house. I wasn’t going out, now, so that was fine. I could sit out here and smoke all night, now, if I wanted. I took a drag and allowed the smoke to fall out of my mouth as I spoke, my eyes trailing the horizon and the outline of trees. I heard trains in the distance.
“I’m not coming.”
“I said I’m not coming. I don’t want to see you tonight.”
“Yes you are. We’re meeting in an hour. Why haven’t you left yet?”
“I said, I’m not coming. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Wait, what? Hold on, honey, this has gotten out of hand.”
“That is correct. It has. I have to go.”
“But, wait a minute, I didn’t say..”
After I hung up the phone, he called me twenty-six times and left six voicemails. He also texted incessantly almost all night. He begged and pleaded with me to respond, giving reasons related to the dynamic we were in as well as how I owed him that response. He deserved my engagement and attention. It was ridiculously unfair that I was not calling him. What the fuck did I think this was, anyway? I am lucky he cares so much because this is not how these things work.
I responded to nothing.
We talked a few days later after he texted asking if I had gotten my period, and I informed him I was terminating the pregnancy. I found out the day after I hung up the phone on him.
I saw him one other time after that. I ran into him at a bar and he told me he had orchestrated our entire relationship with the intent to push me into telling him no. I felt like a toy that had been batted around by a very malicious animal.
It took me several years to figure out that a lot of what he had told me simply wasn’t true.
I had a friend over for dinner a little while ago, well after this all had occurred. They said they had run into him and asked about me, and he had said I was doing very well and taking good care of myself. They told me this, and I stared at them blankly for a minute before smiling and replying, “yeah, that’s true, but he doesn’t know that. We haven’t spoken in years.” My friend was quite puzzled.
I was not.
The further away from him I am, the better I am doing, and I think that is what constitutes progress and growth.