It had taken eight months, but on a March afternoon, he told me he loved me for the first time. The sun was coming through the bathroom window and into the shower’s steam in that perfect way. We both believed in magic, and magic seemed to be happening between us from the beginning. Our life together had been a series of spectacular set pieces.
The weekend shortly after we’d first met, for example, we’d jumped into his car, blazing up the Hudson Valley with no real plan, nor any idea for how long we’d stay away from the city. We stumbled upon a state park nearby with a waterfall. We found a deserted glen filled with deep pools of water, huge boulders, and logs criss-crossing the shallow ravine. Sunlight streamed in through the branches above in wide beams. We kissed and swam. We tried pulling each other’s bathing suits off and wrestled into the shallows. The light, now changing from late afternoon gold to evening amber, picked up the small insects skittering about the air like glitter. That night we got caught in a storm, posted up in a disgusting motel and laughed as we watched “The Twilight Zone” and fell asleep to the busted sounds of a decades-old air-conditioning. When we got back to the city, it seemed unbearable to sleep apart for even one night. And it was like that for almost a year.
But then, just three weeks after that day in the shower, he told me that he couldn’t do this anymore. He felt like something was missing.
I fell apart hard. I stepped into the nursing room at work to cry and cry. I took sick days. I couldn’t sleep. I sobbed on the phone with one friend after the other. I couldn’t fathom the empty space on the left side of the bed, couldn’t fix the feeling that my stomach had both been both kicked in and ripped out; that at times it felt like I was literally falling.
In the throes of what felt like insanity, the only stabilizing thought I could land on was my ability to win an argument. It was a rare person that I couldn’t convince of my rightness, or so I thought. After a few days of crushing sadness, I decided to win him back.
I did all of the things one does: had frantic lunches with friends where we obsessed over the right amount of time to wait before reaching out; where we examined every word he said and ultimately settled on the fact that he was just scared, or confused, or whatever — anything but clear in his own decision. I downloaded meditation apps. I biked everywhere. Hit the gym with renewed force. And then I wrote letters — draft after draft documenting the reasons why we belonged together. Some were poetic and some direct, some featured inside jokes and some were overloaded with desperate pleas, some were epic in length and others favored a more terse approach. I knew that words had power, and I wanted to make sure mine were silver bullets.
I settled on a list and asked him if I could come over. He said yes, and my heart during that subway ride was in my throat. He came downstairs as he always had before, and I unleashed the other part of my plan. At the bottom of his stoop, I cued his favorite song on my iPhone and held it up, “Say Anything” style; I passed him a handful of his favorite candy and the letter. He couldn’t stop grinning, looking down in his shy way, the one I’d seen before when his emotions got the better of him.
I knew I was winning.
“That’s cute,” he said, still smiling.
We went upstairs, where he read the letter while eating the chocolate and listening to the playlist that I’d made him. Tears streamed down the side of his face, in between laughs, and more tears. He asked me to stay and we curled up in his tiny bed like always, falling asleep to something on Netflix. In the morning we got coffee and said goodbye on the train. I felt content.
But over the next week I didn’t hear much from him. I convinced myself that he was battling his own demons — the ones I was sure were simply a fear of commitment borne out of a childhood watching adults have failed relationships. I still believed I could clear up the fog. I invited him for a bike ride about a week later. The weather that day started out perfect, but by the time we met up to head to Brooklyn, it had turned cloudy, windy, and cold.
We ate ramen, which we loved, but he was closed off — right away the conversation was off: How was my family? How were my friends? Everything been good? It was all so empty — the bullshit you say to a coworker you marginally like when you see them in public years after you no longer work together. This was the superficial garbage we’d never talked about, and now it was all that seemed to be left between us for him.
I made my plea once more: wake up, this is just your fear, this is just you being scared of intimacy, of love, of commitment. Tears ran down his face again and it all started to sink in: I wasn’t winning. The only person I’d convinced of my rightness was myself.
“If I leave right now, that’s it,” I told him. “Come with me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, crying. “I can’t.”
“Alright then,” I nodded. “I tried.”
I got on my bike and left him there. It was surprising, but for the first time I didn’t cry about him. I went through my mourning that age-old way — hopping from bed to bed, man to man, for months on end. I forbid myself to feel anything and I told them all as much: no dates, no second hookups. I would not get involved. I did that for a few years, and then eventually I didn’t want that anymore, either.
It took some time to understand that while being able to temporarily manipulate emotions, as any person can do, the likelihood of fundamentally altering a person’s deeply felt sentiment is low. Timing has to be right; values have to be in sync; you both have to be ready to step out of the world together and re-engage with it, together. It also took some time to understand that he was entitled to his feelings. That, as valid as mine were, his also were. However, in the immediate aftermath, none of that was clear.
When I spoke with psychotherapist Yaron Peer, he confirmed as much. “The narcissistic part of our personality refuses to accept the fact that the other person decided to leave us,” he says. This, he tells me, is further fueled by our “illusion that we’ll make them see that they’re wrong.”
When one partner wants to leave and the other wants to stay, even couples counseling isn’t an option, according to Peer. There is no common ground. “Couples counseling wouldn’t move forward if both parties involved did not want to reach the same endpoint,” he says. “Even if you do temporarily win someone back, the same problems are likely to surface again, and the partner would likely act out his or her unhappiness in some other way.”
On top of all of this, the mind is competing with nostalgia, a trick that we play on ourselves by erasing bad memories and pushing the good ones to the fore. “We truly believe we can recreate the good times,” Peer says. “Even if the bad times were far more frequent. Dealing with rejection is one of the hardest things for a person — even a very smart person can be completely blind to the truth.”
This is exactly what had happened to me. It wasn’t that the bad times were more frequent between us — they weren’t. But they were severe, and I chose to see them as anomalies instead of truths. It was like this: Two months before we broke up for good, he had said a similar thing — his feelings for me weren’t growing. I couldn’t put it together, but we talked, and slept, and woke up, and kept talking, and slowly over the course of two days he came back around. He didn’t know why he got like this. He was sorry, so sorry. I had tried to win him back and won.
That little shred of success was enough to convince me that I could get him back yet again. It was hope founded in delusion. But the win is really a delay of the inevitable. It may feel grand and magical and romantic for a moment — maybe for several moments — but in the end, your win is only on your terms, and it has little to do with saving something that’s really worth saving. “It is no longer about love,” Peer says. “It’s more about codependency or a compulsive need to gain a sense of control and equilibrium.”
If I’d chosen to hear my ex, to really listen to what he was telling me the first time he raised the issue, I could have avoided so much additional heartbreak and gotten to the healing more quickly. But hope is a drug, and I was a fiend.