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The Life-Changing Kinda Sorta Magic of Leaving a Bad Romance Behind

The Life-Changing Kinda Sorta Magic of Leaving a Bad Romance Behind

by Ana Wang

February 02, 2017


I left on a Black Friday, carrying a small suitcase with just a change of clothes and my laptop. I had to go on video chat the next day at work — nobody could tell that something had happened, except when I turned on my camera, I wondered if anyone had noticed that the room I was in had a garbage bag blocking out the light from one window because no one had lived in that room for years.

When he called me a few days later after many tears, he delivered the news I needed to hear that finally set me free: the truth. The truth hurts. It physically hurt. By the end of the week, I had hardly eaten. I feared, in the worst twist possible, that I may be pregnant after not being able to keep any food down, so I went to the doctor. It didn’t seem possible, but I had been in and out, a hazy mess, and the last few weeks had been a blur. I questioned his sanity, I questioned my own. The doctor reassured me that it was just stress.

Funnily, I had thought that I handled things quite well, except that night I was crying, screaming, a violent mess of emotions that I had only really witnessed twice in my life in myself, both dealing with the same issue, from the same person.

A few weeks later, I took off the necklace I had been wearing every day for the past year and a half: it was a butterfly with crystals encrusted around the edges. Months ago, I started to notice that the crystals had started to fall, one by one.

“Look — the crystals are coming off!” I had said to him.

He took a closer look and said: “It’s not really noticeable. It’s fine.”

Fine. Huh.

He had gotten it for me in Mexico, a gift. Well, of course now I know what it was really for. At the time, I thought it was a sweet gesture (aka “romantic”), because we had always talked about how one day I’d break out of my cocoon, and the spontaneity touched me: a gift from him was a rare occasion. I wore it as a symbol not only of his affections, but also as a reminder that someone could see what I could be. How ironic that it took leaving him to start it: the gift a small gesture and symbol of what would eventually become the rift that would finally, once and for all, pull us apart. By the time I took it off, I saw that every single crystal had fallen.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between doing the right thing and the best thing. Sometimes they’re the same thing, but when it comes to love and marriage, the lines are, I discovered, blurred, mutable, inconsistent, complicated.

Complicated. The word I never thought I would have to use to describe my own relationships. And somehow, it had become the only word that seemed accurate.

I started last year with no sense or inkling of what would’ve happened by the end of it: separated on my way to divorce, shocked at the fragile nature of love both within me and beyond me, and in a state of moving too fast and too still at the same time. At the beginning of 2016, I had just started a new job. It was the first belief that I had broken: that I wasn’t meant for the corporate world. By the end, I had broken a second big one: that I was meant for marriage, this marriage.

There are many things we see in the movies that we never think could really happen to us, because that kind of stuff happens to other people, to fictional people, to people who invite drama into their lives. I tried my best to keep the drama out of my life, keeping my head down, keeping our heads and spirits up, and being the rock he needed when we were trying to make something of ourselves. Except the more steady I was, the more unsteady our relationship became. Others looking in questioned my choices — to them, it looked like he was taking advantage of a good situation. But to me, I saw a man crippled with inaction because I saw his reasons, and I thought if I made things easy, easier, easiest, that he could finally be happy, that he could finally find and pursue the career of his dreams.

But sometimes drama is just the universe’s way of pushing you out of where you are and where you need to be. When the containers we have placed around ourselves become too small for our desires, even when they’re in the state of mere whisper, the glass will eventually shatter, cutting you in the process before allowing you to escape, but not before the struggle of getting out of there unscathed, which doesn’t happen because there is no way to escape the damage of a shattered box. Even when you think you have, weeks later, months later, years later, you find that it cut you too deep and the wounds have grown over. But the scar it leaves will never leave, like that burn mark on my leg I got that never faded because I had stood too close to the camp fire, not realizing that it was literally melting my leg (I brushed it off as a sting from a bug bite, like I had brushed off the sting of his anger, disappointments, missteps—in both cases, I took it #likeachamp. But maybe I shouldn’t have).

About a year ago, I had read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. In it, she urged four women, all with four different stories and circumstances, to listen to their whispers of “go” and leave their relationships. (Here’s the version online.) At the time, my whisper was already there, but I cried in guilt when I heard myself thinking this. I turned to look at him in the dark at 4 am many nights in a row, wondering how much it would hurt him. In his sleep I cried for him, as I listened to my own thoughts and tucked them back away, because no, I could not do that. I was just being irrational. And besides, he loved me and we were best friends, two peas in a pod.

The reason I was never a shattered mess on the floor is because I know this, I know I’ve outgrown my box. I’ve known this for a while now but I always held out hope — I never wanted to do the right thing because it comes disguised as the wrong thing. Breaking up with your husband when it’s supposed to be till death do you part, when it’s supposed to be for richer or poorer, is something you’re not supposed to do. Besides, I thought we were just in a rut, and I thought maybe it was normal.

When you’re 28, when you don’t even look like you’re old enough to be married, it’s a pretty strange thing to be divorced. I’ve already googled divorcing in your 20s, read Trash the Dress, and downloaded Tinder before harrowingly deleting it 5 minutes later. Nobody (uh oh — here come the hyperboles) wants to date you seriously when you’re divorced, except maybe other divorced people and 50 year old men who could pass for my dad (fine if you’re into that, but it still makes me cringe, probably because I’m really an immature teenager on the inside). The few times that I’ve mentioned this to random guys (would not go as far as calling them potential suitors), I can see their faces change to either one of two states (and probably both together): she’s totally up for a fling or she’s damaged goods (i.e. stay away). This is me being dramatic, by the way, if you couldn’t tell.

The right thing for me is probably to leave this all behind and live the life I’ve always dreamed of. But it looks like the wrong thing: it looks like dreaming, like escape from reality, like the proclivities of a girl who has watched Eat Pray Love or Wild one too many times.

Or the right thing could be to buckle down and really focus on my work, removing all the tensions of personal relationships. But this also looks like the wrong thing: it looks like escape in a different form, workaholism to avoid the painful realities of not only a failed marriage but of being unwanted, like ignoring our most innate human desires.

Or, the right thing could be to live as I was before, but with optimism, zest and renewed energy. This also looks like the wrong thing, like I may be hiding all the pain away, forgetting so easily what it was like to be in love, my coldness pointing to the real truth: that I must be a robot incapable of feeling.

Sometimes it looks like the only right thing to do is to not do anything, to stay at home on Friday, Saturday, Sunday night and every other night, to simmer in my silence, to think about what I’ve done as if thinking about it will exhaust the idea in my mind until it at last withers away like a changing season after heavy snowfall. But is this the wrong thing too? It’s the least fun out of all my options, the least helpful. The one I feel least like pursuing. Maybe by nature of the inertia of this all means that this by default is the most wrong thing to do out of everything else on this list. But sometimes, it is the only thing that feels right. And maybe, by now, the season has already faded.

I don’t mean to come across as melodramatic, because most days life feels anything but. I feel a sense of relief, curiosity, excitement, for the first time in a long time, my plans on paper feel more like a roadmap of possibilities turned real (many of them in these two short months already fulfilled) than a hapless struggle, a muddled form of procrastination — it has become a matter of when, not if. I like the agency I have now — whatever successes or failures I have are my own, and I have no one to blame.

But that is also punctuated by heavy moments of muted silence, of questions, what ifs, why nots, what’s wrongs. Logically, I know that there is nothing wrong, but there are many things that I haven’t been doing right. Mostly, I think about how fragile love is that I had once felt so strongly about someone and now feel nothing at all. What does that say about me? Does that say more about me than it does about us together?

Or maybe, as we get older, we realize that the lives we are living have diverged from the lives that we dreamed about. That the people we were are no longer the people we are. And then we have to make a choice.

Today my choice has me living by myself in an empty two bedroom apartment. Most days I sit alone on my couch with a coffee table, no other furniture like a lone island at the edge of this room. I have no one to come to after my night has finished, no one to greet in the morning, no one to bug to get my late night fried chicken fix. I own almost nothing — I have no car, no house, no pets, no kids. There is nothing around me but space. Sometimes I feel like the space is too much, but mostly I feel like it’s a metaphor, that I need to fill with more love, joy, beauty because there is so much of it out there. And I miss it.

I’m starting to embrace the KonMari Method in all aspects of life, not just organization. It’s the small things — entertaining the idea of buying a pink couch, moving my clothes into the bigger closet, choosing vacation spots based purely on instinct because that instinct, that positive flutter, it may not be love (yet), but it’s still something to pay attention to.

It’s the life-changing magic of tidying up, you could say. Removing the excesses, the weights, the things holding us back — so that you can emerge from what’s left as the person you really are.

A few months ago I was at a work conference and a colleague asked me why I got married. I’m still not really sure why he asked this — did I seem unhappy? What was marriage supposed to be, if not a statement of committed love? (Well, turns out it’s what people do when they decide they’re going to start a family, to solidify their little family unit.) I didn’t think anyone could tell I was unhappy until the day I said I was leaving. I didn’t want to be the girl with marital problems, airing out her dirty laundry to any stranger who would listen, taking my display of vulnerability as an admission of weakness.

At the time I reasoned that it was because we were both romantics. As I said it I felt this unbearable incongruence with what I was saying and what I felt, what our lives really looked like, nine years later.

True, we were both romantics (i.e. we married for “love” and not for social pressures) and maybe that was the problem. The story I’m telling is vague but clear in how wrong we were for each other. But it felt right in the beginning. It felt so right. We had had our moments under the stars, I fell for him on our first date when he took my hands and zipped my jacket up because it was the middle of April and snowing. We sat in silence and did nothing but smile uncontrollably at each other cheek to cheek— he later told me it was the happiest day of his life, something he used often to remind me that we were meant for each other. It was as if we both knew that this was special. And it was, for a while. (Others may take this smiling as heightened infatuation and perhaps dangerous: that we never connected on a deeper intellectual level.) On our second date we went to the zoo and he pecked me on the cheek. At 19, that had never happened to me and even though he wasn’t my first boyfriend (in high school, we never had that moment like the movies), I blushed, felt my heart jump, and had that whole butterflies in the stomach sensation that feels like a really good kind of sickness. That was the beginning. We had strolled in Greece, danced the night away in Cuba, and he knew me like no one else did. And then came the end.

The only sadness I feel now is that what I wanted couldn’t be found with the person I chose. That I got it so wrong, that all these moments of “true love” were disguised when really, they were moments of infatuation, strung along over many years. But then I realize I had chosen that person when I was 19 and the way it all started it was easy to see how I could’ve mistaken that for true love when maybe it was just a guy who knew the right things to do and say to a girl who never knows the right things to do or say.

(Here, by the way, is where I start having flashes of panic that I’ll end up being a Ross when all my life I’d considered myself a Rachel/Chandler/Phoebe/Monica.)

I should stop referring to it as true love, because that term automatically incites connotations of extreme and unrealistic expectations. Love is love. When I ponder the difference though, true love is honest, strong and pure. It grows. Love itself can be a strong feeling, but it might not have a strong enough foundation to keep growing when things get rough. I did love him long ago. But it wasn’t true love.

True love isn’t a fairytale but it is respect, support, growth, attraction, connection — and above all, it is knowing that when you hear “go”, you know which way go means. It should never feel like spinning in circles.

By the end of it all none of these things existed in our relationship anymore — they had become faded memories long blacked out by the grainier truths of two lives wrecked by our own inability to see that we needed to let go in order to move forward. Except perhaps nothing was wrecked any more than it was shattered so that we can both emerge, scars and all.

I closed one chapter, a chapter that had its wonderful life-changing moments and I picked up the pieces of myself that still remained.

When I left on Black Friday.

Photo: Source unknown

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