SORTING THROUGH THE WRECKAGE
One of the worst things I heard after being abandoned by my ex-fiancé was that maybe this experience would teach me something I needed to know. I understood that people were saying this with the best of intentions, but it rubbed me the wrong way because, at that stage, I had learned enough. I had already done so much work on myself both as an individual and as a partner before he walked out. I didn’t need a huge character arc at that time in my life. I just wanted some peace and stability. It also bumped up against my resistance to spin everything as a potential positive. Sometimes shitty things just happen. Our ability to thrive afterward doesn’t retroactively make the shitty thing necessary or ultimately good for us.
At the same time, I think it would be a wasted opportunity for me to not examine what that relationship taught me—necessary or otherwise--because every relationship teaches us something. And at this point, I have enough distance from the harrowing experience to form some takeaways. The first of which is that when your partner brings up couples therapy, even just offhandedly, you should listen.
Despite the dumpster fire that was my broken engagement, I only have one regret when it comes to that entire relationship. And it’s not latching onto my ex’s (one time) suggestion to go to couples therapy. At the time, I was under the impression that my ex was struggling individually and that the root of his problems wasn’t based in our relationship. So I thought it was more important for him to figure his own stuff out, with my support, then for us to go to a professional to work on the relationship. He also made the suggestion in the midst of a much larger conversation, and I simply didn’t give it the attention it deserved. Now, I have a much better understanding of the value of couples therapy and can see that it always makes sense to go if one person wants to. It’s obvious that my ex wasn’t able to express his true feelings to me (until they came pouring out the night he left) and if we had gone to see a therapist he might have felt more comfortable opening up about the extent of his doubt and concerns. I don’t blame myself for being blindsided by him leaving, but I do take full responsibility for not stepping up in that moment and recognizing what he was trying to tell me (however vague it might have felt at that time). I think all couples could benefit from couples therapy and if I ever get engaged again, that will be a prerequisite to us getting married.
Another takeaway is that I don’t always have to make it work. I am allowed to have different desires from my partner. If we can’t come to a compromise about what type of life we want to have it is okay for the relationship to end. I prioritized the success of my last relationship over everything else. Every time I felt us disagreeing on something major (like where to live and/or kids), I would compromise because it was more important for us to stay together than for me to be stubborn. Plus, I felt more naturally flexible on these topics than he did, and I viewed my flexibility as a strength. While I still appreciate my ability to be open to various versions of my life, I no longer feel like I must acquiesce to keep the peace. I am allowed to want certain things for myself and if they bump up against what my partner wants for himself, then a larger, more difficult conversation needs to happen instead of me just giving in.
I agreed to live the life my ex wanted to live--and he still left. This brings me to my biggest takeaway of all: when it comes to romantic relationships, you are never truly safe. On its surface, this takeaway is depressing and at odds with how I used to think about these things. For my entire life, I have searched for a partner who will be like family to me. Someone who I can trust will always be in my life, no matter what. After my broken engagement, however, I no longer think that is a realistic goal. Why? Because I’ve realized that I can’t control another person. And, when you agree to a romantic relationship, you are, in effect, signing away (some) control over your life.
People can have the best of intentions. They can go into a long-term partnership or marriage with the goal of staying together. But life is wild and people change. I fundamentally believe that the person I fell in love with was not the same person who left me. Time and circumstances changed him. And I have to allow for that possibility with any romantic relationship moving forward. I can nurture my relationship. I can go to couples counseling. I can give it my all. But there might be a time when my partner no longer wants to do that or when one of us has changed so drastically that our partnership is no longer worth fighting for. I don’t need to expect that outcome. But I need to make space for that possibility in my brain.
Although these shifts initially seemed pessimistic, having more realistic expectations around commitment and marriage has let me put less pressure on myself. I initially felt a burden to “get it right” the next time after such a public (and one-sided) breakup. But now I feel like, “If it works out, great. And if not, at least I tried.” I can’t predict the future. All I can do is apply the lessons of my past and present and hope for the best. And the next time something terrible happens to me, I’ll know to wait until the dust has settled before forcing myself to look in the wreckage for some pithy takeaways.