Back in 2016, a friend of mine needed quotes for an article he was writing for Verily Magazine, so he asked a bunch of guys the following question: how have previous experiences with breakups and rejection affected the way you interact with women?
I was in Mexico at the time, and instead of heading directly from breakfast to the beach, I decided to head back up to the room and jot down a line or two. Two hours and 1000+ words later, I had written what I thought was going to be the first post of a new blog I was going to start. 4 years out, I actually have a blog and somewhere to share what was a very cathartic writing experience. Enjoy!
I’ve always been a pacer. Whether face-to-face or over the phone, every conversation I have features me fidgeting in some way. In person, it’s usually something subtle, like shifting my weight from foot to foot or playing with my fingernails. On the phone, I’m most likely competing in my own personal walkathon. That’s why I like taking calls outside. There’s space.
I still remember the path I paced on March 9th, 2013. The rest of my family was off doing something fun – playing on the beach, visiting a park, shopping, it doesn’t matter. I certainly don’t remember where they were. But I do know where I was: walking, beachfront houses boasting lawns of sand on my left, a two-lane road on my right, and an outdated iPhone pressed to my ear.
On the other line was my girlfriend of 3 years. We weren’t engaged, but that step was a not-too-distant formality. I was only 20, she 19, and neither of us had ever dated anyone else, but you know when you’ve found the one. And she was it.
Except the last several months hadn’t been the smoothest. As we had become more and more familiar with each other, we started having disagreements over little things. At least, that’s what I thought they were. Little things. Disagreements. Discussions. Opportunities to smooth out each other’s rough edges. I never would have used the word argument, let alone fight. Sure, there were moments of brash immaturity, but we were young. What else would you expect?
It started off like any one of our hundreds of phone calls – checking in, I miss you, I wish you could have come with us, yes Florida is warm. She had some music playing in the background, and I asked what it was. “Just Give Me a Reason by P!nk,” she said. (This is 100% true and very poetic.)
“Oh, send it to me!”
“Can you say please?”
It wasn’t the words. It was the tinge in her voice. Another stupid fight.
I don’t really remember much after that. There was probably a lot of ground covered without really going anywhere (both figuratively and literally – by now I was a solid mile away from the beach house) but then we ended up where most relationships do.
“I think we need to break up.”
For once, I didn’t feel like fighting back. Like reminding her of all the good things about our relationship. Like saying that we should try to change first before we decided to throw it all away. Instead, I said “well, if that’s what you want, then ok.”
“…I’m being serious,” she replied, slightly incredulous. She knew I wasn’t one to back down so easily.
“I know you are, and so am I,” I retorted, believing it in the moment.
“Alright then. Well…goodbye.”
At first, I didn’t believe it was real. I kept expecting her to call back to make up, so I didn’t even tell my family. It was a bump in the road: we were meant to be, and we’d be back together by the time I got home to Indy.
Then she changed her relationship status on Facebook.
I was devastated. My hopes and dreams of married life and a family were slowly and painfully replaced with heartbreak, uncertainty, and a slew of explanations that failed to satisfy my probing mind. As a man, I wanted to uncover exactly what was broken about our relationship so I could fix it, ideally for her, or at least going forward. However, her explications were veiled, confusing, and ultimately unhelpful.
Looking back, I realize that she was too nice to say the painful but merciful thing: “I just don’t love you anymore.”
Instead, I was left searching for a sensible explanation, and all I could see were the areas where I was broken. I had caused the breakup. I was too opinionated. Too argumentative. Too abrasive.
Suddenly, all of the mistakes I had made during our relationship came flooding back. The disrespectful remarks. The manipulation. The lack of trust. Offenses I had committed, both real and imagined, confronted and overwhelmed me. Seeing my own shortcomings, and how they had driven away the love of my life, made me feel weak and worthless. There’s nothing more emasculating than the feeling of utter failure: the kind of failure I could have prevented, but didn’t.
Had I identified this as a destructive line of thinking, I might have been able to see its flaws. The truth is that it takes two to fight. We weren’t meant to be together, and the primary manifestation of that fact was that, over time, we brought out the worst in each other. Yes, I needed to grow and change, but our relationship was making that harder, not easier. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see this. I was too hurt to see it. Instead, I became a slave to the belief that I was screwed up, and unworthy of being loved.
This belief severely undermined my confidence in pursuing other women. I was afraid of my personal failings, that the next girl would see the same shortcomings and come to the same conclusion. This fear drove me into a vicious cycle. I would meet an amazing woman, start dating her, then develop cold feet almost immediately. A knot would grow deep in the pit of my stomach. “Don’t do this. It won’t end well,” it would say, silently and knowingly. I would ignore it for as long as I could, but it would only grow stronger. I started finding reasons to cut things off early, or to not ask a girl out at all. I told myself it was because the girl wasn’t the right girl. Little did I know that it was because I wasn’t right.
The truth is, I was still too afraid of being rejected to be able to truly give myself to a woman. Breakups are normal. The pain that comes with them is, too. But the origin of this pain is ultimately the difference between whether or not it is healthy. If I had simply been mourning love lost, time would have healed the wound. Instead, I was mourning the loss of believing I was worthy of being loved. That’s a wound time can’t heal.
It’s taken me almost 3 years to fully get over the effect of that breakup – the self-doubt that made me want to run from any sort of serious commitment, or any commitment at all, for that matter. The cure came from an unexpected avenue: dating a woman who found the traits I considered to be my “flaws”… attractive. Instead of saying “you’re too opinionated,” she complimented me for knowing my mind. Instead of calling me “too argumentative,” she enjoyed heady discourse. Instead of seeing me as “too abrasive,” she found me refreshingly straightforward. This relationship opened my eyes to a simple fact: I am lovable.
No, I’m not perfect. I know I still have a long way to go in some of the aforementioned areas. But now I realize that the right woman won’t leave me because of my faults. She’ll help me to appreciate myself more, and to work through the areas in which I need to grow, just as I will help her to grow. We will build each other up, help each other become better people and draw each other closer to God. And that’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something I look forward to with great anticipation.
If I could go back in time to newly-single 20-year-old me, walking back along the road towards the beach house, this is what I would tell him:
You’re going to start discovering a bunch of your faults over the next couple of months. Don’t be afraid of that – embrace it as an opportunity to change. Know that only about half of the things you decide are problems actually are, and that while some of them did help drive your girlfriend away, that doesn’t mean that you’re worthless or unlovable. You are an awesome guy. You’re smart, passionate, and your heart is in the right place. While your worst days are ahead of you, so are your best. You’ve got a lot going for you, and you’ll be alright. Don’t beat yourself up too much.