I was taught at a very young age that my thoughts and feelings were not relevant. There was no space in my alcoholic family for me to express what was hurting me, and to ask for something better.
When I left my home at 18 to go across the country and study computer science at MIT, this feeling of worthlessness did not stay in Seattle – it came with me. It colored many aspects of my life, mainly when it comes to being in relationship with other humans: friendships, coworkers, and most painfully – romantic partners. This belief kept me from asking for what I wanted in relationships, for fear of being abandoned.
One of the many effects of this behavior is that I never learned how to properly end a relationship. If a friendship has come to an end, it can sometimes be OK to just not get together again. But how do you leave a job? You can lie; soften the language to say that you just needed something new, instead of the hurtful truths of not feeling respected or a sense of belonging. Even harder, how do you end a romantic relationship?
My experience in breaking things off with boyfriends has been pretty consistent. My very first boyfriend in high school was a very nice boy, and we got along quite well. But when the spark was lost, I found myself incapable of having a hard conversation, and possibly hurting his feelings. So we went from talking several times a week on the phone, to just… not.
The men I dated in college did not fare much better. Whether the relationship ended due to circumstance or a cooling off of feelings, we never talked it out. Either we both flew home at the end of the semester and never talked again, or we just stopped making eye contact in the hallway.
Fast forward to my marriage, which was admittedly different. I met my now ex-husband not long after college, at the age of 23. Fourteen years later, he moved out suddenly, and I refused to let him come back home until progress was made, for fear of safety. I made every attempt at talking, but my ex-husband was unable to move out of anger. After 8 months of counselling, I gave up the idea that we would ever have a meaningful conversation again.
And now here we are in the present, dating again at age 40. I recently dated a man for a few months, and came to have very strong feelings for him. We had an amazing connection, and great chemistry. And then, for reasons unknown, he employed the ever so cruel, modern day tactic of ghosting me. I still do not know why, but I do know that he was not able to have a nuanced, difficult conversation with me, and preferred to just…. not.
It was extremely painful, washing over me in waves of grief over the course of months. But it brought me to this realization: somewhere, I had picked up the belief that I was not ALLOWED to have the relationship ending conversation – even in the comfort of my own head. I was not allowed to process this grief, let alone take up space, and push ahead with this conversation; to require that I be heard.
The patriarchal cultural trope of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” was ingrained in my thinking – I didn’t want to be that woman who just couldn’t let go. By the time I came to recognize this belief and break it down, I was no longer trying to hold onto the relationship – anyone who would do that is not someone I want to be in relationship with. But I did want the closure, and the processing of feelings that is a healthy part of moving on.
I recognize that its not always possible to have that closing conversation. But my realization was that I had the belief that I did not deserve to even try. And once I recognized that belief, I chose to do the work of dissolving it. I worked with a coach, and came to believe that I did deserve to be heard. I took some time to think about what that would look like. I also had to let go of the idea that I had any control over the result.
And then I did it. I worked through my feelings by writing this man several letters, none of which I intended to send. I then texted him, let’s call it “emotionally present ex-girlfriend” style instead of the alternative, and got it all out.
As expected, he did not reply; but it really didn’t matter to me. I said what I had to say, and was finally able to move on.
As I move forward in dating, I have decided that an important part of growing deeper relationships, is to practice having conversations about our emotions at every step along the way. My thoughts and feelings are always relevant, not just at the end, but throughout.