Perhaps it’s overly nostalgic of me, but I can’t help thinking that any time before the age of technology was the golden era of breakups. In my imagined golden age of breakups, you broke up and bam. That person was out of sight, out of mind, and you let Father Time take care of the broken pieces. You’d have had to hop on a horse and gallop by their home and get past a butler (apparently everyone in the past is rich in my head) and by then you’d have talked yourself out of the whole endeavor.
Now though, of course, we have cell phones that almost pulse life into the remnants of a failed relationship. Clear! they yell, slapping us with saved textversations. Clear! they say again when we’re scrolling through our contact list and our ex’s name flies by. The biggest Clear! of course isn’t even from cell phones, or even an email correspondence that stretches almost from day one to D-day; it’s that tantalizing yet vexing siren, social media.
Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest make the act of secretly Googling your ex almost obsolete. Spill their common username or variations thereof, or simply know someone who still knows them, and bam. Their life is in front of you, from what they’re making for dinner these days to who they’re taking home (and where they’re going home from). Fall far enough down the rabbit hole and soon you’ll be doing the same to their new beau (in which case you’ll suddenly know way too much, from how their hair kind of looks like it was inspired by yours to what kind of cupcakes they made on his birthday while you think “god, I hope that’s not cream cheese frosting! He hates that!”).
This happens when you start dating someone new, too. (It’s okay! You’re not alone!) You’ve looked for photos of a special lovecat with their ex. Maybe it was an accident at first, stumbling across something on Facebook. But it doesn’t take long before it’s a purposeful choice you’re making, studying them together the way you’ve found yourself studying your ex with their new sweetheart.
I point this “opposite of ex” observing out because I think both acts stem from the same place: we are compelled to analyze our ex’s lives without us in them. Is their life better? Is it just different? We are compelled, in other words, to personalize images that have nothing to do with us. There’s an air of “that could have been me” or “that should have been me” (depending on who broke up with whom) in these moments.
There’s something to learn about what it is to be human from all of this:
- First: with time and effort, heartbreak really can be overcome. That more adventurous spirit can be unleashed, so long as both parties eventually find freedom in the breakup.
- Second: despite what anyone tells you, their feelings about you will change. They may evolve, or they devolve. But feelings are not static. There is no sense of security in “always.”
- Third: the point above is not meant to be depressing or sad. It’s meant to be liberating because it illustrates what commitment is – sticking with someone no matter how the feelings evolve. In there being no always, there is an always.
The truth of the matter is that sometimes you care about someone you used to know (or never knew) – an old friend or an old flame, no matter what. It becomes your burden to figure out what shape that caring eventually takes. Maybe it’s watching from afar to make sure they’re okay, or maybe it’s saying a tiny prayer at night hoping they stay safe because you know they don’t want any part of you. It’s doing what is best for them because I think in the end, that’s how you demonstrate you care.
I’ll end with a story: I remember in college I broke up with my first boyfriend, Joey. I broke up with him for a lot of the wrong reasons, but some of the right reasons too. About thirty seconds after the breakup, I regretted it. And once I realized it, I spent the better part of the rest of the year trying to get him back only he wasn’t having it. And then I spent the better part of the next 365 days figuring out how to come to terms with the fact that he really wished I would go away.
Not only did I break his heart, but I’d broken my own heart too, and I was left pondering, now what? Eventually after one heck of a lot of soul searching, counseling sessions, and more humiliating 19-year-old antics than I care to recount, the only comfort I found was knowing that no one could take the way I felt away from me. I walked around the University of Oregon campus thinking, “I’m lucky to love.”
That lucky feeling lasted until it was replaced by my ability to stop taking Joey’s life choices personally. He moved on, got married, and now even has kids. We’re friends on Facebook, and all I feel for him is a fondness and affinity for our shared past – I still silently wish him and his family well when I fall asleep at night. And maybe that’s the best kind of finish we can hope for.