I once told a boyfriend that if we broke up, it would not break me. Our forms were slurped into bucket car seats, the gray stick shift resting between us like a symbol of freedom though all we wanted to do was be together.
“Are you saying you want to break up,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“No, I’m just saying…” Fuck, what was I just saying? “I’m just saying if this is too hard, I don’t want to drag you through it with me.”
We’d been dating since before I went to Alaska for my 49th date in my 49th state, and the two nights in Juneau had caused a moderate kerfuffle between us. I wasn’t great at communicating exactly how all-consuming filming was and the outside pressures I felt about the whole endeavor, which had rightly led him to be frustrated and confused.
Which led me to feel like a girlfriend failure.
The Hawaii date was coming up, and I didn’t want to press the repeat button on that particular series of events. After seeing the collateral damage of the Alaska trip, I didn’t want to be the catalyst for our mutual suffering.
“You’d consider breaking up with me over this?” This time it was a question. And angry one.
“I just don’t want to hurt you,” I said, lamely.
“I’d be devastated,” he replied. “I’m all in on this.”
“And then you’d be okay. Just like I’d be devastated, but I’d eventually be okay too.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.” He looked out the window as he said it, tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re even thinking about this.”
Horror fizzed in my throat as I watched emotions rise out of him. I’d been trying to say something kind, to give him an out, to be open – and was turning out all wrong. Later, post-break up, I’d tell my therapist about this conversation. He’d walk me through it, line by line, helping me untwist the co-dependent behavior I was displaying and showed me how even though I’d meant to be kind, what I’d been instead was wildly hurtful. But in the moment, I felt like I’d spouted gills and spikes and a weird dinosaur ruffle around my head, and become a monster.
I know now this tendency in me to not believe I was worth loving was part – if not all – of what resulted in us not being together eight months later.
I also now wonder about that statement I made: That I’d eventually be okay.
I said it because I wanted to soothe him. Placate him. Not make him feel belted in, strapped to whatever it was I was going to do to us. I said it because I needed to believe it myself, because I knew I’d be devastated and I wasn’t actually so sure about that okayness.