(If you want to read more, buy the book!)
Today meets the one-year anniversary that my boyfriend of almost six years, randomly called me up on the phone and dumped me.
Most of the time, when these kinds of traumatic dates come around, we feel a sense of anticipation, of dread, of nervousness. We may act strange, avoid people, suffer from insomnia, because we are remembering a painful event in our lives.
However, as this day came closer, felt none of that dread. For the last few weeks, I have been anxiously counting down the days until this one year anniversary hit, because I believe it is a milestone, a reason to celebrate: I officially survived my breakup.
I remember the day very vividly. Like today, it was the second Monday of the new school year and I was just learning my new students’ names. Like my usual routine, I just came back from my Monday night yoga class. He spent the previous weekend out of town, interviewing for jobs, and I was eager to hear how it went. When my phone rang, I excitedly picked it up, there was an awkward pause, and he mustered out, “I think it’s time we start seeing other people”. Not only did I not see that coming, but I was also a little taken aback that, after six years of dating, he was dumping me over the phone. So, I made him drive the ten minutes to my house, we sat in his car, I cried while he said some things like, “I know you think I cheated on you but that has nothing to do with it”, “I want my grandchildren to have a relationship with their grandparents and I just don’t see that happening with you”, “You are a great girl and all but I just don’t see myself marrying you”. And, that was that.
I walked back into my house, with a million things running through my head. I knew a lot about a lot of things. I know a lot about reading and writing, a lot about how to teach kids to read and write. I know a lot about dancing and coaching a dance team, a lot about chemistry and rhetoric and psychology and working out and Virginia Woolf. But, what I realized I did not know a lot about was how to survive a break up. So, I made it a project. I decided that, for the next year, I was going to figure out how one survives a break up. When I look back on the past year, there were a plethora of things I did to survive. When it first happened, knowing how fundamental a role he played in my development into an adult, my greatest fear was that I was never going to overcome the breakup and that I would be left scarred for some lengthy amount of time. Six years is a very long time to date someone—some marriages do not even last that long. And, being 23, which is young, but still getting up there, I knew that I did not exactly have that much time to waste healing from his improprieties; I had to grieve, heal, and move forward as soon as possible. I knew it was going to take a lot of mental work, a lot of cognitive shifting, but I did not think it would be fair to carry his baggage into any new relationship I might have.
So, after a year of reflecting, what you will find, following, is the conclusion to my project: here are the steps I took to officially survive my breakup:
Step One: Survive the Shock
I remember him driving away and walking into my house, feeling incredibly confused and shocked. I remember I spent the entire night, tossing and turning in my bed, trying to make sense of what just happened. Bits and pieces of the conversation kept replaying in my head. For the next few weeks, I definitely suffered from shock, which aligns with the first stage of grief. It took me a couple of days to even tell my dad, because I was so shocked and did not even know what to say.
In order to survive the shock, I knew that I needed to keep myself busy. Sometimes, we need to take some time away, to distract ourselves before we can come to terms with situations. The first step was to go to work the next day and pretend like nothing had changed. So many people suggested that I just take the day off, but I knew if I took the day off, I would sit and wallow in my room, by myself, because everyone else’s lives must still go on; mine must too. Even though everything was not alright, I needed to pretend that it was. I remember going to school the next day, breaking down in front of my department chair, warning him that I might be irrational and could potentially throw a chair at a child. Unfortunately, my teaching suffered; my students did a slew of busy work at this time, because I just needed to get through my day. At school, people sent me milkshakes, wrote me cards, gave me endless amounts of hugs, constantly checked in on me. My friends sent me thoughts of love in the mail and secretly planned social events and forced me to go. I had to do whatever it took to take it day by day.
Throughout the next few weeks, I made sure to over book my calendar. I made sure that I went to the gym or yoga every single day. On the weekends, I worked, went to the pool with a friend, made dinner plans. The weekend I was supposed to visit him, my roommates and I planned a mountain getaway and we went rafting and hiking. I spent the first three Friday nights at my grandma’s house, crying on her shoulder and listening to her expert counseling advice. The times that I knew I would be alone, I would try to call a friend or relative, just to keep my mind occupied. When I drove to school in the morning (and no one was awake enough to talk), I would blast my music and sing along; even though he was constantly running through the back of my mind, I tried to keep myself and my immediate consciousness busy, because it was too painful at that time to really divulge into it; I was still so confused.
Step Two: Clean Him Out of My Life
After I got over the shock of being dumped, the next thing I knew I had to do for myself was to take his presence out of my life; this does not mean to ‘delete’ him completely, but I knew in order to heal and move forward, I had to get rid of all the daily reminders. I boxed up every picture, every card, every gift that he ever gave me and put it in my mom’s basement (except the really nice yoga mat and pair of jeans he bought me—I could still use those). I ‘unfollowed’ him on social media and his friends (this sounds like such a juvenile thing to do, but is unfortunately such a part of our modern day society). I knew that I was about to embark upon a journey of healing from a six plus year relationship, and that if I continued to keep up with his whereabouts, I was going to add more onto the processing, which would inevitably take me longer. At 23, I did not necessarily have time for added-bonuses. I took down our pictures together from our office. I deleted his phone number from my phone so I was not tempted to call him and also deleted all of his text messages. Going through my Facebook and deleting all of our statuses, pictures, and chats together was a little too painful (that comes later) but I felt like this was a good start. I am a do-er and I was relieved to begin do-ing something about the break up.
Step Three: Go Through Catharsis
Grieving is really great and really important. As a society, we do not spend enough time grieving. We try really hard to cover it up, pretend like nothing is wrong, push it in the backs of our minds. But really, we need to deal with it. A couple weeks into the post-breakup stage, I was in yoga class and as we were laying in final savasana, “Find Yourself” by Brad Paisley came on. This song always makes me tear up (mostly because I think about the movie itself–Disney always has a way to make me emotional) and at this point in my life, it had special meaning. I could not control myself–my eyes just started welling up. Luckily, I had one of those fabulous lemon lavender washcloths on my face so no one could tell.
So, I cried. I cried by myself, I cried with my grandma and my mom and my sisters, I cried with my co-workers during my plan period. I created a sad song playlist for myself so when I got home and was feeling incredibly pent up, I would sit on my bed (or my bath tub, depending on how clean it was) and just let myself cry. And, soon, the need to cry stopped. I marked my progress by ‘days of not crying’. Soon, I went an entire week.
Step Four: Learn Mindfulness
I learned mindfulness in two settings: yoga and counseling. Mindfulness basically means that you are consciously paying attention to your state of mind. It is actually very difficult and requires introspection and a whole lot of patience. I knew that, in order to figure out what I needed to heal from the breakup, I needed to be in tune to my consciousness’ needs. If my mind wanted to go back to that scene at the local town fair, then I needed to allow myself to wander there. If my mind wanted me to be angry, then I needed to allow myself to be angry.
As I continued practicing these mindfulness techniques, a strange phenomenon started occurring: I began having vivid dreams about him and his mom. I remember dreaming that I literally beat his mom up. Another time, I dreamt that he was chasing me at some party and I kept rejecting him. After all of these dreams, I woke up the next day, feeling incredibly refreshed, relieved, and much happier. Each day, a little layer wore off, I felt a little lighter, and I could go longer without thinking about it.
Step Five: Abolish the Anger
What I have learned is anger is a nasty, nasty emotion. It is immature and often leads people towards very irrational, very savage behaviors.
Part of my mindfulness training was learning how to pay attention and regulate my emotions. So, I began making a list of all the things that made me very angry about him and the breakup, I spent some time actively rationalizing that anger, and thought about solutions to overcome. I knew that I would never be able to proceed to the other stages of healing if I could not get over my anger.
He hasn’t contacted me yet so he must not care about me: Although I did stick to Step Two and forbid myself from contacting him, a part of me still wanted him to call or text me. Everyday when I returned to my car from the school day, I would anxiously check my phone, hoping for some kind of correspondence from him. And, it never came.
I was disappointed that I never heard from him because, after processing the events, there were so many questions I stil had and so many things I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him I was concerned about his relationship with his mom, I wanted to ask him when he knew things were not going to work out, and I wanted to ask him why he continued to string me along.
Unfortunately, I would never get the answer to those questions. I felt very hurt that I had devoted six years to taking care of this guy, and one day, he never wanted to talk to me again. But, what I had to remember was that he was going through the same breakup that I was going through. Whether he checked out of the relationship two months before or not, he was still going to have to adjust to life without me, which meant no nightly phone calls, no text during the middle of the day, no Friday night plans. And, in fact, perhaps he was not contacting me because he did in fact care about me, and knew how hard the breakup would be for me, and wanted to respect my needs. Regardless of if that was the true reason, or he was just a selfish jerk, is irrelevant, because rationalizing it in that way made me feel better.
I made so many sacrifices for him and now I feel like those went for nothing: When he dumped me so suddenly and so heartlessly, I felt very unappreciated, as if all of those sacrifices I made for him went for nothing; I made those sacrifices to keep our relationship together and as it turns out, it was going to fall apart anyways.
I had to remind myself why I did those things in the first place: because I cared about him. And, I had to remind myself that I cannot take credit for doing nice things for people if I want some kind of reward or affirmation in return; then it becomes an entirely selfish act. If I gave him a foot massage because I wanted him to take me to dinner, then that was not an act of kindness, but rather a business transaction. If I bought him a really nice birthday present because I wanted him to buy me a nicer one in return, then I cannot consider myself a generous person. And, doing nice things for other people reminded me about the joy I got from doing them for him in the first place, and I suddenly let go of that anger.
What if there is another girl?: This was perhaps the hardest line of anger for me to get over. For a long time, I refused to believe that there was another girl involved; how could he have been dating me that whole time, perhaps started feeling something for another girl, and I was completely clueless? Whenever anyone brought this up as a possibility, I brushed it off. No, that could not be true. He would never do that to me.
But, as it turns out, there probably was another girl. (As my friends told me much later on), within a few short weeks, there were pictures of him on Facebook with another girl.
There were a few things I had to remind myself.
First of all, I was back on the dating market as well. So, when the time comes for me to get another boyfriend, he can get angry too (revenge is so, so sweet sometimes).
At times like these, we tend to blame ourselves; “I must not be pretty enough”, “I must not be smart enough”, “I must not have blonde enough hair”. But, the truth of the matter is, something in him changed that did not fit me anymore. It was his change; not mine. And I certainly would not want to be with anyone who was pretending to date me. If he decided one morning a small, skinny, June Cleaver type who cooked and baked everyday would work better for him, then so be it.
Yes, it is painful to know that he probably moved on very quickly, but I also reminded myself of the kind of boyfriend she was getting. I refused to know anything about her. If he was talking to her while we were together, I did not want to know. Where they met each other and if I potentially knew her, I did not want to know. When they started officially dating, I did not want to know. I did not even want to know what she looked like in the event I saw her in public somewhere. This was a very difficult urge for me to stifle, but I knew that if I stalked her Facebook, I would probably find out something that would hurt me, and I was on the road to recovery. It did not matter anyways.
Step Six: Finding Forgiveness
The next step in this ‘healing’ process was to find forgiveness: to forgive him, to forgive his mom, and to forgive myself. We had this weird love triangle going between him, his mom, and I, which was a huge reason for the breakup. . I blamed her for driving a wedge in between our relationship, for feeding him thoughts about how I would not be a good wife or a good mother, I was angry for her not willing to meet me and to ask her to see my side of the story, and I was hurt that she would think of me as an inefficient person.
In September after ‘the dreaded phone call’, I sat in church and the passage was from Mark 11:25, which says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that Your Father in heaven may forgive your sins”. Matthew 6:14-15 says, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, Your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. I believe what the Bible instructs in these passages is that forgiveness cannot be sought; although there are things people can do to repent and express their guilt, forgiveness cannot be sought; it cannot be forced. Forgiveness comes from the person within. There is really nothing anyone else can do to make you forgive them. Yes, they can show you ways they are sorry. They can do something nice for you. They can compliment you. But, much like sorrow and anger, forgiveness is an internal state that we must overcome ourselves.
We are all sinners; we all act in impulsive, self-assuring, immature ways. So, how can we hold someone else accountable for standards we ourselves do not follow? It sounds a little hypocritical. It would be like me calling out my co-worker for complaining about the same person that I do. None of us are perfect people, so we must learn to forgive others for their shortcomings as well.
I think not recognizing these two very important pieces about forgiveness cause us crutches in our lives. We find ourselves saying, “I will only forgive her if she apologizes to me”, or, “I will never get over it until he shows he has changed”. But, the truth of the matter is, we cannot control other people. We get ourselves hung up on things we think other people should do. We assert our beliefs and perceptions on them when, in reality, their beliefs and perceptions could be completely different. You can’t wait for someone to say they are sorry; you have to learn to forgive on your own.
Yes, there will be times in our lives that people do not apologize, even though they surely should. There will be times in our lives that people disappoint us, betray us, use us. They will say malicious things about us, talk about us behind our backs, start untrue rumors. But we must forgive them on our own and move on. If we wait for people to reach our expectations, we may be wasting our time because there is a good possibility they will never accomplish what WE think is appropriate.
Forgiveness must occur within ourselves. I began to go back and re-think the situation withhis mom to begin forgiving her. What I realized was that I could not expect her to apologize for driving us apart. I could not expect his mom to call me and tell me how wrong those hurtful things she said about me were. Instead, I tried to put myself in her shoes and try to understand why she might have said those things to me.
Forgiving myself was perhaps the hardest, and I still struggle with it sometimes today. At the end of a breakup, at the end of the grieving process, at the end of recognizing what an absolutely terrible match you would have been and how miserable you would have been had you stayed together, it is natural to realize, “What was I EVER thinking?” And, after this happens, you resent yourself and feel embarrassed that you would ever put yourself in that position in the first place. This literally came out of my mouth a few times when I would run into people who knew him: “Yes we dated, but please don’t judge me”.
I told myself two things: first of all, I did not know any better at the time, so I couldn’t beat myself up, and two, all I could do was learn from my mistakes and make sure I didn’t do that again. And, I had to keep ruminating that thought in my head until I believed it.
Step Seven: Understand Why It Wouldn’t Work
In the beginning stages of a breakup, there is always this kind of gray area about whether you will get back together or not. There are so many stories of people who date for some period of time, break up, run into each other ten years later, and end up rekindling their love for each other (such as The Notebook). Noah and Ally’s love story is great and I am so glad they ended up together, but I personally think it is kind of pathetic that Noah lived in some rural, beat up farmhouse, waiting for her return. What if she never returned? Then he kind of wasted a big chunk of his life. These are really cute love stories and all, I did not want to be the girl that just remained stuck. In order for me to move on, I had to realize we were never getting back together. And, in order to do that, I had to realize why it would have never worked out in the first place.
First, I thought about what my life would have been like had I moved out of state with him like I originally planned. No offense to you who live where he lives, but I am from Colorado, which is the best place in the world to live. I can’t help but feel so fortunate to call this state home. I feel so fortunate every day on my drive to school. The road I take sits above a hill and as I get into town, it releases into a valley. In August and September, I get to watch the sun rise from the horizon and admire the pinks, oranges, and light blues. In the winter, I get to admire the crisp snowfall that folds across the mountain ranges in the distance. Some mornings, I see the valley enveloped in fog. It is an excellent way to start my day (I often think about taking a picture to capture this majesty, but then I remember that picturing and driving is probably more dangerous than texting and driving…) No thank you, I would have been absolutely miserable.
I accepted that what had happened was in the past, and that those moments can never be taken away, but that it was time for something different in the present and future. Part of my turmoil and uneasiness was trying to figure out if I thought he would come back and, if he did, would I want to take him back. We broke up a couple times before (mostly out of immaturity, emotions and exhaustion) so I was not completely set that he would never come back. And, if he did come back and realize he made a mistake, I wanted to make sure I was prepared with an answer.
I remember the distinct moment that I realized we would never be together again. As I was sitting on the bike at the gym, trying to tune these thoughts out, I got a pit in my stomach. The thought suddenly sprang into my mind that he was NOT the one for me, which was an odd thought—something that had never even occurred to me in our six years of dating. But, this thought was so vivid, so clear, so lucid. It felt so accurate and I knew that we would never, ever be back together again. I distinctly remember waking up that next morning, and then making it to lunch, and then to dance practice before I realized that he had not even crossed my mind. Realizing that we were absolutely, positively never getting back together and that we were terrible, horrible matches for each other alleviated some anxiety, because I knew he would never stand as an option again; I would never go back to him and I actually hoped to never even talk to him again. It was quite liberating to know that I would not be tied down to him any longer and that something better would be waiting for me.
Step Eight: Living and Learning
So, once that was over, I decided I would devote my energies towards dissecting what happened in our relationship and learning from it so I do not let it happen again. As humans, it is also natural for us to default back to “what’s comfortable”, which is why we have the saying, “you turned out just like your mom”. I see it over and over again—people date the same kind of person, and wonder why they always get treated the same ways. I had a fear that, because of this comfort ability, I would regress back to a that-type relationship, which I absolutely and positively did not want; once was enough for me. So, I began to go back to pinpoint those dysfunctional tendencies that I had not noticed before.
Here is kind of how the process works: first, you have to let yourself grieve. For some people, this looks like getting really, really drunk and making out with a bunch of random people. For others, it means having a cry fest and watching chick flicks at your best friend’s house (probably also drunk). For me, I take trips, re-evaluate my goals, start projects, write more on my blog. Next, you have to take a step away from the situation and not think about it for a while. Distance allows you to filter out the emotions and prepares you to use that objective lens; you meet some new people, gain some more life experience, learn new things about yourself. And, when the time is right, something will trigger you back to those memories. You will re-visit them in your mind, you will use your new life experiences, you will begin to understand situations in different ways, and you will realize why things happened the way they happened.
Although experiencing these inconsistencies, revelations of how selfish people are, and unforeseen heartbreaks will never not suck, understanding the process makes it easier. I am able to recognize that, there are ultimately three stages I will go through (the grief, the distance, the re-visitations), and by the time I have completed the last stage–when I can look back on the time we spent together, the deep conversations we had without getting butterflies in my stomach and without feeling a longingness, when I can share stories and talk about him without any feelings attached–I am ready to move on. Sometimes moving on means meeting someone else, sometimes it means getting a promotion and setting new goals for yourself; in each case, it depends.
As painful as it was, I forced myself to go back through our relationship and to re-visit the good, the bad, and the ugly memories together. Actually, my entire relationship, everyone always asked me why I was dating him and I always responded, “I just haven’t found anyone I liked more”. So, I started replaying events in my head to try to see them from everyone else’s perspective. I remembered this one time we were listening to the radio. “My Best Friend” by Tim McGraw came on, and the old-fashioned sap that I am, I started thinking about what our first dance song would be. I asked him and his response was, “Crazy Bitch” by Buckcherry. Now, at the time, I thought he was just being playful and sarcastic, but looking back on it, that was actually his perception of me (which no one should think that about their girlfriend, no one). I thought about the time he ‘forgot’ to get me a birthday present or got too busy to call me or would violently poke me at parties. I excused all of these behaviors, but now just realize how dysfunctional and disrespectful they really were.
And then, I forced myself to go back through the ‘dreaded phone call’ and breakup talk in his car. At first, it was extremely painful. Emotionally, I could only get myself through the first line of “It’s time we start seeing other people” before I started welling up. But, each time I re-visited the memory, the previous part became easier to handle, I could get myself a little further, and I cried a little less. A few weeks later, I was on my way out of town and had to pass by his house. I was a little jittery, a little anxious as I approached the driveway. And then, I whizzed past. I realized I felt nothing: no sense of dread, no sadness, no pit in my stomach.
Lee Brice came on my Pandora station this week, which I thought was incredibly fitting for this day. He sings, “When you can look at her picture and not wanna kiss her no more/that’s when you know it’s over”. That has become my theme song this week. I know that every time I am stopped at a stoplight and there is a black Ford Escape next to me, I will glance over to see if there is that big boy sitting in the driver’s seat. And I also know that, if it someday does turn out to be him, I will be able to give a friendly wave, turn back to wait for the green light, and go on with my day. No emotions attached.
A six-year relationship is significant: we experienced a lot of the fundamentals of growing up together and I really would not be who I am today without him. While breakups are incredibly taxing, I would not change this past year for the world; I have met some incredible people, done some phenomenal things, and most importantly, learned so much about myself while in the process. What I have proven to myself is that I can survive a breakup. When thinking about going into another relationship, of which I someday will, I feel a sense of liberation and fearlessness, because I have proven to myself that my life will go on and no matter what happens, I will thrive.
And that, my friend, is powerful.
(A quick shout out to all of those who helped me with this project, especially to my friend Brittny, who had her bags packed and was on her way to my house before I even broke the official news, my sister/room mate, Christiane, who brought me home flowers and wrote me sticky-note love notes, my hallmate, Jen, who sacrificed many of her plan periods to counsel me, and all the other patrons–Kayla, Anika, Steph, Michelle, Sarah, Anna, Dana, Kate, Lauren, Dani, Ashley, Nicole, Cassandra, Lisa and Aimee, Rachel, Rhonda, Hilary, my grandma, my mom, my Aunt’s Susan and Kellie–who have helped me develop this project. You are my lifesavers).
(And, if you decided that you REALLY need to read more, buy the book!)