I Was Wrong: Friendship With My Ex Held Us Both Back From Love

i was wrong

John was my first love and on-and-off-but-mostly-on boyfriend of five years, ages 16 to 21. His eyes were Carolina blue; his greatest pleasures were food and medieval history. And me. No romance I’ve known since has equaled the single-minded devotion John and I shared; first love comprises a genre all its own, a delicious and unparalleled madness. Only weeks after we held hands in an empty park a few blocks from the high school, we began spending every night together, lifting the curtain on the parts of ourselves we’d been waiting to reveal. He soothed my teenage furies with softness and empathy, brought me ice cream to satisfy midnight cravings and laid with me through countless migraines, pressing cool towels to my forehead.

We went on like this for years, eventually choosing colleges in the same city and moving into our first adult apartment together. But ultimately, passion dwindled, only to be replaced by boredom and restlessness. The royal treatment that once thrilled me now ate away at my respect for him. Sensing this, he backed off, which only enraged me further; there was no winning. At the end, we dwelt in mutual misery born of a central truth: he wanted to stay and I wanted to leave. But rather than leaving, I became cruel and distant, treating him like a roommate who must answer my every whim in order to keep me. Finally, we separated—but not before he hated me.

We lost touch for five years, during which I dated a succession of partners who were right and wrong for me in varying proportions. The last of these endeavors, a year trapped in a morass of deception and infidelity, left me wrung out and shattered in a way that no breakup had before. In the aftermath of all this badness, I tried to orient myself in the direction of goodness, toward the things and people in my life that sustained me: friends, family, reading, writing. And, I couldn’t stop thinking, John. The memory of his brilliance, humor, and unerring fealty shone like a lantern through the murk of my despair. One nervy Friday afternoon, I dialed the number of his parents’ house, the only one I could remember. He answered.

We knit our lives back together at a breakneck pace. Our days filled to bursting with a deluge of words: texts, instant messages, dissertational emails detailing our time apart, what we were reading, and the startling relief of reconnection. One Sunday, we Skyped for seven hours. He’d been with a girl for years, and she was not oblivious to his absences, figurative and literal, during this rekindling. Soon they split. He said the break was coming before I reappeared. I’ll never know if that’s true.

Our body of correspondence was shot through with bright red arteries of possibility that pulsed with an unanswerable question: Should we reconcile? We now lived on opposite coasts, meeting was no longer a matter of hopping on the subway. So we made the choice of not-choosing, circling each other in a dance, a tease, an unspoken, transcontinental dare. I casually mentioned how much I thought he’d like my new city while he sent photos of elaborate meals he’d cooked for one.

After a few months, I began to sense a quiet hesitation in him, blooming into our conversation like a bruise. Finally he erupted, accused me of manipulating him into the kind of emotional subservience that characterized our original relationship, and severed contact entirely. I felt sick. Every cell in me flailed and raged. Having glimpsed a flare of hope in the desert of romantic exile, how could he turn away now? What harm in remote friendship, in an intimacy not easily categorized within stuffy, outmoded taxonomies of attachment?

But the sick feeling receded, a sad, slow ebb tide, leaving behind a gem of clarity which time and distance polished to a steely luster. I dated a couple of men in whose friendships with their exes I heard jarring echoes of mine with John: the intensity of emotion, the obsessive communication. These “weird friendships” were fed not by genuine affinity, but by a white-knuckled terror at the prospect of letting go of people who had, for a time, mattered to us more and known us better than anyone else in the world. Afraid of loss, and the grief that follows on its heels, we enacted heroic life support measures on what should have expired in its proper time.

Weird friendship, I learned, is a brutal in-between, a way of having and not-having someone all at once. The only way to escape this brutality is to say yes or no, submit the relationship to up-or-down vote. If you say no–and weird friendship is always a way of saying no–then you must enact a sort of purposeful losing. To hold a person close in order to soothe your loneliness and anxieties, and not because you want to be with them, in all their particularity, is to hold them back. Did I want to be with John, or did he represent an affirmation, after a history of denials, that love awaited me, the final, until-death kind that rewards our suffering in its pursuit? The fact that I have to ask is answer enough.

In my renewed friendship with John, I had labored under the misapprehension that loving him so ardently for so long entitled me to a continued presence in his life, and pride of place in his heart forever and ever. A deep part of me felt that, by virtue of what we had meant to each other, I owned a deep part of him, and for him to deny that would constitute a denial of his very blood and bones, which still bore my imprint. But ownership is not love, and it is not a kindness. It is a violence. We should desire for our partners an expansion, not a narrowing of their worlds, of which we are only ever one part. John left because he felt us closing in on him–and though the knife of abandonment cut deep, I know now that John was right to wield it. From here, a vantage beyond the myopia of my own longing, I am left only with the wish that he find all the love and happiness that await him.

Illustration by Paige Vickers

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