At the beginning of this year, I was dating someone I really liked, and I felt pretty sure we were headed toward a long-term relationship. For two months from the night of our first date, we didn’t go a day without talking. I met his best friend and he asked me to meet his parents the next time they came to visit. I told all my friends about him: how much I liked him, how great he was and how well he treated me, how it felt different. This? This was a guy I could see being with for a long time, and he frequently implied he saw the same thing for us. And then he disappeared.

He didn’t vanish off the face of the Earth, of course–he simply stopped texting me with no warning, and it was so out of character for him that I became genuinely worried he had been hit by an errant city bus. After several days of attempted contact, I eventually got him to respond and confirm he wasn’t dead or in the hospital, and that was that. It was an objectively shitty thing to do, and he seemed genuinely embarrassed about both how he handled it and the underlying reasons we couldn’t see each other anymore. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

People spend all kinds of time navel-gazing about the loneliness and sadness that come from lost relationships or even lost potential, but somehow, the humiliation of those situations never seems to get dissected under the same lens. That you’re missing someone who had become a nice part of your life isn’t the full story of the rush of emotions you get from a breakup. Relationships don’t happen in a vacuum–they’re social and usually at least partly public, and rolling all that back, even if you were the person who ended the relationship, requires you to admit over and over again that you were wrong in a way that really mattered.

Looking back over the narrative arc of my dating history, embarrassment is the emotion I’ve gone to the greatest pains to manage, both internally and publicly. I’m comfortable feeling sad; I can sit with my sadness and let it ebb and flow, I can acknowledge that it’s valid and I know that it will relent eventually. Avoiding romantic embarrassment, though, is something I unconsciously start doing long before there’s even any trouble in my relationships. I’m rarely effusive about the men I’m dating in front of friends because I don’t want to have to admit eventually that I cared more about a man than he cared about me, or that I liked him enough to ignore red flags that I’d never tell them to look past.

I’m lucky, and my friends are wonderful; they certainly wouldn’t make me feel any worse if I went in guns blazing to every new person I met without anything ultimately working out. Because I care about their perceptions of me, though, I don’t want them to look at me as a person who is constantly wanting things from men. I want to be fine on my own all the time, not just most of it. I want to be the exception.

Because embarrassment is something people are unlikely to admit to or talk about in any situation–its very existence somehow creates more embarrassment–I believed for a long time that my humiliation was somehow unique, or that everyone else was better at dealing with it than I was. I believed that the people around me handled their disappointments more nobly, and that my inability to follow suit was another personal failing to throw on the heap. No one said otherwise, because no one talked about this black hole in their own minds at all, and so I assumed the best of others and the worst of myself.

That wasn’t true, though. Of course it wasn’t. Eventually I blurted out my embarrassment to a friend who I knew had suffered her own objectively humiliating relationship roller coaster over the past few years, and she didn’t even blink; she just murmured and nodded. The more I mentioned it to friends, the more I saw my own experiences reflected back at me in ways that these women had never articulated before, even if we had previously discussed the same events in detail. All the humiliation was right there, just below the surface, waiting to be given a name.

And the more I talked, the better I felt. Embarrassment is like mold: it thrives in dark, damp spaces, and letting light and air in helped beat it back. When it’s an intimate venture with another person that has caused that rank sense of humiliation, reaching back out to another is the last thing that feels like it will help, but it’s actually all that will.

Illustration by Emily Griffin

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