In a perverse way, I think I was excited for my first break up. I grew up on a cultural diet of Elle Woods turning her heartbreak into a career-defining moment, of tabloids eyeing celebrities’ post-divorce glow ups, of Taylor Swift lyrics dwelling on and romanticising her relationship mishaps until they become something iconic. I knew it would be sad, that there’d be some slamming doors and some nights cursing my ex’s name in the early hours of the morning, but I also somehow imagined breaking up with my first partner would be some epochal moment that would change me for the better. What I wasn’t ready for was just how traumatic both my first break up, and my ex’s response afterwards, would be.
My first relationship, in my last year of school, did in fact change me for the better, but that doesn’t make my experience any less painful, or any easier to talk about using conventional break up vocabulary. The bare bones of it is that my ex went from overwhelming affection for me to an extended silent treatment almost overnight, with very little apparent provocation, and I’m still assessing the psychological damage from that transition.
If one were in a romantic comedy or teen drama, the immediate aftermath of such an event might be going out on the town and ‘forgetting all about him’; I found such gestures well-intentioned but superficial, and I think pop culture sometimes undersells the loss of personhood involved in a break up. Such a large portion of my identity and emotions had been wrapped up with my ex that I had to completely start over in nearly every aspect of my life, a process that didn’t really happen in earnest until after I left school and its stifling environs. The flip side of this is that I don’t think my ex ever really saw me as a person with an identity outside of our relationship, and I unwittingly internalised that belief.
There’s a moment that stands out to me from when my ex and I met up, a year after we broke up, in an ill-advised attempt at closure: he told me about how my neediness and our mutual co-dependency during our relationship had damaged his relationship with his family, and I almost felt compelled to ask, “well, what about my family?” I don’t think he’d ever considered how his abrupt coldness towards me would affect my family, my friends, my performance in school, or any other non-romantic aspect of my life, because I only existed insofar as I was romantically and sexually available to him.
Beyond the fact of my post-break up identity crisis being so severe that no pop culture remedy could help, there’s also a sexualised and deeply misogynistic angle to this. I’ll never forget being told that our relationship consisted solely of my ex “thinking with his d*ck”, or a family member informing him that he should be dating a mutual friend of ours, who was dressed more modestly than me. My (perceived) sexual proclivity was made out to be the source of the issues in our relationship – this isn’t unusual, and I’m not the first one to bring the Madonna-Whore complex into discussions of heterosexual romance – but the standard slut-shaming mindset behind this began with my ex not having a sense of my personhood beyond my sexual availability. For all he was concerned, I was someone to have sex with, and someone who posed a threat through her sexuality, and once we had broken up and those roles were no longer relevant, I simply did not exist in his worldview. There’s a unique insecurity that comes from viewing your sexuality and your personal identity as one and the same, and it compelled me to objectify myself unnecessarily in my later sexual relationships, leading me to some coercive and unhealthy situations; so much of the ‘going out on the town’ narrative revolves around reclaiming your sexuality, but fails to account for how the trauma of losing someone can have ramifications for your sense of sexual identity. For me, valuing myself as an individual independently of my ex while celebrating my sexuality is still, three years later, a balance I find hard to strike.
I didn’t exist wholly as a person within my ex’s mind, and whenever I made an attempt to sort things out between us after we broke up, it felt like I was viewed as some kind of material annoyance he had to get rid of, rather than someone genuinely wanting to improve the situation for us both. I’m not claiming that my conduct was perfect in that relationship, nor that it isn’t ever healthy to spend some time blocked on social media after a breakup; however, there is a point in time at which extended use of the silent treatment becomes emotional abuse. On the rare occasions when my ex did deign to speak to me about our unfinished business, I always felt like I was one misstep, one word that he could twist, away from never being able to speak with him ever again, and thus I didn’t give free rein to my emotions, especially anger.
The cultural narrative, especially for women, is overwhelmingly that we should be ‘the bigger person’ after break ups, and work on constructing our identities independently of the past, and it’s good advice for the most part. However, if we’re always trying to be the conciliatory ones, the peacemakers, then there’s never any room for us to express how we actually feel, especially if those emotions are ones that easily fall into the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope. In my case, I spent so much time trying to reach a place where I could interact politely with my ex in public without wanting to don a disguise and exit through the back door, that I never really got true closure, as I never confronted him with the reality of how his actions had affected me – that would have been perceived as ‘too angry’, and would have made the situation worse. The conventional, linear narrative of getting over a break up allows very little room for holding one’s ex to account – the important element is that you’re ‘over it’, and no longer hold any hard feelings.
The feeling of being inches away from a landmine has persisted long after I made peace with the break up itself. Even though as a writer I operate with respect to journalistic ethics and multiple people will have approved this draft before it is published, there is still a cerebral nervousness within me about how I might be perceived as a woman condemning a man’s conduct in a romantic relationship. One of my earliest memories of social media involves the release of Taylor Swift’s Red, when I’d just turned twelve. All of a sudden, as a nascent Swiftie I was exposed to endless discussions of which male celebrities these exquisite songs of love and loss I loved so much were about, whether Swift was manipulatively portraying herself as a victim of their behaviour, and whether she should have released the songs at all, with little to no focus on the music itself. I’m aware that my ex and I are not A-list celebrities and I will never be subjected to anything like the same level of scrutiny as Taylor Swift, but that early experience has still made me viscerally aware that there is a ‘right’ way for women to talk about male behaviour. If we express in our art or writing our negative emotions towards an ex, we’re being too ‘aggressive’ or trying to embarrass him; if we try to analyse and make sense of our experiences, we’re ‘living in the past’ or secretly want to get back together. Going through heartbreak is something noble, but only if the heartbroken person behaves like the perfect victim afterwards, never too forgiving of her ex nor too hostile.
I resent the fact that pop culture tells us that getting over a break up is akin to self-improvement. In the words of one of my favourite musicals, The Last Five Years, “maybe there’s somewhere a lesson to learn / but that doesn’t change the fact”. My experiences have undoubtedly been instructive in how to navigate relationships as a woman, as a writer, and as a human being, but that doesn’t reduce the deep trauma of the break up, or of the emotional isolation I experienced afterwards. It didn’t help that there seemed to be no narrative I could point to in film, television or music, which depicted someone going through such an acute loss of identity, or who had developed such fear of speaking up about their experiences. Next time you meet someone going through a break up, think beyond the narratives of ‘getting over it’ being an uncomplicated and linear process, and remember that there may be ramifications beyond what you see represented in pop culture.
Artwork credit: Ben Beechener.