Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It was after midnight when my boyfriend, Clark, showed up at my door. He’d walked all the way from his apartment in Bed-Stuy in the cold. He took off his thermals and crawled into bed. “I moved across the country for you,” he said. “What’s 1.7 miles?”
Hours later, I was bent on the floor, crying so hard I couldn’t breathe. Less than two months ago, he’d left his studio apartment in San Diego, put up two of his dogs for adoption, signed up to take the New York State bar, and booked a one-way flight to JFK. But now he was picking up his things and walking out the door.
Our relationship ended as suddenly as it began, and I was as confused as I was devastated. I’d spent our time together studiously reading about relationships, the biochemical makeup of love (akin to hits of cocaine), how to communicate effectively, even ensuring that our Myers-Briggs personality types were compatible (his INTJ was a “sagelike” presence for me to come back to, I read, and my creativity and impulsivity would inspire him to new pleasures). I had a self-diagnosed avoidant attachment style: I balked at intimacy, savored independence, feared revealing too much of myself. I’d been single, dating disappointing men, or self-sabotaging my relationships for six years — I thought I was finally ready for change. He’d already been married once before, a sure sign of secure attachment, someone well versed in commitment. I wanted to learn as much as I could to make sure we worked.
Months after we met in California, Clark moved to New York, and we spent the holidays together in our private world, newly in love: snuggling in bed with Dean Martin on the stereo, fucking relentlessly, laughing at tiny dogs in snow boots. I loved his decisiveness, the weight of his hand when he held mine, the morning when we woke up and he called me “my love.” He was sweet and caring and thoughtful and competent, so unlike the careless men I’d grown accustomed to.
I knew I was bad understanding relationships, so I turned to research for support. I learned from the New York Times that novel experiences helped revive romance — and so, though ours didn’t need reviving, I kept brainstorming new adventures just to make sure. I read that the frequency of your sex life early in a relationship correlated to diminished frequency long-term, and felt assured that our relentless fucking would eventually slow to something more reasonable. And I made sure that our personalities didn’t predict disasters: while the Myers-Briggs was notoriously scientifically unreliable, I knew that on the more stable Big Five personality test, high neuroticism was a predictor of lower relationships satisfaction. I sent him the test, and the both of us scored happily low. I was obsessed with quantifying our compatibility, and by every measure, we were going to be okay.
Yet, sometimes, when we had small disagreements, things felt tense. After an argument, I would feel shattered, frightened, and withdrawn. A seemingly innocuous comment easily turned into accusations and confrontation. I did my research, learned that effective arguments can make a relationship stronger, and memorized tips for how to argue well: old disagreements should remain in the past, and focusing on your own needs works better than blaming the other person.
A few days before the breakup, we went to the Bronx Zoo, another novel experience I thought might be good for us. Somewhere along the way I brought up a touchy subject, a conflict we’d never been able to settle: we’d talked about trying polyamory, my desire to also date my best friend in New York. I’d decided to commit to monogamy, at least for a while, but I wanted Clark to be comfortable with the intimacy of my friendship.
One misunderstanding led to another, and Clark became increasingly upset. I tried to draw on what I’d read, asking him to restate his feelings without attacking me, but that only seemed to make things worse.
By the time we made it to the zoo, the tension had lessened, but was still palpable. While we looked at colorful birds and rowdy sea lions, I felt a small sickness. While we sat across each other in an Italian restaurant that night, I thought of asking him for a deadline: a reevaluation date. We could try as hard as we could, but if things remained volatile between us, perhaps we’d have to call it off. “That’s a very avoidant thing to say,” he said.
Still, for a long time, I sat across the table, silent, imagining how my life would continue without him: I’d have my friends and my art. I would be okay. I was trying to make peace with the inevitability of our breakup, even as I hoped that I’d be proven wrong — that anything was fixable with enough research and determination.
I was still sad when he called a few nights later and offered to come over. I don’t know if the visit was supposed to be a reconciliation, but as soon as he arrived, little things started piling on top of one another. I told him that there were too many cracks in our foundation. I no longer felt safe.
“I don’t feel safe, either,” he said. The only solution, he said, was to break up.
In the days after the breakup, I cried so much my throat became raw. I wrote letters I’d never send — more than 8,000 words analyzing what went wrong. Could I have been unknowingly cruel? Had my avoidance planted too many seeds of doubt, tapered my enthusiasm? Maybe I was suspicious of our love from the start, had always believed that I would not be good enough for him. Or maybe it was the way we couldn’t handle a conflict.
I looked for answers in the same way I looked for validation during our relationship: I turned to endless Psychology Today columns, Ask Metafilter advice, and personality quizzes. My search led me to a test neither of us had yet taken: a self-esteem test. I worried that perhaps I’d been guilty of being overly critical, a side effect of too much insecurity. But my score turned out to be normal.
When I imagined him answering the questions, though, I realized that the results would have looked different: “When someone criticizes me, I can’t help but feel that I really am incompetent. I feel as though I let those I care about down. I modify my personality, opinions, or appearance in order to be accepted by others.”
Check, check, and check. Suddenly, it all made sense to me: his reactivity to criticism, his need to please, his worry that people he’d just met disliked him. For hours, I read about the insidious effects of low self-esteem on relationships. It felt like a revelation: all the time I’d be flattered by his kindness, but maybe it was him compensating for what he felt he didn’t deserve. Maybe even his cockiness, his sense of infallibility, which I loved, was a sign that hid what was beneath.
I felt vindicated — and then I cried, missing him. In another world, we would have figured this out together: I’d help him learn to love himself more, and he’d help me learn to be okay with relying on another person.
But the post-breakup advice I read told me not to dwell. I’d follow the strict no-contact rule, remember silver linings, grieve, and then, slowly, forget. I did what I was supposed to: painted my nails, pressed icy compresses over my swollen eyes, got a haircut and journaled endlessly. I would fill up the loneliness with my friends and long walks and the luxury of my own company. I would make no more mistakes.
A week after the breakup, he called. I let it go to voice-mail, deliberating, but knowing what I had to do. Google, my trusted adviser, had already given me all the answers: even if I harbored hopes of a reconciliation, cyclical relationships were statistically ill fated. I couldn’t imagine a conversation that would go well. According to my research, for now, at least, we were better off alone.