I am in a relationship with a beautiful girl I met in my first year of college, and we’ve been together for about four years now. The thing is that I feel I want to break up with her. I want to be alone, and I want to give myself the chance to be “back in the game.” The problem is that I cannot put my hands on a significant reason to do so. She is deeply in love with me, she’s great, and she’s passionate about us. On the other hand, I keep having this feeling of: What if there’s someone better out there? I am afraid to make a decision that I will regret later because I think there might be a good chance that I will never find a girl like her or better than her again.
I think about breaking up with her constantly. Even though I might have feelings for her, I want to keep looking.
I fell in love in my first year of college, too. My boyfriend was smart and adorable and perfectly devoted to me. We made out around the clock, and all we did when we weren’t making out was talk about how in love we were. After about six months, we started talking about how we’d graduate and get married and move to Winston-Salem together. (Winston-Salem is a leafy college town in North Carolina that I had only visited once, but my boyfriend assured me that it was the perfect place for us both to become lawyers, buy a big house, and raise a bunch of kids together.)
It was intoxicating to hear this boy with gigantic blue eyes describe a Happily Ever After in which I was the star and the main attraction: a whip-smart, pretty wife practicing law and raising miniature lawyers among the tall pine trees of a small but genteel southern town. His fairy tale was built around the amiable, joke-cracking entertainer I played in his company. I loved that he thought the character I’d created could also become a devoted wife, a good mother, a busy and important professional, and eventually, a graying matriarch who holds your hand while you rock in sync on the front porch.
I don’t know if he noticed that I was a bad drunk or a show-offy former cheerleader or a shameless sexual marauder. I’m not sure if I showed him my notebooks of maudlin poetry or my giant crate of tormented journals. I don’t think I always insisted that we listen to Jane’s Addiction’s first album instead of R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” one more time. I don’t think I knew, back then, that I couldn’t proceed calmly into pastoral domesticity without crushing something along the way. He made me feel like I wasn’t actually conflicted or needy or enraged at a world that stuffed women into tiny boxes and expected them to stay there forever. He offered me the luxury of imagining that things could be clean and simple, that true love would whisk me away from the 10,000 leagues of dark water roiling underneath the surface of my calm sea.
Back then, I didn’t know much — about myself or him or anything, really. But that didn’t matter. I didn’t need to know everything that I know now. All I needed to know was this: I thought about breaking up with him constantly.
He talked and I didn’t want to listen. I felt safe on the firm ground of his love, but I didn’t admire him. I respected his pure heart, but I wanted to eat a million other hearts just for fun. I envied his loyalty and his dogmatic proclamations and his attachment to straight lines, and that was what I aspired to, consciously, but it wasn’t who I was. I was trying to be good. I was trying to become the pretty wife. I was trying to lock down Happily Ever After. I was beyond certain that I couldn’t do better.
Nevertheless, every Wednesday night I ended up drinking with his older frat brother (I know, heavy sigh). He was a baby-faced Adam Driver with the sharpest, wildest mind I’d ever encountered. He had shoulders 15 feet wide. He had meat Chiclets. (Square superhero chest, like two pieces of Chiclets gum, side by side.) Picture Channing Tatum, but haunted by darkness. He would get very drunk and for some strange reason he’d turn to me and start rambling about how his parents expected him to proceed calmly into an upper-middle-class existence that felt weightless and colorless to him. He wasn’t sure he could keep pretending, he’d tell me with wild eyes, and I’d want to kiss him on his pretty lips on the spot. He was in the ROTC program, it was paying for school, but he hated the military, he hated everything, he just wanted to wander around writing songs on his guitar and…
Well. You get the picture. This motherfucker was six-foot-three, and every Thursday morning after we got drunk together, he’d show up to our art-history class wearing a white Navy uniform. You have to understand, Top Gun was lady porn for mediocre white girls like me back then. Tom Cruise was our squatty Channing Tatum or our wholesome Adam Driver. (This was before Scientology and Nicole and Katie. No one really knew the guy, we’d just seen him dancing in his underwear and sleeping with Rebecca DeMornay once and we were pretty much sold.) My crush looked hotter than Tom Cruise to me, with a singing voice like Jeff Buckley. He’d amble into class, and he’d somehow get his long legs and gigantic arms seated in a tiny desk in the row in front of mine, and he’d listen intently to the teacher WHILE HE TRACED THE HAIRS ON HIS GIANT ARM WITH HIS BEAUTIFUL FINGERTIPS.
“Is he trying to seduce me?” I’d wonder, my visions of two-story houses in leafy college towns melting before my eyes like Dali’s clocks. So I would talk to him after class. He literally did not know my name. I found out later that he never remembered telling me a thing when he was drinking. He was too drunk. I could’ve been a piece of furniture for all he knew.
But I was a reckless piece of furniture, so I dumped my perfect, devoted boyfriend and I slept with the haunted Navy motherfucker and I traced tiny circles across his glorious meat Chiclets with my fingers while he mused in gloomy, self-involved circles. I also drank too much and cried into my hands because I missed my best friend, with his big blue eyes and his shiny, happy people holding hands. The floor fell out from under me: I was in love and I was also in a lot of pain. I had been propped up by my devoted sidekick, and without him, my confidence melted. I was needy and enraged and desperate and sad again. I was miserable and happy. I wasn’t a scripted character anymore. I was my full fucking self, and I was ashamed of that self, because I was 19 years old and I felt guilty and ravenous and stupid and wild around the clock.
I didn’t know much. All I knew was that I’d had nagging doubts, and then I’d started to think about baby-faced Adam Driver constantly. Because I was young and I wasn’t married and I didn’t want to cheat on my nice boyfriend, I broke up with him instead. I didn’t want to make that choice, exactly, it’s just where I landed.
I was still sure that I couldn’t do better, and maybe from some objective judge’s perspective, I didn’t do better for years and years. But I had a lot of great sex and I learned what a mess I was and I got to know someone who was as conflicted as I was. I figured out how to be a sidekick instead of being the main attraction. I figured out how to break up with someone I was still in love with because he couldn’t see me clearly. And after that, I fell in love maybe 15 or 20 more times. I was reckless and self-doubting and I kept learning from my mistakes. Each new mistake was divine, giddy, tremendous, harrowing, impossible, perfect.
I’m someone who loves love a little too much. Maybe you’re like me. Sometimes you love love more than you love an optimized, pretty life with the ideal mate. And sometimes you love the safety and security of being with someone who knows you and cares about you and is loyal to your corrupt state. There are no easy answers when you’re 19 or when you’re 99. You wake up in the morning and you ask yourself what you value and where your loyalties lie and what you’re committed to honoring and what you truly desire, and you chart some wobbly path through the wilderness based on those navigational cues.
The only thing I can tell you is that being alive and embracing connection isn’t about making sure that you cling to The Highest Quality Human Available. Math and logic don’t work here. If you see the person you’re with as The Best I’m Going to Get, that not only means that you’re reducing a human being to the sum of their good traits, but it also suggests that you’ll be attuned to any clear upgrade offered to you on the open market. Love and humans are both more complex and more magical than that. You aren’t shopping for appliances. You’re honoring your desires — and other visions and mysteries beyond your immediate control.
Right now, you’re very young and your soul wants to wander. At your age, you don’t need a dissertation on why your relationship isn’t working in order to justify tuning into your daily thoughts and following your heart. It’s not selfish to pay attention to your desires. You feel strongly that you need to be alone. If that feeling isn’t strong enough to talk about it yet, sit with it until you get more clarity.
Love isn’t everything. It’s just one piece of a bigger picture. My sense is that you want to explore the bigger picture, and doing that with your girlfriend along for the ride is going to be difficult. You want to feel free.
There’s always a chance that you’ll look back and say, “She was the one, and I fucked it up.” I thought that plenty of times about my sweet, loyal, freshman-year boyfriend. But I never really wanted to pick up the phone and convince him to come back to me. I didn’t want to become the character I’d written: the pretty wife, the busy professional, the perfectly satisfied mom, the woman with simple needs and limited desires. I didn’t want to live in Winston-Salem. I still don’t.
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