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7 People on Blowing Up Their Lives for Love

Photo: Erika Eros/Getty Images/EyeEm

This week, Elle published a story about journalist Chrystie Smythe’s decision to blow up her “perfect little Brooklyn life” — leaving her husband, apartment, and job — after falling in love with Martin Shkreli, who is currently serving seven years in prison for fraud. Uprooting her life for “pharma’s biggest asshole” has raised some eyebrows, especially as Shkreli appears to have since dumped Smythe via a statement sent to Elle. But people make dramatic decisions for love all the time.

Under the intoxicating influence of new romance, people have a tendency to do things that may seem crazy to outsiders — like ending a seemingly stable marriage, cutting ties with friends and family, or moving to the other side of the world. Most of the people I spoke to said the same thing: At the time, it didn’t feel like a choice at all, rather something that simply had to be done. When it all works out, these grand gestures can become the root of some of our most epic love stories (and later become fodder for great wedding speeches). When it doesn’t … well, hopefully they at least get a book deal out of it. The Cut spoke to seven people who, like Smythe, exploded their lives for love, to mixed results.

Some names have been changed.

“I told myself and everyone else at the time that I was moving there to work, but I moved there to be with him.” Claire, 31, therapist

I met Henrik when I was 22. I had decided to defer my grad-school acceptance for a year to travel through southern and eastern Africa, and he was a guide on one of the overland trips I took. He was South African and tall and tan and had a sexy accent and a cocky attitude. Naturally, I fell fast. We spent my time there together, and I extended the trip, traveling back to Cape Town from Nairobi to see him before I left, where I told him I loved him. And at this point, I had basically decided I would be moving back to Cape Town to be with him. I adored South Africa, and before I met him I’d considered moving there and working for a volunteer-based organization instead of going to grad school. I told myself and everyone else at the time that I was moving there to work, but I moved there to be with him.

Henrik was fluent in English, but his first language was Afrikaans, and I had a strong desire to impress him and his family, so I studied for hours every day. Henrik’s job meant he was gone for long stretches, so after an initial visit when I arrived, he left for a two-month overland trip. Meanwhile, I did the homework of figuring out how I could stay in South Africa past my three-month tourist visa. It became clear that a fiancée visa was the only way to go, so we went for it. I got an apartment I couldn’t afford, and Henrik added me to his bank account to prove we were serious. I spent time with his family, some of whom pretty openly thought he was nuts for dating not only an American but a Jewish American. His dad was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, an Über-conservative sect. At a family dinner one night, his mom, not yet knowing that I spoke Afrikaans, said to him in full volume in their native tongue that this would never work out and he knew it and he should end it while he could.

But I was happy to do it at the time. I adored him, and it seemed like an exciting adventure. But it was totally nuts. I was completely alone because Henrik was on the road almost all the time, and I didn’t know a soul. Thank God, it didn’t work out, because he actually was not a very nice person at all. He was very quick to temper and judgmental and impatient. He also believed that gay people chose to be gay, and he’s one of those types that thinks the Bible says it’s wrong to be gay. This was a huge point of contention for us. When I would try to talk about why I disagreed, he would laugh in my face.

I remember we had a talk on December 23 about our future, some of our differences, and how we would overcome them. I thought it went well, and it left me feeling excited about the future, but the next day, Christmas Eve, we sat down to eat breakfast and he told me he didn’t see things working out for us. I was in total shock, and emotionally I was destroyed. My mom wanted me to stay because I had made so much effort to be there, but I couldn’t see past my own grief. I booked a plane ticket and flew home on New Year’s Eve. It took me two years, some therapy, and a long slog of depression before I was over Henrik and the whole incident.

I still feel it was the love that got away.” Mark, 31, actor

In 2010, I was on a family vacation in Hawaii, and at one point my brother and I decided to kill some time on Chatroulette. Eventually, it was just me and this girl going back and forth. Weird, serendipitous things kept happening — like finding out we knew people in common even though I live in Canada and she’s in Wisconsin. Eventually, we exchanged numbers, and for three months we were texting all day, every day, and then we’d Skype in the evenings — we’d just leave our computers on, fall asleep, and wake up and just continue the conversation.

After five months or so we’re like, Okay, we have to meet each other. We arranged to meet in L.A. At the end of that trip, we stayed up all night on Santa Monica Beach and she rolled over in the sand and told me she loved me. That was after five days of being together.

After that, I put everything in my life on hold.

I tried to move to Wisconsin illegally to be with her after university. I had no plan, no visa, and got caught at the border, and ended up getting red-flagged from the States. For five years, the only way I could get across the border was by carrying a binder that was about eight inches tall with all my bills to prove that I was a Canadian. Still, for years, we managed to see each other every month or so.

To fund my trips back and forth, I started selling weed. She wasn’t cool with it. I was visiting her one summer, and she saw a text of mine and asked if I was still selling weed when I had told her I quit. That ended up blowing up the relationship because it was a huge rift in our trust. Even after we broke up, it was basically like eight years of us not being able to be in relationships, because every time we came back into each other’s lives, it was like, Okay, I’m scratching that itch, and we’re back into it.

We’ve been broken up for years, and I have a new girlfriend now but I still feel it was the love that got away. I definitely hung up my life for many years to try and make this thing work.

“To this day, it haunts me.” — Lara, 31, designer

I was with my college boyfriend for two years, and I was really good friends with his best friend. For those years, it was very convenient to have an insular-feeling group where my boyfriend and one of my best guy friends were in the same social circle. At the same time, tensions already felt exacerbated by the fact that we all lived within, like, the same five-block radius.

Eventually, the friend expressed his feelings for me. I was in denial about that for a while. The whole thing was heightened even further because not only was I dating his best friend, he had dated one of my closest friends and she still wasn’t over it. And then things just kind of escalated until I had to acknowledge that I felt that way too. I broke up with my boyfriend, and [our friend and I] got together after we graduated.

When you’re in your early 20s, everyone kind of feels like they have a say on matters of the heart. Our social circle was like a Greek chorus who weighed in on whether or not I was allowed to be happy, because it would mean hurting other people in the group. The only way we felt like we could move forward was to leave and go to Southeast Asia, which were some of the best months of my life. After feeling like our love was marred by everyone weighing in, it felt nice to escape all that. It was just us.

My friend — his ex-girlfriend — was very upset. I knew by getting together with him I was drawing a line in the sand between us. I respected her need to distance herself. Still, it was hard for me because I consider myself to be a very loyal person, and I always try to treat friends the way I would want to be treated. But eventually, it didn’t really seem like a choice; it was just something I had to do. I remember him saying to me, “If you and I, in order for us to be together, had to move away and not be friends with anyone, then that would be worth it.”

After that, our social group kind of split into factions, and we went our separate ways. I think our group would have stayed close if I hadn’t pursued that relationship. To this day, it haunts me.

We ended up having an on-and-off relationship for, like, probably ten years. We aren’t together now, but I don’t regret it.

“I was like, YOLO, I love him.” — Jane, 30, lawyer

I was 21 and on exchange in Australia through my school, and I fell in love with an Australian guy. So cliché. My parents were furious. After I came home, I was like, What do I do? Do I go to law school like I planned, or do I move to Australia? I was like, YOLO, I love him.

It was great at first, but I moved into a house with him and four other boys. I was still trying to study for the LSAT, but it was really hard to study. These guys were partying all the time. One of the roommates would just run into the room while we were sleeping and shake us and wake us up because he was high on MDMA. I remember being like, “I just need a few hours to study for this really difficult exam,” and my boyfriend didn’t understand that. I wrote it and got such a bad mark on it.

Our relationship deteriorated within a few months. I think the pressure of me being there was just too much for him. He went a little bit crazy. He would get superhigh and ignore me. The last straw was when I found out that secretly, without telling me or anyone, he had quit his job and quit university but pretended he was still going. Instead, he would just go skateboarding. We were getting into so many fights. It really felt like I had uprooted my life to go somewhere I knew no one and made all these sacrifices, and he didn’t do anything.

In hindsight, he had some pretty serious underlying issues. I left ultimately because he told me he had to move home. I think I was just deluded. I wanted to make it work even though there were so many red flags.

Right after I left, he abruptly left Melbourne, went back to his family home, and stopped being friends with everybody he knew and didn’t keep in touch with anybody. That’s the last I heard of him. Meanwhile, I went home and took the LSAT again. Thankfully, I got a good enough mark the second time around.

“We’re both tied by love and just on an adventure together.” — Craig, 32, business developer

I met this French girl, and after about eight months of long distance, I went to Paris for five weeks to try it out and see what living in France would be like, see if we were destined to be together. When I came back from that trip, things were not as rosy as I hoped they’d be. It turned out she’d been sleeping with another guy for months. We decided to go our separate ways.

Come March — my birthday, actually — she sent me a handwritten letter and said, “I don’t want to be with him. I want to be with you.” So she came to New York, and she moved there in November of last year. We decided she’d be there for a couple of months as a tourist and then we’d just go traveling. I left my job, she left her job, we went down to Mexico and spent six months there during the pandemic. We decided if we can do this, then we maybe can stick it out further, and we started looking into getting married. We decided to come back to the States and get married at my folks’ property in Rhode Island and then we moved to Lyon, France.

My friend officiated, and he used this quote from Bill Murray that said something like, “If you’re ever wondering if that person you’re with is the one, buy a ticket to travel around the world, and go to places that are really hard to get to and really hard to get out of. And if you get back to JFK and you still think they’re the one, marry them.” That quote was perfect. To have this love story be totally shattered and then to not stop thinking about each other and to bring it all back together again — we’re both tied by love and just on an adventure together. I’m really glad that we’re not in Paris, which is where she’s from, but in a smaller town that’s new to both of us, because we both left our lives and we’re starting again and exploring together. I came here for love, and this is my life now.

“My family really made religion part of excluding him.” — Maryam, 30, doctor

I went to med school in Ireland, and I met Derek there in my third year, around 2015, and we started dating. After that, I was going to do my residency in Canada, and he said he would come there and live with me. My brother-in-law at the time called me and was like, “This isn’t a good idea. This isn’t what our family does. You don’t live with someone before you’re married.” And my sister said the same thing. We’re Muslim, though not very conservative. But it was more of a cultural thing, or just their own comfort level, and religion actually had nothing to do with it. Still, at the time, everything my family said was like gospel to me. So Derek got a job and lived in Switzerland for two years, and I was in Canada.

At the beginning, when I’d visit him, my parents would ask me things like, “Oh, how many bedrooms are in his apartment in Switzerland?” And I was like, “Oh, there’s two bedrooms. I’ll be sleeping in the other one.” And we would have to make up all this stuff. When he did finally come to my house, they made us sleep in separate bedrooms. And my dad kept introducing him to people as my “friend” or would make fun of him, calling him McDerek, and it was just awful. Meanwhile, if my sister and brother-in-law had me over, they would tell me I had to lie to my parents and say we didn’t share a room.

The summer between med school and residency, I decided, Well, my parents have financial power over me, so if I just completely cut that off, I’ll be able to make my own decisions. 

I don’t really practice my religion anymore, either, because my family really made religion part of excluding him. My sister was having a version of the baptism for my nephew and she organized it so Derek couldn’t come because it was inside the mosque.

My family doesn’t know, but we’re married. We eloped in Las Vegas in September and got married by Elvis.

At some point, I just stopped caring, to be honest. I barely speak to my nuclear family anymore, and Derek and I moved to New York State, where we live now. My relationship with my sister and brother-in-law is essentially nonexistent, and with my niece and nephew. My sister picked our parents’ side, implying that, We need to be this nuclear perfect family, and you’re ruining it. And my brother-in-law, rather than being like, “Oh, I know what it’s like to be on the outside of this family, let me welcome you in,” he was the most unwelcoming and rude to Derek of everyone.

To this day, my family isn’t willing to sit down and admit the mistakes they made. I always thought I would move back to my hometown and take over my parents’ medical practices, but now I’m like, We’re never going to live there, and we’re never going to live close to my family.

Derek’s a very black-and-white person. And I used to be very wishy-washy because I’m a people pleaser. But what they did was wrong. I can’t really look back and be like, Oh, what could I have done differently? I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. He and I have this running joke that if it hadn’t been for him, I’d probably be living in my sister’s basement, babysitting my niece and nephew on Friday evenings, and it’s probably true.

“I can’t believe I was so stupid to settle for something that wasn’t pure happiness.” — Rikki, 37, machine operator

My ex-husband and I were together for seven, eight years. It was okay. There wasn’t much passion. But I always thought, This is just how love is. I was absolutely wrong.

One day, some friends invited me to the movies, and at the last minute, I decided to go. We saw John Wick 2, and I met my future fiancée, Freja. We talked before the movie, we played air hockey, we talked during the movie, and we laughed at all the explosion parts when you’re not supposed to laugh. After that night, I knew I should probably be talking to my husband.

For the next week, I talked to Freja about what kind of relationship she was in. She was in an open relationship. The next Saturday came, and we went bowling. I was excited to see her again, and we ended up kissing. There was a lot of kissing. I couldn’t believe the connection we had, the pure passion that came from this person.

Two days later, I had the courage to break up with my husband. For the next eight months, I hung out with Freja while she was still in this open relationship. Her and her partner ended up breaking up, and Freja moved in with me. And I have never been happier in my life. Now that I have Freja, I can’t believe I was so stupid to settle for something that wasn’t pure happiness.

7 People on Blowing Up Their Lives for Love