This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
Once again, I am single after breaking up with a wonderful person with whom I had a decent relationship. This is the third relationship in a row that I’ve been the one to end. In all three, the other person saw the same problems I did, with varying degrees of clarity, but was insistent that they wanted to make it work and that the relationship was worth fighting for. In the end, I just didn’t feel the same way.
When I ended things with my most recent partner a few days ago, he couldn’t even look me in the eye. He said never to reach out again and wouldn’t let me hug him on the way out. I don’t begrudge his reaction! But it feels horrible knowing that I deeply, deeply hurt someone I loved.
Everyone tells me I’m brave for not dragging it out, for not leading them on. But I don’t feel brave. I feel mean and cruel and, ultimately, alone. I also have to deal with the weight of wondering if I made a mistake or if I could have done something different to make it work. I have no doubt that the pain of being dumped when you don’t want to be is far worse than what I’m experiencing, but I kind of want to be the victim for once, you know?
All of this leaves me wondering if there’s something wrong with me. Either I’m unintentionally seeking out relationships with people where I always feel in control, or I’m doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied no matter how good the relationship is and I will always eventually want to break up and will die alone.
So I guess I’m asking, do you think there’s something wrong with me?
The Bad Guy
Hey there, BG!
You know, I’m no stranger to the arithmetic you’re doing. It’s common, after an unpleasant breakup, to head to the chalkboard and start running the equations to find out who was the bad guy in the relationship. Sins are tallied. The times they were late to dinner get multiplied against the times they failed in the gift-giving department.
He broke up with me a mere week after my birthday? A short two months after Christmas? With Easter right on the horizon? He’s evil, your honor!
I get it. As someone who has both called things off and been the one kicked to the curb, I can say there are pros and cons to each, if you can call them that. Sure, there’s the guilt of breaking up with someone, but being broken up with can come as a surprise, and it might feel like you’ve been rejected as a human being.
Uncouth as it may sound, though, being “the victim” does come with perks. There’s a quiet dignity in being the wounded party, the one who gets to stew and simmer and be righteous in their hurt. I think that’s why some people kind of enjoy it. It validates whatever they’re feeling. Anger, sadness, vindictiveness, forgiveness, all of it is on the table, and all of it is noble and understandable.
Meanwhile, the Bad Guy™ is supposed to give space, back off, and not dare show their face unless called upon for closure. Certainly the situations vary, and this is far from the template for everyone, but there does seem to be an understanding that these are the standard roles, and I think that’s why so many people clamor to be the “poor thing” in the wake of a breakup.
Put all that aside, though.
The urge to be good, to do things the right way, is itself a good thing, and I think we should do our best on that front. But I also think the way we understand these things can get a bit unproductive. The meta game of figuring out who’s a villain and who’s a victim, who is good and who is bad, strikes me as a bit essentialist and runs counter to how humans actually operate.
The reality is, in life, you will be both victim and villain, good and bad. You will hurt and be hurt. You will be inconsistent and contradictory. Them’s the breaks when it comes to “being a person,” and it’s best to accept this inherent heterodoxy rather than pretend we can transcend it.
Yes! You actually might be engaging in behaviors that are detrimental both to you and to the people you’re dating. There actually might indeed be things about your approach to relationships that need to be examined and reworked. This is true, I imagine, for most people.
The productive thing in that situation, though, is not to apply a value analysis of how good or bad you are. The productive thing is to figure out what’s going on and work to address it because, as you stated, you are also lonely here and would like to engage in healthy companionship. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not broken or evil. You’re just trying to make it happen to everyone’s benefit, including your own. Nice.
I would do away with the victim-and-villain narrative. That’s for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and look where it’s gotten them. I have no idea what’s going on over there anymore. There are ten different versions of everyone running into each other like a multicar pileup on a Houston highway and, I don’t know, “Gorr.” Gorr is a bad guy, but only because of an evil sword.
If you find one, don’t touch it. You seem like the kind of person who would be really upset over its effects. That’d be a fun letter to answer, though.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on February 20, 2023.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.