¡hola papi!

‘How Do You Know If You’re With the Right Person?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I recently ended my first relationship, and I’m dealing with a lot of regret. I had never dated anyone, and had only recently discovered I was a lesbian. When I did start dating, I set out to explore a lot, because I didn’t have the college or high school or even early 20s experiences so many of my peers did. I almost immediately ended up in a relationship with a woman. We dated for a couple of years, starting just a few months before the pandemic.

My partner was always more in it. She had dated before and had been out since college and knew what she wanted. I was resistant to a serious situation, but I fell pretty hard and then the pandemic hit, so it felt natural to get more serious.

But I was missing something. Maybe it’s because I watch way too many romantic comedies, but I always thought I would just know when things were right, that I would be confident that I was in love and that this was the person I would spend my future with. I didn’t feel that with her.

This spring, it felt like each of us was busy doing our own thing, and we were growing apart. I successfully ended things with the understanding that we would stay friends. It seemed to be working and like I was (maybe unfairly) getting to have my cake and eat it too. I mentioned to a friend that I hoped we could be together when we were older and wiser (which makes me think I did actually see a future for us but didn’t realize it until too late).

Staying friends was probably the wrong decision. It lasted a week, and unfolded poorly. It did not last, and we’ve had no contact for months, as initiated, understandably, by my ex.

I feel like I’ve lost my favorite, most important person in my life, and I don’t know if that means it was love and I messed up, or if it was co-dependence.

Papi, how do you know something is right? How do you know you’re with someone you have a future with? How do you know you’re in love if you’ve never been in it or even in a relationship before? How do you know if you’re unhappy because you’re unhappy, or if you’re unhappy in your relationship?

Bad Brain

Hey there, BB!

There’s a lot to address in your letter. I have my work cut out for me! I guess I’ll begin with the part that called to me first: the notion of a future we’re supposed to be seeking, a picture in our minds of what “the good ending” looks like and trying to set things up in the present so that we arrive there eventually.

Of course, there’s some wisdom in that. We want to put ourselves on the path that leads to better things — to warmth, to calm, to happiness. But I also find that placing “someday” at the center of all our affairs can come at the expense of today. The future gets to be perfect and ideal because it doesn’t yet exist. We can color it however we want. We get to pretend there’s a future free of worry and full of the best things even if we should know from personal experience that the future doesn’t really work that way.

The future isn’t just five years from now. The future is also tomorrow, next week, and next month. We’re in some version of the future, our feet firmly planted in a future, at this very moment. It seems as though what you’re describing is the fear that you messed up by losing “the one,” the key, the person who was meant to bring it all together for you.

“The one” makes perfect sense if you’re thinking about your whole life as a project that should be leading up to an ideal future, doesn’t it? “The one” is the person you’re supposed to end up with, the person who, like you, has been bumbling and grasping in the dark in search of their soulmate, and when at last you reach each other, all you have to do is hold on tight for the rest of your days.

Let’s say, for giggles, that’s true, that there is such a thing as a person who, if not cosmically ordained by fate to be your forever person, is — I don’t know — the person who would optimize the happiness and delights of partnership. She’s out there and may or may not be your recent ex. All right, sure. Where do we go from there? This fantasy closes more doors than it opens. It doesn’t serve you.

It’s more likely, I think, that people enter our lives for a time, and there are ways they are “right” and ways they are not, ways they fit and ways they don’t, and there’s happiness and anxiety, connection and unease. We draw up our equations, measuring out if the best days are worth the worst, if it brings more fulfillment or more stress. But, ultimately, there’s no science to happiness — or to love, for that matter. There’s no mathematically correct answer, the most correct answer, the one that hews closest to the very last decimal of “the best outcome.” There’s just life.

So I can’t tell you if you made the right decision to end this relationship. It could be that your gut was telling you to cut it off, that even though this person was great and the relationship was lovely in so many ways, it just wasn’t working the way it needed to. It could also be that you had some issues to work out and that those issues led to the end of the relationship. You rightfully identify, for example, that it was a bad idea to try to keep her close in your emotional orbit after breaking up with her.

Regardless, BB, life goes on. You learn from your past experiences. You get a better idea of what you want and don’t want, and you figure out how to communicate that more. You move forward. The future might involve this person and it might not. Either way, there’s no use wondering if you ruined a hypothetical perfect future. It doesn’t exist. You do.

The scary thing is you might never know with 100 percent certainty you’re with the right person. But, over time, you do get to know yourself better, your needs and your wants and your shortcomings. Hopefully, we mature, and we navigate those things with more competence and grace. We find new opportunities to share ourselves with other people. We do our best.

It’s your first breakup, BB. Mistake or not, whatever the future holds, you get to move forward with the lessons you learned from the relationship. You have the chance now to grow, to build, and to learn from it, to keep going with a better idea of who you are and what you want. We won’t always find the perfect answer. But, with patience, we can get close enough.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published September 28, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase Brammer’s book, Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘How Do You Know If You’re With the Right Person?’