Writing by Sophie Rose // Photograph by Joana Meneses
My ex-boyfriend and I decided not to “do long-distance.” He was going away to college and I was still in high school and in a move we were proud to consider adult, we thought it would be best if we broke up so he could get the full university experience– which meant, we hoped, he’d be able to go out and have fun with his classmates, enjoy new experiences, not rush home to Skype with me several nights a week, and generally get a fresh start.
Despite our best intentions, it didn’t work out quite as planned. We were young, we were in love, and being apart from one another didn’t make us want to be together any less; if anything, we verified that distance makes the heart grow fonder. It felt to me like he’d disappeared, like the person I shared my day and my successes and my failures with was simply gone, and the absence left within me a giant hole. He, meanwhile, struggled to feel okay about leaving me behind when he still wanted me in his new college life. And that’s why, when he came home for Thanksgiving, we felt we’d given being broken up a valiant effort, and that clearly, since we were both so miserable, we should get back together and try long-distance. To this day I find myself idly wondering what might have been different if we’d stuck out the initial breakup a little bit longer; in retrospect, our ultimate breakup was always going to have to happen, because the day we started long-distance was the day we started falling apart.
It was so, so nice those first few weeks. Having him home again, playing with his dog, bringing him to family dinners, spending the holidays together; things felt right again, but hollowly whole in the way I suppose alcohol and rom-coms make us feel. We were desperately clinging to familiarity and the fresh hope we felt for our relationship.
He went back to school in January, and maybe, ironically, it was the fact that we were back together that he felt he could relax more around his new college friends, that he felt happier, that he felt he could have more fun than he’d had earlier in the year, and start the inevitable (be it conscious or subconscious) self-evolvement every college student necessarily endures. He was changing, he was growing, he was becoming a new person while I was still at home in the same house, at the same school, in the same mindset and desperately holding on to the boy I thought I still knew, the one who was emotionally disappearing from me the longer he was physically absent. I was stuck in my high school self as he transitioned into a college self I didn’t know and could not keep up with. Perhaps if I’d been at a new school too, our changing selves might have paralleled in a productive sort of way. But who knows.
Ultimately, more than the circumstance, I discovered as our relationship wore on, it was who we were fundamentally as people that made our long-distance relationship impossible. Four years ago we were both wildly, incredibly emotional, a fact that worked in our favor when we both lived in the same town and could see each other whenever we wanted, could shower one another with sentimental gifts, could work out any issues we had in person. When we were apart, the emotions were an impassable roadblock to our happiness. We decided that long-distance sucked, generally– that it was horrible for everyone no matter what. I know now that that’s not the case for everyone. My parents, in their early twenties, dated long-distance from Europe to the U.S. for over a year, subsisting on handwritten letters and one phone call a week, on Wednesday nights. I have several friends who have been in successful long-distance relationships for years. I don’t know how it might be different for me if I tried long-distance now, learning what I have about myself and the world and the realities of love, but I don’t blame my younger self for any decisions she may have made at the time, because they were decisions she wanted and needed to make for herself.
Our relationship crawled downhill quickly and irreversibly from January through mid-March, but it was one sentence on one Skype call in February that confirmed for the both of us that we were done. I hadn’t heard from him at all in a couple days, which was less than cool by me, and so on Skype that night I made it clear I was upset and angry about the lack of communication. His response was enveloped in emotional exhaustion (not unlike the kind I felt at the time) while he halfheartedly explained what he’d been up to and I wondered aloud why he couldn’t have just sent me a message saying he was busy.
“I’m at a new school, okay? I’m trying to figure out who I am, what I want, what my life is about.”
“Okay, but shouldn’t I get to play a part in some of ‘what you want’?” I asked. “Why shut me out?
“Because you’re not here.”
In a relationship that is now, as most relationships become, mostly foggy, bittersweet blips of memory, I remember this conversation so vividly. I know where I was sitting, what I was wearing, what I had done at school that day. Because I think I tried to focus on those things, to breathe, to not focus too much on the fact that I knew I would lose him again for reasons beyond my control.
We didn’t actually break up until the day of my 18th birthday, when he came home for his spring break. We weren’t sure how to broach the topic, and I knew he didn’t want to bring anything up on my birthday. We were visibly miserable. For much of the day, rather than say anything about it, we let our sadness manifest itself in his terse condescension and in my angry passive-aggression. It was only when we were sitting at a park hours later and staring at uneaten sandwiches that he finally said, “I don’t want to lose you. But I don’t want to do long-distance anymore.” It was how I felt too, so I wasn’t surprised at what he said. What I was surprised about was the extent of the dissonance and pain I could hear in his voice; it made me wonder if he was just as torn up about it as I was. Maybe he thought that putting a brave face on would be manlier of him, but the way he’d been coping with our relationship had at that point become less than gentle. “You can’t have it both ways,” I replied, and he nodded, and we both flipped the switches on our tear ducts, and that was it.
One year later I had an amazing 19th birthday. It was my first one at my new university and perhaps I elevated it in my head because in the days leading up to it I found myself thinking about my ex, certain no birthday could be worse than the one we’d ruined for me the year before. Long-distance made us resent one another and created a rift that hasn’t quite yet managed to resolve itself, even half a decade later. But looking back, there was no way for us to win. Staying broken up wouldn’t have been a viable option, so we had to try long-distance. Maybe it was always destined to fail, but we loved each other, and we would have wondered for a long time afterwards what might have happened if we hadn’t at least given it a shot. I know this because for a long time after we broke up we wondered if we might have made it if we were still in the same place. The hardest kind of breakup to get past is the one that isn’t rooted in betrayal, or a lackluster love, or a change of heart– it’s the one that ended because of external circumstance, the one that tried so hard not to happen, the one that might not have been, in every scenario, a necessary one. I felt a vivid sense of defeat for months after we broke up. I was embarrassed that we hadn’t been able to make it work, thinking that we must not have loved each other enough, that we weren’t strong enough to make it work.
As a rule I dislike the cliche that “things happen for a reason.” It strikes me as gratuitous much of the time and annoying all of the time, but in this circumstance I think it applies nicely. Because in the years since the relationship I’ve learned so much about who I am as a person and as a girlfriend, and I’ve learned so much about what long-distance really means and the games it likes to play. It took me years to stop blaming myself and my ex for the path our relationship ended up taking, because our relationship was so wonderful for so long, but the timing wasn’t on our side and the distance didn’t like us very much. Long-distance takes willpower, communication, sacrifices, tears, dedication, and love. It means subsisting on memories. And as it turns out, our relationship wasn’t built to subsist on memories. We were big thinkers, he and I, and pessimism was common: who knew when we’d ever be based in the same place again? When would we get the chance to live with each other instead of with two month’s ago’s memories? Time and experience have helped me recognize since then that it wasn’t who we were as people that made our relationship end. It ended because it ended, because it wasn’t supposed to keep going, because there were other plans for us. To this day we remain important parts of each other lives. We had the willpower, and we communicated, and we sacrificed, and we loved, and we tried so hard. But long-distance isn’t for everyone, and that’s nobody’s fault, and I know now that learning to accept that is not the same thing as admitting defeat; it’s understanding when to let go.