If you read my last article for Graceless, you know all about how psyched I was to move in on my own last fall. To recap, I’d been in a relationship for three and a half years, and rather than taking the normal-person next step of moving in together, I decided that I was way too young for cohabitation and wanted to live alone first. Six months later, I’m still absolutely thrilled with that decision. Except…surprise, surprise, now I’m not just living alone—I’m single.
I’ve waffled about whether to write this follow-up for some time. I’m not usually the type to perhaps self-indulgently air my dirty laundry on the Interwebz, yet leaving things at, “You, too, can have a great relationship and still live alone in the one bedroom apartment of your dreams!” feels like lying.
When I moved in alone, I’d been trying to end my relationship for quite some time, though, as that previous article now somewhat painfully reminds me, I was in total denial about it. Each year of our relationship brought more shared snarls and coils—mutual friends, impressively still decent sex, the new season of The Walking Dead. But on top of that (and this is hard for me to admit), he–for years–gaslighted me into thinking that many, many things about me, such as my expectations for a healthy relationship, my five-pound weight fluctuations every few months, my non-corporate ambitions in life, my relationships with friends, my desire to eventually have kids, etc., etc., were not at all normal and perhaps even made me crazy. My sense of self was so warped that I had no idea how to end things. I couldn’t handle an abrupt break—my identity was too tied up in the stories he’d convinced me to believe about myself. Instead, I needed a slow, ever-so-gradual escape plan. Or rather, my brain made a plan that my heart hid from me. In fact, I didn’t realize how long I’d been trying to leave until I walked into my apartment post-relationship-mortem and, in true Christina on Grey’s Anatomy style, said out loud to myself, “I’m free.”
What’s that they say about escaping bears in the wild? Avoid eye contact and back away slowly? Or, you know, just lie to the bear about who you are until he stops noticing you, and then you can run. Oh wait, that’s not how it works? Sorry, I’m not outdoorsy.
Swear to god, the universe sighed with relief when I announced that we’d broken up. One friend even sent me a list of thirty-three things she had always hated about him, so I could refer to it if I ever felt like going back. The worst part about the relationship, in the end, was not how he isolated me, manipulated me, or wrecked my self esteem, but how embarrassed I felt by my failure to leave him, when I and everyone who knew us as a couple could clearly see that he was forty kinds of wrong for me. This feeling of failure very nearly silenced me completely. By the end I had lost my ability to write–even fiction–because attempts at self expression either felt inauthentic or forced me to face facts. Classic case of shame cycles, I now know. I hesitate to claim victim- or survivor-hood, because I know others who have been through far, far worse, but saying “At least he never hit me” doesn’t mean there wasn’t abuse.
Ultimately, though, it’s not as important to detail how I got out of the relationship, or to say all the ways he wronged me, or to label whatever specific brand of emotional fuckery I was subjected to for almost four years. What’s important is that I’m out of it now. And my slow-back-away, though I don’t necessarily recommend it as the ideal method for breaking up, meant that by the time things ended, the idea of being alone was no longer so frightening to me.
Funnily enough, though, alone isn’t actually alone. Since ending that relationship, my world has expanded tenfold. Within hours of posting about the breakup on Facebook, my phone and inbox were full of supportive messages, invitations to hang out, and photos of puppies. In the early years of our relationship, I felt like I had nothing and no one but him. But in reality, a vibrant, loving community has been behind me this entire time. It just took me a while to see how many people were standing there, waiting for me to wake up.
In the first couple of weeks post-breakup, I exhausted myself by saying yes to every social engagement, every party, every date—I went out more in that first month than I have probably ever in my entire life. I’ve also had a tough time switching off that relationship-induced sense of obligation, so much so that I almost ended up in another wrong-for-me relationship.
But now that I’ve settled with the breakup’s permanency, I’m reveling in the practice of saying no. Especially when it comes to dating. When a Bernie bro tried to get me to change my vote from Hillary and threatened to break up with me if I didn’t, I surprised him by agreeing that we should break things off. When a guy I made out with at an 80’s dance night turned ugly in text messages, I blocked his number. When I went on two dates with a guy who on paper was perfect for me but who in person bored me to tears, I said no to the third date. All of these things may seem like small and obvious choices from the outside, but to me they were extreme exercises in empowerment after years of people (or singular person) pleasing. Every day is a fight between my impulse to be likeable to everyone and my need to speak my truth, so the fact that I’ve said no this many times already is a super fucking huge deal. And even better, all the no’s have made space for a few instances of hell-yes.
It’s a Friday night as I write this, and I’m obligated to nothing and no one but myself. So long as I can keep facing alone and saying what I need in spite of the fear of it, I’m going to be alright.