I recently read an article about how to exit a relationship gracefully, hoping to see myself in its words. After all, I went through a pretty nasty divorce that dragged on for a year-and-a-half before the 11-year relationship was legally deemed over. And, following that, there were many online dating one-dinner or months-long relationship endings.
I have had plenty of relationship experience, and, I thought, there had to be a fair amount tactful exits among them. But graceful goodbyes? Not so much. Instead of recalling moments of quietly closing the door behind me, I mostly remembered revolving, slamming and sneaking out of doors. Not pretty.
I’ve had my moments of being the adult in the situation, mustering up respectfulness, clarity and conciseness in cutting myself loose. Once, in a pub over a quiet lunch, I told a man I’d been dating for a few months that, sadly, in the weeks since we’d last seen each other, I’d realized I wasn’t interested in pursuing this relationship. I told him a few things I liked about him, reassured him about some fun times we’d shared and then underlined that it was time for me to move on.
I was really proud of myself in that moment … until he started sobbing … and sent his fish and chips back, telling the server he had completely lost his appetite. As graceful as I thought I was in that moment, he clearly did not see the situation in the same way. Years later, he got in touch to tell me how brutally I’d broken his heart. I was baffled, especially considering how calm and kind I thought I’d been.
So, if this is an example of a good break-up in my book, what could the bad be? Let me begin by explaining the days leading up to my divorce. I stumbled upon many lies and infidelity that included emotional, physical and financial deception by my then-husband. I fled a few weeks later when it was obvious no amount of marriage counseling, sympathy or positive mantras would help the situation. Then I took care of myself, putting my money, career and living situation methodically back in order.
I finally sprung a serious emotional leak when I returned to my marital apartment to retrieve clothes, work documents and other belongings. For months, my distrust and anger gushed while I rifled through every corner of the apartment.
I found a book on sex stashed under my nearly ex-husband’s bed and highlighted the entire chapter on the connection between chronic illness, emotional distress and depression and cheating by men in marriages; I cut just-noticeable-enough holes in new clothing clearly bought to impress his new lady friend; I hid CDs on which she’d written notes and given him — stashed deeply in couch cushions and coat pockets.
I sorted through the trash. I took all the spoons.
I couldn’t kick him out and I couldn’t change the locks, but in my mind, I could make him crazy and collect as much evidence as possible should I need it in court or heaven or something else ridiculous. I did not burn anything or throw his belongings on the lawn. But I messed with him, and honestly, it never made me feel better or assuaged or reassured. All those gnawing acts just ended up messing with me, too.
Rest assured, I was not alone in this bad exit behavior. I have a long list of things that disappeared into the gulf of my divorce: my grandmother’s Christmas ornaments, the ultrasound photos from my pregnancy, my birth certificate, random skirts and jewelry and gifts he gave me. And later, he broke into my parents’ house and stole most of the “evidence” I’d collected anyway … making it even?
Today, I’m very much in love and really do hope I never have to resist the urge to take scissors to another ex’s clothing again, or even have to script a simple “we’re done, doll.” If I do, I hope I remember that breaking up, even when it is agonizing, should be more about carrying yourself over the threshold, and in a way you can later feel okay about. After all, the guy should be so far in the distance at that point, you wouldn’t be able to see the shirt holes if you’d cut them anyway.