We all want to “win” the breakup, right? Winning means you’re over it, that you’ve moved on. It means that your ex never deserved you in the first place, and all the ‘likes’ you get on those Instagram pics of you thriving without them prove it. You’re an independent woman. You’re strong and chill and fun.
But what happens when you don’t feel like you’re any of those things?
The last time I went through a breakup, I lost. Abysmally. I had just moved cities to be with my boyfriend after two years of dating long-distance and two years together before that. We’d spent the whole summer together and talked on the phone daily, and when I’d raised the idea of moving a couple of months earlier, he had seemed just as excited as I was. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, as it turns out.
Once I moved, I immediately knew that something was different between us. Instead of spending time with me now that we were in the same city and at the same college again, he was always busy studying, working out, or meeting up with friends I didn’t know. He never visited my apartment or suggested that we do anything together. I’d see him on our campus for lunch a couple of times a week, or we’d go for a run on the weekend.
One evening after I finished work, I texted him to ask if he wanted to go out for dinner. He replied that he couldn’t hang out…because he had to go grocery shopping. The excuse was so ridiculous that I snapped and called him. “Do you even want to be in this relationship?” I asked. He didn’t say anything.
I hung up and drove over to his place, still certain that we could work it out somehow. After all, we’d been through much worse in our four years together. But when I got to his apartment, he told me that he couldn’t be the person I deserved. He wasn’t in love with me anymore.
I was furious that he hadn’t come to that realization before I moved my entire life to be with him, but I was also heartbroken. It was basically like the scene in She’s the Man when Channing Tatum confronts Viola about kissing Olivia, but without the chiseled abs. It’s crazy how wrong you can be about a person. Two weeks later, my ex started dating someone else—someone I happened to have been jealous of already while my ex and I were together, which I had felt bad about at the time.
At first, I felt like I was sleepwalking through every day. In fact, I was sleeping 12 hours or more every night, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening. The only thing I knew was that I had to cut him out of my life completely. I blocked him on social media. I stopped going to the one class we had together. I cried all the time. I started listening to audiobooks to keep myself from thinking about him too much. I wanted to move again, because the streets and even the grocery store reminded me of him. But I couldn’t transfer schools for at least a year.
I only had two friends in this new city, and they heroically endured hours of conversations that always ended the same way: I have to get over him, but I can’t right now. The first time I saw my ex unexpectedly on campus, weeks after the breakup, I had a panic attack that lasted for at least half an hour. As fall turned to winter, my friends dragged me out of my hibernation to bars, brought me takeout, and tagged me in #wholesome memes. I rewatched all six seasons of Gossip Girl and wrote some terrible poetry. Life kept happening. And I still felt like a failure for being hung up on someone who didn’t care about me.
I wish I had known then that just because I wasn’t over the relationship—just because he had successfully moved on and I hadn’t—it didn’t mean I would never feel strong again.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the time I spent processing such a huge change in my life made me even stronger. Eventually, I figured out a way to transfer to a new school across the country. I deleted the dating apps off my phone. I threw myself into planning my next solo backpacking trip. I learned how to crochet. I embraced the sadness that was still hanging over me because it was real and it wasn’t going anywhere. For the first time, I realized that I needed to put myself first and consciously build the life I wanted. Somewhere along the way, I learned to stop comparing myself to somebody else’s idea of a broken heart. I didn’t have to bounce back according to somebody else’s timeline.
Because I embraced my sadness, I now know what I want from a relationship—and I know the sacrifices I’m not willing to make. No woman is an island, but I’m as independent as I want to be. (Still not chill, though.) Based on my lack of “moving on” posts on social media, it might look like I lost the breakup. But offline, I’m living my best life, just like I always have been.