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My eight year relationship ended with the unexpected warmth of a Hallmark movie playing around Christmas time. A last dinner date filled with tapas, red wine, and gratitude. Break up songs sung loudly as we packed her belongings in boxes used just a few months prior.
The last luggage that went into the car was filled with stuffed animals we had accumulated together over time - she ended up taking the ones we had won from a trip to Reno’s Circus Circus, the perfect intersection between her love of winning stuffed animals and my love (addiction?) to $5 blackjack tables paying 3:2.
There are all sorts of questions that come along with break ups - Hallmark style break ups being no exception. For one, would we ever see each other again?
Even if we did, any sort of interaction would be clouded by a flurry of questions in the back of my head. Was she seeing anyone? Was he taller than me? Do I present myself to her in a way that emphasizes just how well I was doing or would that seem so obviously insecure to the point where I would be perceived as someone who was, in fact, not doing well? Maybe. Probably. Who knows.
After loading up her car on that final day, we embraced, telling each other that we would always love each other with tears and perspiration dotting our faces as the summer sun told us to hurry on with it already.
I took a lot of comfort in this loving farewell until I realized that love can always be taken back.
No matter how much love there was in our relationship and in how it all ended, her love could dissipate or morph into something else altogether - disinterest, regret, apathy. Tomorrow, she can forget about me while in the arms of some new lover and that’s that.
The trick to getting over a break up is being at peace with all that.
Amongst all my friends and family, I have the distinct honor of having the longest relationship ending in a break up, divorces aside. Of those who did go through major break ups, they warned me that life would - for a non-trivial amount of time - absolutely suck.
“How long did it take you to get over your ex?” I asked my friend Ray at In-N-Out. Ray had broken up with his longtime girlfriend a few years back.
“I don’t remember to be honest,” Ray said, munching through a mouthful of fries. “But I heard somewhere that if you take the length of your relationship and double it, you’ll get how long it takes to get over the relationship.”
“So, sixteen years for me?”
“Actually, I got it wrong,” Ray shook his head quickly. “I’m pretty sure you halve instead of double… so it’s actually just four.”
Intent on a shorter time frame, my first reaction to the break up was to do everything the right way - doing my best to sufficiently process my emotions while also moving forward in life.
To me, this meant zero contact with my ex for an extended period of time, multiple sessions with a therapist, staying busy with friends, family, and loved ones, and multiple trips scheduled over the rest of 2023. The storm was coming, and I was bringing a raincoat, an umbrella, and an extra pair of rain boots.
What surprised me the most about the break up though was that the storm never quite came. I expected to feel the pain of her absence, but instead, I ended up feeling something else altogether.
Whenever I pass by a Viet restaurant, I try to remember the name of her favorite pho spot in Orange County, the famous one that her family was going to before any of the foodies and James Beard people got there. And anytime I open Google photos, I’m blasted with reminders about our trips to France, Italy, Indonesia, Mexico, and other countries, unsurprised that Google’s all-knowing algorithm would choose the best photos of her as the thumbnails for these reminders. And whenever I take a deuce in the bathroom, I can hear her calling out to me from the kitchen, reminding me to turn the vent on.
My days are peppered with dozens of these moments, but instead of sadness being the predominant reaction to these moments, it’s mostly gratitude - something I didn’t expect.
I wondered for a while where all the pain was, but I think I overestimated the impact of a relationship’s length on the fallout of a break up. After all, there’s lots of other important factors that contribute to the difficulty of a break up: the reasons for the break up, the toxicity of the relationship, how it all ended.
In all these other dimensions, our break up passed with flying colors.
Imagine that on a first date you could see a number dangling over your date’s head. If that number represented the number of years that you two would be in a relationship, how would you react?
I couldn't get over the fact that my answer to this question would have been to sprint out of the coffee shop if I had seen the number eight at the age of twenty-one.
Before she moved out, she tried to get me to think differently about the hypothetical. She explained that we had a loving, healthy relationship where we also grew a lot as individuals. That hardly seemed like a waste of time, she had said.
It took me a while to get around to her point of view, but eventually I did - mostly because she was right, but also because my reality would be better if I lived as though she were right. Every experience in life has two truths: one being the truth and the other being what we should believe to be the truth.
What I’ve learned recently is how important it is to believe the latter.