Delete her number from your phone, hide/unsubscribe/unfriend her social media feeds, lick your wounds, grieve for what might have been, and throw yourself wholeheartedly into other connections and interests. Read books by women. Let time do its healing work (It will, I promise). Be a person who takes “no” for an answer.
I finally understood that his no meant no. Really, truly no. It took me nearly six months. I’m not the quickest learner, but I found my way there.
I didn’t like it one little bit. Couldn’t there be a different answer? A way to keep the door open? We’d been standing there at the threshold for so long — open, shut, open, shut. . . Open? Shut? — that I couldn’t quite believe he’d lodged the bolt for good.
What would change his mind? What might convince him to try again?
My disregard for his choice is glaring. I only see it now. My longing for him drowned out every other consideration. It didn’t help that memory laced geography. Every block, a block we walked. The path through the woods behind the library. The restaurant, the park, the gym. Memory turned to curiosity; curiosity to yearning. I was lugging around a Sears catalogue of questions never asked, not in the entirety of our four years. The questions dazzled. The desire to know him again, or perhaps know him anew, consumed me.
I wanted him.
I’d turned into every lovelorn sucker in every country song.
When it comes to break ups, ours was unique in exactly zero ways.
The tired tale continues. Revisiting possibilities, I’d offer them up to him. Every few weeks, I’d text or call to ask him to join me for a walk or hike or trip into DC. Most of the time he said yes. In his company, the longing rose to a boil. Want, want, want.
I’m not sure exactly when I realized the chilling truth of my obsession. Perhaps when I hurt my back, landed in urgent care, and had to cancel a “date” (which, of course, wasn’t a date). He didn’t check on me for a week. Totally normal for a casual acquaintance. Not at all normal for a partner.
Oh right. He’s not my partner.
He’s not my boyfriend, my love, My Mister. He is not my anything. He is a person I have a crush on. A person with agency over his life. A person who has made a choice that I am willfully and recklessly ignoring.
I decided to stop.
Stop asking. Stop re-writing and running scenarios in my head. Just stop and sit with the truth of the situation.
And then what?
Go about my day, as it turns out. Keep moving through the stunned ickiness of letting go. Inside, I could hear kid-me stuck like a scratched record on the whining tantrum of that one measure: But I want! I want I want I want! No fair! I want!
Outside, I could see how absurd that obsession was, how vast the range of options beyond wanting. I still couldn’t quite figure out how to get the needle up and out of that groove. I tried doing all the things. Host the party, go to the gallery opening, rock it at Zumba, join the new Meetup. Write like a woman on fire. Spirit, community, art, joy.
Fake it ’til you make it, right?
Or maybe wrong.
My counselor says, “Learn it ’til you earn it.”
There’s something in here I hadn’t figured out yet. So I sat right down and asked myself, “Where can I go to learn ‘it,’ whatever it is?”
The unrivaled Captain Awkward, of course. She’s a guide and no-BS sister-friend to thousands of us out here bumbling around in the land of grownups. She peels open the dynamics of human relationships and helps us navigate any number of maddening social mazes with her mind-bending insight and kick-ass scripts. I opened her site and scrolled through hundreds of posts. Then I found this dude: “Someone Told Me They Don’t Want To Be With Me. How Can I Make Them Change Their Mind?” (Post #703: Same Song, Different Day).
The upshot? “Respect her words and leave her alone.” You can read the letter and the Captain’s response — I most certainly encourage you to — as well as the hundreds of searing, smart, loving comments by the Captain Awkward community. I won’t recount it here, except for this one C.A. nugget of self-revelation and wisdom:
I have tried to convince people not to break up with me, to give me one more chance. I can only pray that they (plural ‘they’, unfortunately, not the groovy gender-neutral singular construction) have long since deleted the Emails of Desperation and Neediness I sent. . . Hounding those people – people who genuinely liked and cared for me but who just didn’t want what I wanted – is one of my true regrets in life. I would give a lot to be able to take it all back, to disengage more gracefully from those past relationships, to save my dignity, their patience, and to be true to a principle of consent in all things.
Do you see that? Do you see what she did there?
“. . . be true to a principle of consent in all things.”
I’ve written on this blog before about the grief and fury I carry in this rape culture of ours. How shameful the loss of our full brightness. How limited we become — girls and women especially, but all of us really — as we duck and contort our way through virulent expectations of behavior, purpose, fitness, attractiveness. So much of our day-to-day life is determined through manipulation and guided by force. So much of our energy is spent either surrendering our best selves to it or desperately trying to avoid having to do so.
What does it mean for me to dismiss a person’s desires? A person I claim to love? What purpose does such disregard serve, beyond making yet another deposit into the world’s swelling fund of selfishness and dehumanization? Being a CIS-gender woman does not exempt me from responsibility here. The magnitude of my feelings, no matter how operatic, does not grant me a free pass. We all contribute to a culture of violence — yes, violence — when we fail to honor other people’s boundaries.
It is indeed time for me to quit the foolishness. I’ve tried before, but it was comma rather than full stop. No more half measures. No more attempting to “get him” to _________. No more with all the wanting.
Turn away from that obsession.
Bring my thoughts and feelings in line with my intentions.
Actually let go
So I do.
The very minute I do, something cracks open. Not the door, of course — that has closed for good. In fact, its seams are already disappearing into the wall. No, the cracking open is happening inside me. I can almost feel it moving up through my bones, riding the current of my blood. Like a hum. Like light leaking in around the edges of all that longing.
Into the shrinking place shaped like him creeps a kind of dawn.
Sky, horizon, space. The awareness of all this.
Open terrain for what this bright, eager mind needs — and yes, even wants — to pursue.
This is the terrain most hospitable to the ideas, the art, the work, and the relationships that patch the frayed edges of our world. Here, we cultivate what heals. Here, we weave strong and lasting connections with our fellow inhabitants of this beleaguered planet.
To do this, we have to let people come to us willingly. We have to give others room to make their own calculations of risk, reward, desire, and purpose. When we extend our welcome and then stay still, we let people choose us.
When we reside in the place of creative power, we trust in other people’s capacity to do the best they can with what they have. Indeed, relationships of respect serve as the foundation of robust community. When we model respect, when we stay true to a principle of consent, we disrupt the clang and flash of acquisitive opportunism and manufactured need. We stand as both witness to and custodian of human agency.
I do in fact believe my neighbors on this planet have the capacity as well as the right to determine their ethical codes. And from those codes, to craft purpose, generate desire, and do the tricky work of picking their way along their own paths. They get to figure out what resonance they need between values and actions, between what they believe and how they behave.
It’s all good in theory, of course. Defending these natural rights in practice is agony. When our neighbor’s choices wound, when they lead to horrific brutality, it’s hard to believe some people deserve to exist let alone possess any inborn capacity for good. Even so, we return to the terrain of creative power. We return to Dr. Bernice Johnson-Raegon’s call.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
– Ella’s Song, Sweet Honey in the Rock
We don’t build the beloved community through coercion, or even by hammering at each other with our painstakingly constructed rationales. Our current political conversation — if we can even call it a conversation — reveals the dangers of that approach. No, we build communities of love and justice through the much more nuanced and often unsatisfying work of acceptance. In our closest relationships, we honor first the full validity of worldviews different from — even in conflict with — our own. And we carry that out beyond our intimate circles and into wider spheres of influence and complexity.
Consider this: every moment one of us tries to mash a person or situation into a different shape, every moment one of us spends aching and yearning towards an impossible goal, is a moment not spent on doing some small good in this world. When we return to our locus of control and free ourselves from the grip of distorted, compulsive thinking, we return to the place of creative power.
It’s in this place we have to begin, and it’s to this place we choose to return.
From here, we see the outlines of options and opportunities with clear eyes.
From here, we take resolute action to build just and loving relationships against all the forces that work to divide us. Here we coexist with paradox, acknowledging that building those relationships sometimes means letting them go.
Indeed, it is only when being true to a principle of consent in all things that we can make whole this bruised and beautiful world.
Image: PairAsouls, Kefi Collective, 2013