A history of love
what re-reading my break-up letters taught me about relationships.
In almost every break-up, I’ve written a letter. Of seven Official Romantic Relationships (TM), I wrote break-up letters in six. The first three I don’t have access to, as they were so long ago that my email address has changed since. Relationship Five and I lived together before, during, and shortly after our break-up, so we had to do it all in person. Relationship Six got more like a break-up book (and I then dedicated an actual book to him).
Relationship Seven…well, that letter’s pretty fresh.
In making sense of all the hurt, great and small, that I’m feeling now, I’ve found re-reading these letters both helpful and painful. Looking back, I see the same patterns, again and again, and see myself incapable of stopping them, again and again. As a self-study, and a study in romantic relationships in general, these letters are invaluable. Going through them all, methodically, I can see what the patterns are now and what to do better next time.
This is what they’ve taught me:
The honeymoon period will always end. Don’t yank it back.
No matter what, the perfect bliss of the beginning will end. Someone will start to pull away, and it will hurt the other person.
How you deal with this is what makes a relationship work or not work, long-term. How you deal with it is to relax into it.
When the honeymoon ends, treat it like a sort of break-up. Roll with it by leaning back into yourself. Learn from the pain.
It is damn-near impossible to go from deep connection and intimacy to distance. The void we’re all trying to fill is the void where connection should be, so once you feel closeness, how do you stand getting farther away?
You act like you would any other time you lost love: you focus on yourself, your projects, your friends and family. Build up your strength beyond the relationship. You treat it, in a way, like a break-up. You trust your partner, that they’re doing what they need, and you do what you need. You trust the depth of connection will come back if it’s right.
Love Languages are paramount.
I used to call this “languages of care” until I learned a couple months ago that a Love Language is already a term. A love language is what makes us most easily feel loved. According to the Love Languages website, there are five (though I think there may be more).
They are: 1) “words of affirmation,” such as saying Thank you for being in my life; 2) “receiving gifts,” such as roses and chocolates and ponies; 3) “acts of service,” such as doing the dishes so your partner don’t have to; 4) “quality time,” such as spending time present and attentive to each other; 5) “physical touch,” such as snuggles. If you don’t know yours, their website has helpful quizzes!
Understanding your love language makes it that much easier for your partner to act in ways that make you feel loved. Understanding your partner’s love language makes it that much easier for you to express your care in a way they can understand.
Having different love languages is not insurmountable, but it does make things more difficult at first. Knowing and communicating yours, and listening to and working with your partner’s, is crucial.
Most people, especially men, don’t actually know what they’re feeling.
Some people literally don’t know what they feel. Or maybe, they don’t know that they know it. They have no framework for what knowing it looks like.
It pains me when I hear women deride men for not doing emotional labor. I understand the derision — I feel it too sometimes. But then I remind myself, those brought up as women are typically expected to do emotional labor from the get-go, and so we learn how to. It isn’t fair, to anyone.
Imagine never learning math. At all. Being told math was beneath you, was wrong for you — then ending up in a math class with a person who’d been expected to do math their whole life. Also, in this story, you’ve been conditioned your whole life not to listen to The Kinds Of People Who Do Math.
Patriarchy conditions men not to understand or communicate their feelings. It also conditions men not to listen to women. It sucks. It isn’t fair, to anyone.
People are terrified of dependence.
What we call “emotional projection” really means emotional dependence. What we call “emotional responsibility” really means emotional independence.
Emotional dependence is the belief that “Your actions cause what I feel. It’s your job to make me happy.” Emotional independence is the belief that “Your actions don’t cause what I feel. It’s my job to make me happy.” Both are true, and not true. For more on what emotional responsibility actually means, you’re welcome to read my article Understanding Emotional Responsibility.
Ultimately, we are all interdependent. Our feelings are caused by a thousand things, some of which include our partners’ actions. We are able to respond (response-able) to our partner’s feelings in some cases, and not in others.
Most men I meet are learning to take care of their own emotions for the first time, if they’re learning at all. They’re craving the feeling of caring for themselves. This has made even the “woker” ones unaware of when their feelings are being cared for, and averse to caring for others’ feelings too much. It’s beautiful to watch them learn, but it’s painful to be on the receiving end of.
Most people are better at applying emotional independence to others than to themselves.
Most people are fine telling others to be more responsible for their feelings and needs. When it comes to taking full responsibility themselves for their own feelings… well. I think you know how it goes.
It’s not that people like this are bad people. It’s because total emotional independence is absolute bullshit. We are interdependent. End of story.
People like feeling able to help. They don’t always like it when you tell them how.
Being able to help someone makes us feel empowered. It makes us feel powerful. It makes us feel like good people. People like feeling like good people.
It’s unnerving that many people want to feel able to help their partners, but also want their partners to not rely on them for their needs. Ultimately, I believe this is because most people don’t have a good relationship with boundaries.
Boundaries are statements about what you do and don’t accept. They can be flexible or rigid.
Boundaries are healthy. They are necessary. Asking for what you want is a boundary. Saying what you can’t or won’t do is a boundary. Everyone has boundaries. Communicating them and respecting them are both extremely important.
Most people are terrified of honesty.
Hate that your partner plays mind games? Fear that you never know where you stand? Can’t stand it when they won’t tell you what they want or feel?
You may not hate this as much as you think you do. If dishonesty is your comfort zone, honesty is very uncomfortable. I’ll go so far as to say no person feels totally comfortable with total honesty at all times.
It’s the honesty people fear, and honesty creates love.
Most people are very scared by love.
Love isn’t actually scary.
Attachment and dependence scare people. If someone’s attached to them, they feel able to hurt them, which scares them. If they’re attached to someone, they feel able to be hurt, which scares them. Most of us aren’t used to having our emotional needs met. The idea of relying on someone else to do that is, naturally, terrifying.
Love is the space of seeing someone , and taking them as a part of you. It’s what happens when you realize, I understand you. I see why you need what you need. I see you as full. We are not separate. Making you happy makes me happy. Meeting your needs meets my needs. Not in the sense of doing it for you, just that your happiness is a part of my happiness, because you are a part of me.
There’s nothing scary about this, and it has no timeline. I’ve felt love like this for strangers and for dogs and for plants. I’ve felt it for friends and for lovers and for one-night stands when we talked too long. I’ve felt it for partners after one night, then lost it the next day, and then it came back. We all feel it, in moments and in waves, for everyone. We’re all terrified of it, because what happens when we let someone else in? We fear the vulnerability of attachment and dependence.
Vulnerability is strength.
It takes more strength to open your throat than to raise your fist. It takes more strength to trust than to control. Vulnerable is the strongest thing you can be. Vulnerability is metal as fuck. It’s manly as fuck. It’s strong as fuck.
Love is too.
Relationships take work. Love makes work easier.
Just like your job, relationships are work. They’re just usually more satisfying than your job.
Relationships literally take labor: time and energy. The same way you’d put energy into your job, a healthy relationship requires time and effort to keep healthy.
When you love doing something, the time and energy put into it become almost effortless. Think of doing your favorite thing. Think of flow states.
Love creates what we call a “flow state.” The effort feels effortless, because you’re doing what you love, what is natural to you. You can love a person and not love the relationship you have with them. You won’t love the relationship at all times, and honest communication about your feelings, needs and boundaries makes relationships more honest and loving. This makes relationships easier to love, in and of themselves. Relationships with greater immediate compatibility, such as similar love languages, usually take less difficult work.
They all still take work.
The only question that ultimately matters is: Are you willing to stick around and work on it?
There are always compatibilities to find, and there will always be difficulties. When looked at from a new perspective, there are always things that could be tried, conversations that haven’t happened, things that aren’t understood or integrated into the relationship. Sticking around means continuing to put in time. Working on it means putting in more or new kinds of energy.
All that matters is: are you willing to stick around and work on it?
Sometimes, your answer will be No.
Linkin Park is actually the best break-up music. Step aside, Adele.