Breaking Up In Quarantine Was Hard, But It Made Me Feel Less Isolated
On my 22nd day in quarantine, I broke up with my most recent romantic prospect. We did it on Skype.
I had developed strong feelings for him, while he turned much less emotionally available. He wanted to stay in touch regardless, but I told him that I couldn’t and that he could eventually call me one day if he was in town, and if his interest in me grows stronger. I prefer to be alone than to feel lonely, were some of my last words to him.
Breaking up on Skype was surreal, in some way. It was saying I’ll still be here for you if you want to keep talking, on his side of the world, it was I’ll speak with you when you’re physically here, on my end. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
The grief surrounding romantic failure is almost never any less baffling than the first time it happens. It’s simply not something we are eager, or ready to go through: pain is painful.
My ex and I met in the pre-isolation era. Our accidental encounter in your random neighborhood bar led to a series of fortunate romantic and intimate encounters, as well as less fortunate realizations of timing and geography: we live on different continents. Still, while we both bore the baggage reclaimed of several long-distance relationships under the belt, we agreed this was to be continued. Our short connection lasted about a month before he returned to his home country where he is now stuck in lockdown.
He expressed a big desire to keep connected after leaving and insisted we stay in each other’s lives, even though I was skeptical because of the distance. But we did keep in touch, regardless.
A month passed as we both became faced with the sudden isolation — from each other, and from the rest of the world.
None of us knew exactly how to go about it, and our different personal mechanisms of dealing with the newly created challenge triggered us both to consciously or unconsciously sabotage the connection. Nothing was the same as the physical distance grew into emotional distancing. During our month apart, there were scarce I miss you’s on his end. There were a few phone calls, each of them not very long. There were emails, colder and colder, shorter and briefer. There was a need for connection left hanging. There was his talk of compartmentalizing his romantic feelings, which triggered my alarms and prompted me to call a halt before it would have started to feel wrong. We must have both started to forget the lost art of saying things straight. I attribute this to an overwhelming dissonance created by anxieties around both rejection and connection, learned, paradoxically, later rather than sooner in life.
It started to feel as if a dead, dismembered animal was rotting on the dinner table and that he hardly wanted to acknowledge his part in the decay of the connection. As he kept denying his lack of emotional investment, I found myself between a rock and a hard place. Emotions of betrayal and loss emerged, as I felt shut off by his inability or unwillingness to connect more — but neither to let me go. Feeling left out in the lurch and rejected by him in a passive way, I told him it would be for the best to stop because feelings don’t seem mutual. He tried a couple of times to stop me from breaking contact, however, there was no improvement at all.
I felt disappointed that during this time when most people make sustained efforts to get closer to each other, we found ourselves in a situation where we were experiencing the opposite.
In reality, I had only theories of why this was happening, and it weighed down on my emotional health. It’s true that none of us could have foreseen the far away future, but our levels of availability to be together romantically right now weighed differently. He told me I saw things black and white. I’m just not comfortable living in the grey area, the friend zone, I replied.
Is there anyone who takes a risk fully comfortable with a negative outcome? I don’t think so unless one is a Buddhist. But even then…I still think we have, as humans, an undying hope for attachment not to become spam.
The thing is, from a statistical viewpoint, long-distance relationships have similar success versus failure rates compared to those evolving in proximity. We like to think it’s less challenging when we have access to the other person day-in, day-out, and undeniably, it is. We tell ourselves that unresolved desire antagonizes patience, that emotional costs outweigh financial spendings, that life is short. I, myself, broke down all the odds favoring long-distance love in an extended piece published in the fall of 2015. I made a solid case for not going into such a mess. On the flip side, I could think of a handful of everyday scenarios where emotional distance, personal demons, and very debilitating fears of commitment have dismembered potentially functional relationships, even when those people longed for real connection more than anything else.
After all, we are crossing a time when distance prevails to close contact, as the norm for self-care. Long or short distances become all the same: it’s a bad idea to leave the house anyway. To be seen gains a whole different connotation. As a friend of mine once said, when she vanished from the face of the Internet, “who wants me, knows where to see me…and who doesn’t see me, well, I hope they don’t forget me.”
My ex talked about compartmentalizing the romantic part of his life as a means to maintain sanity in lockdown. I, in contrast, have difficulty putting my feelings in a box and leave them there until next spring, or next century — I mean, yes, I do it sometimes when I refuse to think about my incoming taxes, but prefer not to do this to people, because I would non-necessarily hurt them. I prefer to neither deprive myself of feeling all my feelings, good or bad, because, in the end, that’s my reminder that I live, instead of becoming a wallflower.
While deeply aware that some things cannot happen before their time, I believe that anything is quite achievable as long as it is done with intention. If there is mutual intention to develop a connection romantically, two people can simply do what they would do in normal conditions: show interest in each other, go on (virtual) dates, flirt with each other, share memories from life in general, tell each other stories, laugh together, call when they say they will, and, well, have lots of (phone) sex. Based on my past experiences, there are a lot of exciting resources to tap into, maybe more entertaining than sitting around waiting for the day this too shall pass.
But in the end, his actions left me with the feeling that he couldn’t decide what he wanted. Or that I didn’t have a choice but to go along…and settle for less than what I needed and wanted in my life. So, between my intention to remain emotionally available and the challenge of the unforeseen life/distance situation, I tried to convince myself that I could go for it, but in the end, I had the feeling I would lose myself if I kept engaging with him as a penpal, or friend. As painful as it was, I had to stop it.
I spent the next two days in complete solitude. It was on the third that I decided I needed emotional support, and voiced my concern for my mental health on a Facebook group called The Single Supplement. I received lots of said support, which made me feel less miserable. People called me brave for taking a step back and breaking up during such daunting times. They called me strong, and courageous. They called me inspiring. But there was still a certain unease attached to my gesture. A part of me was not sure I had made the right choice. Another part of me was scorching me for making such an abrupt decision during the most aggravating of isolations. The idea that it will be challenging to meet an available partner is painful — I am completely alone in isolation, save for a few friends I talk to on the phone. Even if I physically let go of my ex and of our communication, I still found it hard to let go emotionally. I am doing a lot of self-care and therapy during these times, but the sense of abandonment was nonetheless tough. I realized the word closure is a hard nut to crack when you choose to break up in spite of strong feelings of affection.
Paradoxically, breaking up in lockdown made me feel less isolated, in the end, as it gave me the reassurance of having made the respectful choice for my own needs and boundaries, as opposed to the more resentful one of having stayed and endured an unknown world of probabilities and miscalculations. I spent one too many years bending my boundaries for fear of being alone.
There was no reproach or resentment in our two-hour-long goodbye call, there was no passionate intent either. I wanted more out of it. He downright told me he would have kept disappointing me in that sense. There was some clarity gained with respect to my feelings versus his. I resumed thinking I made the right decision, as our differences in temperament and desires were possibly not irreconcilable, but simply difficult to tackle with so little mutual desire for the same type of connection. Emotional distancing can ruin the best of intentions, so much more than physical separation does.
The reality is, I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. But that’s perfectly fine, even though what if’s and maybe’s will eventually come across my mind in the coming weeks, perhaps months.
The pandemic ought not to become an excuse to settle for less in life, or in love. Our capacity or failure to mate or date in captivity is obviously impacted by the current paradigm, but it doesn’t need to change the good we want for ourselves, and for others. We can instead, use this time to analyze our core beliefs and our emotional landscape, and decide whether a loveless life is emptier than a single but secure lifestyle, if an unfulfilling relationship suits us better than an often starch, but still, more liberating solitude.
I don’t blame those who choose to be or remain emotionally unavailable, or single during this time. After all, it’s not an easy place to be, psychologically, and each of us has their own mechanisms to endure solitude and uncertainty. But for me, it would be far more interesting to allow myself to live a fulfilling love experience, rather than get discouraged by the general context. It would feel shallow for me to resign to a loveless life especially in this sad world right now. Apart from that, it would also be uncharacteristic of me.
Experiencing a break-up during this time, through a digital channel, was perhaps more painful than at any other time, but it gave me the reassurance that there is no reason for me to compromise my emotional integrity. I want a solid, committed and reliable partner in my life, to whom I am glad to offer the same. I keep my faith and keep myself invested in the work that will help me find that person.
My days in isolation prompted me to analyze in a brutal way what I truly need and can offer in a romantic partnership. I feel that emotional barriers around admitting to our very human needs for affection, sex, and commitment are dropping on a general level. Which, to me, sounds good, even though the prospects for finding a partner now are indefinitely delayed.
But hopefully, by the time this situation whittles down and we will be able to meet, date and experience romantic love again, we will remember also how important it is to be vulnerable, kind, respectful and sincere, as well as to refrain from criticizing ourselves and others for our ability or inability to form a relationship.