Prologue: Below is a letter addressed to a recent ex of mine. This relationship is one that has taken me the longest to get over of all of my breakups. I think part of that is that I was telling myself some fictions for a long time about this particular relationship. A few months ago, I was at dinner with a couple of friends of mine I hadn’t seen since the breakup, and they asked what happened. I was slightly caught off guard, and I suddenly found myself telling a very different, but very emotionally accurate, version of events. The letter that follows is something I wrote as a result of that conversation.
I don’t ever plan on sending this letter; I wrote it for myself. It’s the first in my line up of posts about emotional labour. It is also very personal, and very raw. It has been anonymized as much as possible, because the point of it is not to publicly call out this specific person, but rather to share what was a very personal revelation about this particular relationship, and the structural patterns in it that were present in bits and pieces in other relationships of mine, and also a structure that I see far too often happening in other relationships.
To The Once Dear Man I No Longer Know How to Address,
Last time we talked, you said you hoped that I was doing well. I sometimes wonder if you noticed how I ignored your comment the first time, and how I bristled the second time you said it. I wonder if you noticed that it made me angry.
You probably didn’t.
Well, I am angry. You saying to me that you hope I’m well does make me angry. Even though I know you mean it sincerely. Even though I know that you have the same ‘good intentions’ you’ve always had. It sort of surprised me, actually, how angry it made me. It seems like an odd thing to be angry about, on the surface. So I have been thinking a lot about why. And I think I finally have the beginnings of an answer.
You have caused me so much goddamned frustration and anxiety and hurt over the past two and a half years, and what really kills me about all of that is that you don’t even really understand it. You don’t understand because you can feel your good intentions. You know you care about me. But feelings are not enough.
You say you hope I’m doing well and want me to be happy, but most of the time during our relationship when I really needed you, when I needed you to step up, to be in my corner, to support me or care for me, instead you cowered and faltered and complained. You never willingly helped me unless it was WELL within your comfort zone or unless I got angry and explained, painfully and in detail, why you should. And let me tell you, all of that made me feel like crap. Like I’m hard to love. Like the things I need are too much to ask for.
And here I am again, explaining painfully and in detail why you are still hurting me. And maybe you’ll read this, maybe you won’t. Mostly I am writing this because the dynamic that was so central in our relationship is not a coincidence: it is a pervasive dynamic and not just a personal one. I want other people to recognize this dynamic for what it is. I want them to feel validated. I want them to refuse to be treated this way.
You saying that you wish me well makes me angry because while you have good intentions, while you have loving feelings, they were rarely reflected in your actions when you were so damn reluctant to respond to my needs. Or you just remained oblivious to my needs entirely, like when you asked me to the wedding and then got shamelessly and irresponsibly drunk and high and abandoned me for a couple of hours with friends of yours I still didn’t know that well, returning only to make inappropriate moves on me in front of them, and then embarrassing me by not being able to take care of yourself by the end of the night so I had to do it for you.
Or, and this is even difficult for me to write even now I am still so saddened by it, the night that my Dad died, when I knew he would die at some point around that time and was in high anxiety mode and we were at the bar where you didn’t bother introducing me to people I didn’t know, or make sure I was comfortable, and when it was getting late and you started pouring yourself yet another pint I leaned over and asked if we could leave soon, you looked startled, because you wanted to get shitfaced that night and had no idea how fucking inappropriate that was, or how I felt like your fucking mother by asking you not to, and then you pouted and then the fight we had when we left the bar was so upsetting for me and so hurtful and so goddamned EXHAUSTING.
Or the weekend after my dad died you became suddenly unavailable because you ‘needed alone time’ because we’d already been spending ‘so much time together’ and how ‘exhausting’ that was for you and were perplexed when I was upset and I had to explain to you why I wanted you around.
Shortly after that, when my Mum almost wasn’t able to help me move out of my apartment at the last minute and when I asked you if you’d be able to come and help me your very first impulse was to get quiet and when I asked why, you whined about being afraid of flying.
Or the January that you just decided to take two weeks off our relationship without telling me what was going on because you felt ‘introverted.’ Despite the fact that you were already doing almost no emotional labour in our relationship, you decided that you weren’t going to do any, that you were going to just take time away without explaining any of this to me. You abandoned me to my anxiety about what was even happening with us, and our relationship, and still expected me to deal with it and it took me storming away from you that night after dinner for you to even address the problem.
Or how it took you eight months and a fight and me yelling at you to get the one item I’d been telling you I needed you to get for me in your new apartment, and how yet again our fight was about how angry I am at you all the time instead of being a conversation about how completely incapable you are of doing really basic stuff to make sure that I feel comfortable and taken care of and loved.
Or when I had the worst anxiety attack I’ve had in years and was convulsing for two hours unable to get up without nearly fainting, and I called and asked you to come and help me get home and stay the night, you got quiet and seemed confused and said you didn’t know where my friend lived. As though that is an appropriate fucking thing to say in that moment. As though you cannot be an adult and FIGURE IT OUT FOR YOURSELF without making me solve that problem for you when I couldn’t even get off the floor. You finally arrived like an obedient puppy, and you came in and sat beside me but you didn’t ask me how I was, you didn’t say much to my friend or ask what I needed or what you could do for me. You very obviously didn’t even want to be there, making me do the awkward social work of directing the conversation. And then in the cab on the way home you moaned quietly about your work and you knew I wanted you to stay the night but was it okay if you didn’t because WORK and because you were so tired and because because BECAUSE. And so instead of stepping up and taking care of me, instead of even allowing me to take care of myself, you forced me instead to explain to you why it is I needed you and why it was important and by the time we got back to my place I didn’t even want you around anymore because you were way more work for me in that moment than my own fucking anxiety disorder.
And you know, I always hear about hypothetical men who are so excited for their girlfriends to confide vulnerable and private details about their sexual needs and desires but I sometimes wonder if men just like telling that story about themselves because I never seem to date any of them. Your primary reaction to my confiding in you was resentment, as though now everything was all of a sudden about me, as though the kind of sex we’d been having up until that point hadn’t been almost entirely on YOUR terms, but no you didn’t think about that because you never bothered to really investigate my needs and desires or make sure that I felt safe enough to tell you these things which believe me after that I did NOT.
Or when you started making unilateral decisions about your future which made me realize that you were really, really not on my team nor did you think of us even as a team but instead you conceived of yourself as a single person in our relationship in which I compromised most of the time. And when you did compromise, which admittedly you did, grudgingly, you felt extremely self-righteous and resentful about it every single fucking time as though you were doing me a huge favour instead of the very fucking minimum of what is involved in being in a relationship.
I once told you that being in a relationship with you was like dragging you in a burlap bag up a hill and you laughed and laughed and said yes that is exactly what it must be like and how grateful you were to me for doing all this work and how much better your ‘future relationships’ would be because of it. And then you were surprised when I started crying.
And how you acted as though I was ‘work’, because I got upset so much, because I was ‘so demanding,’ when I now really fully see that the reason I was upset so much is because you were doing so little emotional labour.
It enrages me that you caused the problem over and over and over again, and then criticized me for having a perfectly reasonable reaction to it.
And then, AND THEN, after we broke up, you not only almost immediately slept with someone I had to see every single fucking week, but you told me about it after I’d spent over an hour making us dinner and after I gave you the fucking Christmas gift that my mother had left for you. (A gift that you never bothered to thank her for, even after I told you to.)
I yelled at you that night, I yelled at you like I’ve never yelled at anyone before, probably for a full ten minutes, and I every time I think about it I feel so. damn. satisfied. I was yelling at you for all of it, for every time you’d let me down, for our entire fucking relationship, even though I couldn’t quite articulate that for myself at the time.
And what gets me, what really makes me angry, is that if you are reading this, you are probably feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why I still don’t see how much you ‘tried’ and why I’m still angry about things that happened over two years ago, and let me tell you I am still angry but that it’s not irrational but completely fucking justified. I am angry that I had a partner who flung so much bullshit my way and that I fucking stood for it. I am angry that you still think of yourself as a ‘good person’ because you have good intentions, as though that could ever be enough to make you a good partner. It isn’t.
I am angry at you, I am angry at myself, I am angry at the whole fucking situation. I am angry that our monogamy actually MEANT something to me, that it took me so fucking long to even be attracted to another person after we broke up, that I was doing it because I really really wanted to and that for you it’s obviously something you do because you are, unsurprisingly, scared of doing anything else. You are scared of yourself, you are scared of your abilities and you are scared of your weaknesses. You are getting in your own fucking way all the time and the victim of this isn’t just you. I am part of that collateral damage as I stand here facing down the years of my declining fertility wondering why I ever thought I could marry someone like you. And while I feel grateful for having dodged a bullet (since how could I have had children with you, also a child?) I am also resentful that I was deceived for so long that I was being too demanding, that I expected too much from you.
Because it is not enough to ‘wish people well’. You have to act like it, or else you don’t get to call that ‘love.’ You don’t. So it’s all very NICE that you have FEELINGS. But also? Fuck you. Because if I am well, it is no thanks to you. I spent the last ten months bootstrapping myself up into a better place, still dragged down by my anger at you, by my self-loathing about our relationship and struggling to figure out all of my feelings about it and about you and about us and about myself and what, after all that, our relationship even meant. And let me tell you, I am exhausted.
I did not expect too much from you. I did not expect enough. YOU do not expect enough from yourself. I can only hope that somehow you learn how to fucking grow up and get out of your own fucking way, and take responsibility for figuring out how to live in a world where sometimes things are scary and people need to depend on each other a lot of the fucking time.
Do better. Act better. BE better. Then, and only then, will your future relationships be better.
In other words, I also wish you well.