Interlude: Queering and Grieving Short-Term Relationship Breakups
Hello dear ones,
I’m currently working through the next section of my Queer Wounds series, and so I wanted to pause and share some other thoughts and feelings that have been coming up for me around the significance of our short-term relationships and the particular kind of pain they bring with them when they end.
A few reminders and FYIs before we dive in:
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Over the last year, I’ve found myself in various shorter-term relationships, usually lasting four to six weeks. Some of their endings have been excruciatingly painful. I feel melodramatic as I write that, worried that you will judge me. Not even two months?!? How could it be THAT painful?!? I worry because I’ve internalized the narrative that the length of our relationships determines the depth of their significance. The longer you were together, the story goes, the more it hurts when things end. This narrative brings with it the feeling that it’s silly to grieve our short-term relationships ending; that we’re being melodramatic when we find ourselves, months later, still in pain over the breakup. And yet, here I am. Almost two months out from my last (five-week long) relationship ending, still crying about it in therapy.
Through this breakup, I’ve realized that it’s not the length of a relationship that determines the pain of their ending: it’s the depth of intimacy shared. There are people who’ve been in relationships for years or decades, and kept the messiest parts of themselves hidden from the other. If and when that relationship ends, there is much grief and pain, surely. And there is something so specific to being vulnerable with another, only to have the relationship not work out. One pain is not greater or lesser than another; just different. Each deserves its recognition.
Because of their duration, shorter-term relationships ask us to be vulnerable without the safety net of secure attachment. It’s a risk. A wager that we take — or don’t. Though I always do. I need to know that you can see me anxious, afraid, weeping, dysregulated. I need to expose myself to you again and again until I can eventually trust that you won’t run away, that the other shoe won’t eventually drop. Sometimes, oftentimes, that dreaded other shoe does drop. When it does, you’re left wondering if it was all worth it; if you’re too much; if you should have kept parts of yourself locked away just a little longer. As if you and your vulnerability are to blame. I promise you, they’re not.
As a survivor, sharing sexual intimacy with someone deepens the significance of that connection for me. Each time our naked bodies move together, I am totally terrified – and, still, I move away from protection and towards connection. Thus there’s a big difference between how it feels when a relationship without sexual intimacy ends and one in which we’ve shared that form of intimacy with one another. Again, it is not about the length of connection, but about the quality and depth of the intimacy shared.
There is something so specific about the pain we feel when short-term relationships end. I believe that one reason for this is that the start of our relationships are imbued with so much hope and possibility — and, so much fear and uncertainty. There’s an excitement I feel in these early days as I get to know a new person. I may only be getting the best parts of them, depending on how much they’re willing to reveal. But I know that there is so much more beneath the surface. And, if you’re me, you can’t wait to dive into those depths.
Anything feels possible in the early days of getting to know someone. Maybe you’ll go on a few dates and realize you’re incompatible. Or maybe you’ve met your future partner, someone that you’ll build a life with. And you start to imagine those future possibilities – or, maybe you don’t. But I always do. My heart is hopeful, imaginative. I don’t have any particular investment in one of these possible futures. It’s just fun to imagine, to engage in the realm of fantasy. Because you’re still learning about one another, nothing feels like it’s off the table just yet.
In my longer-term relationships, there is a point where the fantasy ends and the reality sets in. You still imagine a future with this person, but that future is rooted in what remains on the table. Of course, people grow and things change and new things can be put on the table, to continue with this metaphor, but you have a much more solid grasp on what it is you’re building together. You’ve heard each other fart, one or both of you has cried, A LOT, and you’re no longer worried about the other shoe. You feel security and stability.
When my longer-term relationships have ended, there has been so much sadness, grief, and tears. But I don’t feel the same sense of “what if???” that accompanies my shorter-term relationship breakups. Instead, I feel that we have loved each other, journeyed together, and now things are shifting. I grieve the ending, rather than the possibility. Grieving the possibility is a different kind of pain for trauma survivors because in order to believe in possibility, we have to let go of our need for control. When the possibilities shatter all around us, we feel foolish. We pick up the pieces and carry them around with us, unable to fully let go.
I just finished reading Raechel Anne Jolie’s newsletter, where she talks about her need to know that others have survived their breakups. She explains how, “We carry our past relationships like a DNA helix of typewriter font, little novellas composing the stuff of our cells. Our beginning sentence and our ending one swirling about and undoubtedly shaping us more than any predetermined genes.” Raechel is speaking to longer-term relationships and I want to expand her analogy. With our shorter-term relationships, the novella has yet to be finished. It is a jumble of notes with a million possible middles and endings. I struggle to leave it unfinished. I find myself saying, I just wanted so much more for both of us.
Every relationship we have leaves its own imprint, stamp, bruise, wound. After all, “the body is an assemblage,” Billy-Ray Belcourt writes, “a mass of everyone who’s ever moved us, for better or for worse.” I appreciate how, for Belcourt, there is no mention of temporality or duration. In his poetry collection, This Wound is a World, Belcourt speaks of fleeting encounters with men he hooks up with. They are each beautiful and painful in their own ways. Queering our relationships looks like releasing intimacy from the grips of time and moving from duration to depth. It’s here that we can honour our relationships, short or long, and give ourselves the space we need to grieve so that we may take the risk of intimacy once again.
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