The following essay is by guest writer and former His Take contributor, my very good friend, Matthew Van Colton.
It might be the worst lie I’ve ever told.
I looked at my boyfriend Scott’s kind, searching face and said, “I don’t see myself in a relationship anymore.” My teary eyes blinked, channeling Les Miz Anne Hathaway. After four complicated years together, it was true, but I left off the end of the sentence: “with you.”
He nodded, but I knew the discussion wasn’t over. It was just after Halloween; he hurriedly moved out days after, and Thanksgiving snuck up on us. Neither of us interested in cooking, knowing we’d be Debbie Downers for our friends, we elected to spend it together silently picking at some Thai food. Sure enough, the question escaped him as he stared at his noodles.
“But why, I mean, what is it?”
I fell silent. “I don’t know,” I finally managed, “I just know it’s not right.”
Anyone who’s dated has heard or said their own version: “I’ve got to figure myself out”; “I don’t know”; “You deserve someone who has their shit together.” They’re all reinventions of the granddaddy of clichés:
“It’s not you. It’s me.”
I recognize most everything is neither black nor white, neither Christina nor Britney, especially human relationships. Indeed, a big part of my break up with Scott was me; I experienced significant shifts in career, family, and friendships during our relationship. Still, there were — always are — at least some reasons, and I can’t help wondering why we avoid sharing what’s wrong, acknowledging what’s real, or saying what’s true, particularly to someone we supposedly care about.
In my case, I withheld the whole truth because it seemed kinder, adult-like … and because I didn’t have the balls to speak the real truth, like: “You have unexamined anxiety issues and I’m unequipped to handle them”; or “We have a diminishing amount of shared interests and activities”; or the one I barely let myself think: “I’m less attracted to you than I once was.”
What would Scott’s response have been if I’d actually said these things? Probably: “You’re depressed too, you judgmental asshole”; or “Who cares if I don’t like college football and Madonna, they’re both confusing and creepy”; or “Fuck off. You have grey chest hairs and you thought you were a top when we met.”
How do we grow, if not from the truth? If I’d shared my true feelings, would we have found a way to laugh, or coolly talk through our deal-breakers? Heck, maybe we would have just dropped to the floor and wrestled it out. Ooh…that would’ve been fun.
We let ourselves believe that “It’s not you…” represents some Zen-like insight and kindness towards our targeted dumpee, when it often demonstrates immaturity and absence of faith in the other’s ability to take bad news.
Maybe we simply weren’t meant to be; I’ll never know. I owed Scott the truth, but all I could muster was my best Oprah: “I want you to be happy.”
The cruelty of “It’s not you…” only dawned on me when I saw it from the other side.
I met Andrew, rather unceremoniously, several years after my breakup with Scott. I was instantly hooked on his quirky, observant nature and youthful eyebrows. He liked my laugh. It was uncomplicated and we happily fell into the relationship quicksand. We never fought, finding simple comfort in one another’s arms and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The reality of our prospects as a longstanding couple came in warnings I mostly ignored. Yes, our age difference was vast; yes, he plainly was less interested in any long-term conversation than I was…but, so what? We both loved pizza!
It got serious, but in the most convenient ways: we spent a romantic New Year’s together; quite casually, I met his brother and parents — an occasion Scott had once treated with the concern of a viral outbreak; I was going to be away for work and he happily met me after my business concluded and we traveled together.
I remember the winter night I fell fully under Andrew’s spell. His apartment was cold and he lent me his high school Rugby sweatshirt. “Here,” he said, casually handing me an item I instantly esteemed. I was a cheerleader putting on the footballer’s jacket. Wow, I thought: why get caught up in the minutia when everything feels this warm?
But as quickly as things ramped up, they unraveled. Spring sprung; I became my reliable self again — focused on the future, driven by expectations, and less enamored of Andrew’s charm and three-ring-circus schedule. What once was his free-spirited nature now seemed flighty, inconsiderate. Fueled by neglect, I drew up a terse mental pro and con list: I never wanted to date someone so much younger, or someone whose career was in the same field, or someone who made too many mouth noises when he ate. I was willing to disregard those things. I couldn’t, however, overlook someone who had no room for me in his life.
The end of the road came suddenly. During our last conversation, we cried for ourselves; we had nobly tried—and failed, and had reached that conclusion together. I swallowed hard and spoke my truth (minus the mouth noise bit). I had loved him; he had liked me a lot. During his final, meandering, monologue, the words rolled from his lips: “I’ve got to put myself first.” Yes, I nodded.
Only later, halfway through a bottle of $7.99 Shiraz, blatantly ignoring the never-drink-alone coda of my 2012 Valentine’s Edict, did the indignant in me lap the sadness. The familiar, painful words dinged in my ears: It’s not you. It’s me.
Who was he to hide behind that bullshit? Sure, he had to take care of himself — we all did — but he knew exactly why he broke up with me, and I deserved to know!
A day later, slightly more levelheaded and certainly more sober, I sent him a sappy Kumbaya email — a thinly-veiled fishing expedition seeking the answers he was unwilling to provide. But Andrew was a wise young Jedi, immune to my blunt tools, and knew better than to respond.
Another two days passed. Unable to resist, I texted him: “I miss you. I know it’s pathetic.” He answered right away: “You’re not pathetic. I owe you an email. I just need time.”
Great! I thought. Time. Yes, of course! Finally I’ll know: Was I too old? Had he met some younger guy with better taste in casual footwear and less baggage? Was he unable to forgive my lukewarm response to Beyoncé’s self-titled endeavor? Did he hate the way I kissed him?
I didn’t care if it hurt, I wanted to know. Maybe I wanted to hurt.
I waited again, sending one last embarrassing message restating how I’d remember the good times. Surely, this would prompt his much-awaited truth-telling.
Finally, days later, it came. A four-sentence email consisting of vague generalities, the bland tenor of which convinced me he’d lifted tips from a how-to-break-up-with-a-crazy-person webinar. And, at the end, one very specific sentence:
“I hate to be that guy, but can I get my sweatshirt back?”
There it was. The one detail he cared about.
I had already wrapped it up, along with his other personal items, days earlier and just hadn’t yet mailed it. Immediately, I marched the package to the post office, shut the mailbox, and listened as it tumbled down the shoot.
Karma had been served; its name was Andrew.
They say the devil is in the details; I say there’s an angel there too. For on the other side of a break-up that I convinced myself I wanted, but didn’t understand, details would have felt like Heaven indeed.
I’ve long since let Andrew off the hook — maybe he pegged me as a guy who would obsess over particulars as much as the lack thereof (guilty). Maybe that was his deal-breaker; I’ll never know.
It all led me back to consider Scott, and only then did I understand how profound it was when I said to him: “You deserve better.”
Indeed, he did. We all do.
Matthew Van Colton is a New York and Chicago-based writer & performer. He loves the smell of pine trees, he’ll never turn down peanut butter with chocolate, and he thinks the idea of having his very own stalker is both romantic and flattering. More at www.matthewvancolton.com.
HmC August 19, 2014, 1:53 pm
This is well-written and raw, well done! And wow my hetero bias is showing because I totally assumed it was a female writer the whole time.
I’m torn on whether it’s good to share the gory details and “whys” when you’re the dumper. It feels like in some situations, it’s better not to… I mean, isn’t it painful enough to be rejected by someone you’re in love with? You really need the nitty gritty of exactly why they don’t love you? But on the other hand, in a perfect world, how do we grow if we don’t know the harsh truth? But then on the other other hand, it’s just one person’s opinion and who are you really to tell someone what they need to work on about themselvse? Maybe sometimes it really is more about the dumper than the dumpee… Like if the dumper falls in love with someone else, is it really more helpful that the dumpee know that or is it just meaningless pain?
Miel August 19, 2014, 2:16 pm
I like how you say it’s only one person’s opinion. That’s true! I mean, if all my friends were making me sit down to talk because “I eat with my mouth open” or something, I would listen. Because they are my friends and there’s no reason for them to hurt me or have a biased opinion. But if a guy was to break up with me because “I talk too much”… well. Maybe he thinks I talk too much. Maybe I think it’s all good. I’m probably not going to change something I like about myself because one person told me he didn’t like it.
FireStar August 19, 2014, 2:22 pm
Agreed – very well written!
Dear Wendy August 19, 2014, 2:24 pm
Agreed! Great job, Matty. And thank you for letting me share your writing here.
RedroverRedrover August 20, 2014, 1:43 pm
I think you should be truthful, but do it *before* the point that you want to break up. Like the anxiety issues that he mentioned in the essay – what might have happened if he’d told him that a couple of years ago? Maybe nothing, but maybe Scott would have had them examined and learned to deal with them better. Same with shared interests/activities – get some before it’s too late. Maybe if the other problems had been solved, the attraction he used to feel wouldn’t have gone away. Personally, when I start becoming unattracted to a guy I used to be attracted to, it’s because of other issues.
This is the sentence that really hit me “and I can’t help wondering why we avoid sharing what’s wrong, acknowledging what’s real, or saying what’s true, particularly to someone we supposedly care about”. It’s exactly right, but there’s no point doing it at the time of breaking up. Do it while there’s still time to change it!
Great essay, thanks!
csp August 19, 2014, 2:01 pm
I seriously loved this!
csp August 19, 2014, 3:16 pm
So, I am back because I can write more. I deal with this all the time as a recruiter. A client will give feedback about why someone didn’t get a job. Sometimes I give the whole truth, other times, I side step it. It really depends if it is something that someone can change or not. So, if they say, “He couldn’t articulate xyz experience” I will pass along that information. But if it was that the candidate’s personality was awful, I won’t pass that along because they can’t change it.
lets_be_honest August 19, 2014, 2:08 pm
Haha, “but so what? we both love pizza!”
I get that in a perfect world, its good for someone you love to tell you your faults, but in reality, like you said, all that’s gonna come from that is hurt feelings and/or defensiveness. Few people will hear that and try to change themselves for the better. Maybe that’s pessimistic of me. Maybe if its said in a way like “I need a person who is there for me more” v. “You are too much of a workaholic for me to like you.”
Anyway, I really liked this.
taurons August 19, 2014, 2:11 pm
Beautifully written and a really good topic to ruminate on. I think there is an inherent selfishness to not giving the “whys” of a break up, but I also think arguments can be made that it’s both for the best and a bad idea not to. Getting the perspective of both sides is great, though (in my experience, I’ve done the vague break up, but been given the specific break up).
FireStar August 19, 2014, 2:17 pm
I’ve always been of the opinion that the next sentence explaining why after “I don’t want to be with you anymore” is one sentence too many. If there is growth to be had – then it comes from introspection and deciding for yourself what you want to do differently in the wake of a breakup and what lessons you can learn. Telling me my hair isn’t the right shade of red or that I’m too young/old or that I obsess over details – has more to do with you than me. You don’t like that. If there are behaviour issues in a relationship then likely they have already come to light – not prioritizing someone shows up as fights about time spent together or blowing off plans. And if the offending behaviour continues then it does so intentionally. And if the reasons for the break-up are innate to that person – then what does telling them accomplish? I do not like this one thing about you that you cannot change. Um… thanks? I think it is natural to obsess a little and think “why?” and “what is it about me?” But that line of thought pre-supposes there IS something about you. And maybe the asking could lead to growth – or at least recognizing the lessons to be learned in the last relationship. But I would guess 9 times out of 10 – it isn’t you. Or the other person. It is just your two didn’t work together…so who cares what things about you brought the other person to that realization? It is the final determination that counts…I don’t think you need to show your work in these types of situations.
HmC August 19, 2014, 2:29 pm
All good points, yo. And I thought of another reason that telling the “truth” doesn’t really matter… you know even well-intentioned people that THINK they are telling the truth could not be really in touch with their own feelings, like it isn’t really the truth even if they believe it is… like maybe you get dumped because your boyfriend falls in love with someone else, but he feels like a shithead even admitting that to himself, so he convinces himself that he must dump you because you are “clingy” or “anxious” or something. And then you spend years beating yourself up over a trait that many partners could deal with, or that isn’t even that bad, just because one person used it as a rationalization to dump you?
Like ultimately all you need to know is that they don’t want to be with you. Your own personal development, closure, whatever, has to come from you anyway. And if you really pay attention to your PATTERN of social interactions, romantic relationships included, and the issues that came up over the course of them (like you mentioned Firestar) that should give you more than enough material re: what you need to work on, non?
FireStar August 19, 2014, 2:40 pm
It’s true! There are those wonderful people that come out and say “It’s not me (dating my new girlfriend I got together with last week) it’s YOU and your jealousy that drove me away.” Now I feel people should be automatically suspicious of anyone trying to tell them the “truth” behind the break-up.
TaraMonster August 19, 2014, 2:53 pm
This is SO TRUE. My ex (you guys know which one I mean at this point, right? lol) had me convinced I was “needy,” when logically I know I’m a very independent person. Really, he just didn’t know how to listen to me without fusing with/feeling responsible for some of the feelings I had. On the one hand, I loved that about him as he is a very empathetic, caring person. But it took me two years and getting in and out of another relationship to unpack that one!
Betsy August 19, 2014, 2:46 pm
I hear what you’re saying, but I am the type of person that would fill in the blank with all of the things I dislike about myself. That kind of thing makes it harder to move on. At least when you are told that it’s because of the shade of your hair, it gives you the opportunity to think “Fuck that, I like my hair just fine.”
FireStar August 19, 2014, 3:05 pm
Whereas I think women need to be a little more arrogant…and have their first thought be “F that – I like ME just fine.” I know we aren’t wired that way and we are socialized to be pleasers etc. but I say we fake it till we make it.
ktfran August 19, 2014, 4:47 pm
YES! I use to want to know WHY? But now, I’m meh. I kind of like who I’ve turned out to be, so if someone doesn’t like me, then we’re mismatched and I find someone who does.
Scooze August 19, 2014, 2:32 pm
I learned from online dating that a very good thing to say is that this “doesn’t feel like the right match for me”. It is honest, and easy to say. It’s clear. Plus, it doesn’t require a long explanation. It doesn’t leave the other person wondering if there is still a chance, and it keeps things easy breezy. Perhaps its better for short relationships, but I’ve heard it, and I’ve used it and thought it was really kind thing to say.
FireStar August 19, 2014, 2:58 pm
I remember my first foray into online dating dog years ago and the guy hid his picture until we emailed a little and then when he revealed it – he wasn’t my type. I didn’t address the picture but told him I was interested in someone else and going to pursue that opportunity and he emailed me a angry email demanding I admit how shallow I was and that I admit it was because of his picture I didn’t want to talk to him anymore (FTR classic Sears portrait studio with head resting on cupped palm picture – total entry for awkward photos – in addition to not being my type). I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any wording I could have used to get out of that unscathed.
Scooze August 19, 2014, 3:02 pm
Yeah, well haters gonna hate. Clearly he waited to show his pic so that he would know that is why he was rejected. Anyway, for reasonable people it can work.
FireStar August 19, 2014, 3:08 pm
I agree – there is no judgement in saying that to someone or hearing it.
And I learnt the hard way… no picture = no emailing!
ktfran August 19, 2014, 2:39 pm
Thus far, this is my absolute favorite “getting personal.” I don’t necessarily agree with the stance, but I appreciate his take on this issue, and especially his writing.
IDK, to me, I think I’m really ok with things just not working and leaving it at that. I don’t really care to know if my love interest found someone better, or even more so, if I had major flaws that he couldn’t cope with. Because the thing is, that is who I am. I might work on things for a partner, but I won’t change who I fundamentally am. And if we were really “meant to be together long-term” I think we would have worked on ourselves and figured that out sooner. Or, maybe I’m living with my head in the clouds.
lets_be_honest August 19, 2014, 3:03 pm
Yea, this is my favorite too.
PeeTee August 19, 2014, 2:51 pm
Excellent article! My exBF of two years asked for the explanations when we broke up so I told him as the break-up wasn’t something I did lightly given my, ahem, maturity – I am nearly 62. And when I finally got around to telling him, after making sure he was mailing back my stuff, he didn’t believe me, got very argumentative and defensive and then detailed all my faults. It hurts to receive bad news just as much as it does to bear it. I’m sure that famous tome that was popular some years ago, “It’s Called a Break Up Because It’s Broken”, said not to ask for explanations.
TaraMonster August 19, 2014, 2:10 pm
I loved the hell out of this. But I have to know, what do youthful eyebrows look like?
othy August 19, 2014, 3:03 pm
The opposite of aged eyebrows? (Seriously, look at the older men in your life, it’s really a thing!).
TaraMonster August 19, 2014, 3:12 pm
Haha. Great. Now I’m going to spend the rest of my day trying not to get caught looking at men’s eyebrows! I’ll put my sunglasses on on the subway. They’ll never know I’m checking out their eyebrows!
Portia August 19, 2014, 4:34 pm
Old men eyebrows! They really are a thing, all long and whispy at the ends.
Lyra August 19, 2014, 3:16 pm
Awww, Matt that was lovely. And you’re adorable and any man is lucky to have you! 🙂
findingtheearth August 19, 2014, 3:20 pm
However, there are the times when you do explain to the person why it won’t work out, and they refuse to believe it and keep pestering for some deep rooted insecure closure that can never be reached.
TaraMonster August 19, 2014, 2:42 pm
I’m back to actually address the subject here! A month ago, I broke up with my boyfriend of a year and a half, and while I didn’t list the things about him that drove me up the wall (and there were many), I do think I was honest. I’m not always a peach to deal with. Before 10 AM I speak solely in snarls and grunts, I don’t like leaving my borough on the weekends, and I am made easily cranky by both too hot and too cold weather. I didn’t want to hear that shit! So I selfishly left out my list about him.
So I focused on the “main” reason I wanted to breakup, and that was a communication problem. And it wasn’t a fixable one. Ok, now that I’m typing this I’m realizing I left out the reason it was not fixable in my breakup speech, and instead said we were just too different and that it often felt as though we were speaking different languages. That was code for, “You are inconsiderate and oblivious and it has come to my attention that this is a pretty huge personality trait that you have, not a communication issue that we can work on together.” See why I didn’t say that, though? That’s mean. I did cite how he stood me up for my grandmother’s funeral, though, when he asked me when things changed. It was definitely the thing that made me feel a. that though it wasn’t intentional, it complicated my grief that day b. made me feel I couldn’t rely on him emotionally and c. my outlook on life is different now that she’s gone. I said all that. That’s pretty honest, no? I hope it was because now I’m scared of this breakup honesty karma coming for me!!
PeeTee August 19, 2014, 3:05 pm
Often it is just one incident (like TaraMonster’s ex who didn’t show up for her grandmother’s funeral) which is the straw that broke the camel’s back. In my case, the trigger for the breakup was exBF storming out of my house at 7:30 am with no explanation. And I most certainly referred to that incident when he wanted reasons.
Val August 19, 2014, 3:46 pm
I think people do this because saying “you deserve better” or “it’s me” or “I have to deal with my issues first before I can date” puts a lot of weight off the very difficult (usually) choice of dumping someone. Most of us are overwhelmed by guilt anyway, so I guess that we can’t handle “nagging” the person on top of breaking their heart. We want it all to go and trouble-free as possible (as trouble-free as dumping someone can actually be …..) and obviously being completely honest with the other person opens a more space for drama – the other person denying, apologizing, agonizing, insulting you back, etc.
Having said that, I would definitely prefer to be told the truth so that ,after all the heart ache is over and I start coming to my senses, I can learn from it and prevent making the same mistakes in future relationships. I also think to an extent, the other person does deserve to know the truth. You have been in a relationship with someone for however many months/years and there was obviously a problem along the way. This leads to a break-up. After you have given your all in that relationship, God damn it, you deserve out of pure respect to know WHAT went wrong. ESPECIALLY, as the writer of that wonderful post specifically asked his ex: Tell me the truth?
fast eddie August 19, 2014, 3:09 pm
If I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase, I could have retired 10 years earlier. Breaking up is hard to do from either side. Get roaring drunk, have a good cry and move on.
ktfran August 19, 2014, 3:57 pm
LANY August 19, 2014, 4:47 pm
Beautiful. Loved it, and thank you for sharing it.
Crochet.Ninja August 19, 2014, 5:03 pm
no, a person does not always ‘deserve’ to know why they’re being broken up with. someone above said it well, and a lot of the time, it IS the person who’s breaking up’s deal. not the other person. and by the time someone has made up their mind to break up, they’re focusing on one perceived bad thing, that may not even be the root of the breakup. which usually comes back to communication. not always, some people are just dicks :p but usually it’s a lack of communication of needs, wants, etc etc that break people up. if you’re good at communicating your needs, honestly all you need to tell the person is that this is not what you’re looking for in a relationship and move on. why do they need to know that you can’t handle their depression, or whatever else is going on? If you can’t, then you break up, or decide to work on it together.
Val August 19, 2014, 5:57 pm
Because sometimes the other person may have actually really wanted to do better and they wish they knew what this “better” could be.. and they just think they at least deserved the truth instead of some bullshit excuse.
Either way that’s obviously incredibly subjective and everyone will have their own opinions about it, so there’s no point arguing 🙂 There’s no right or wrong answer with this, it’s not 2+2.
Copa August 19, 2014, 6:50 pm
I picked a good day to see what’s up with DW because I LOVED this.
Personally, I’d rather know the truth — IF I’m asking for it. My last breakup got kinda sloppy. At one point during our breakup talk I asked bluntly if he’d met someone else. I got a bizarre lie in response and I knew, in my gut, that it was a lie. A couple days later he proceeded to become apologetic and in a way that led me to believe that we stood a chance at reconciling. We didn’t. The truth was that he’d actually started seeing someone else several months prior but didn’t have the guts to instigate the breakup (winner). I wish I’d known the truth in the moment so that I could’ve just walked away with a broken heart but my head held as high as possible under the circumstances. Instead, it led to MONTHS of heartache, weird behavior on his end (and, okay, admittedly I was a bit cooky, too because he was checking up on me like 8x/day for MONTHS), a VERY late “confession” of cheating because the guilt was eating away at him, and a his now-fiance/soon-to-be-wife sending me texts telling me to move on. Good times! I would’ve preferred the truth up-front to the mess that followed.
I know everyone is different, but my take is that if someone who has been by your side for months/years asks for honesty, *kindly* give it to them.
MsMisery August 21, 2014, 12:38 pm
“I hate to be that guy, but can I get my sweatshirt back?”
“Well, I hate to be that girl, but I already burned it up and mailed the ashes to the White House with your return address. Was that wrong?”
Sometimes I think, even if the reasons for a break up are given at the time and true at the time, it’s still pointless. One of my exes broke up with me because we were in an LDR and he was tired of the distance thing, and also I was more serious than he was and he NEVER EVER wanted to be married again (he was a scarred divorced person). Ok, legit reasons. Two weeks later he was already in another LDR (which I believe started before ours ended) and within a year he’d moved from Nashville to Seattle and remarried. So. Yeah. I would have been happier with a lie or a vague “it’s not you, it’s me” because I still get annoyed if I let myself think about all that.