For my entire adult life, breakups have been horrible, often occasioned by infidelity and replete with things said that can’t be taken back. Merely mentioning the names of some of my exes often triggers a level of revulsion usually reserved for serial killers. And I’ve never remained friends with my exes. I have plenty of friends. Why pretend to still be civil to someone who hurt me?
Ending my marriage was no different. Although cheating was not the cause of our separation, there was too much bad blood between us for my ex and I to maintain even a semblance of friendship. We tried co-parenting, but ultimately, it has been easier to go it alone than to try to force a co-parenting relationship on my ex, or — more importantly — on my kids.
When I finally started dating again, five years after my divorce, my first serious post-divorce boyfriend seemed to be the complete package.
My boyfriend was kind, considerate, and intelligent. When he wasn’t talking about black history, politics, or sports, he would share stories about his childhood in Jamaica, told over plates of oxtail stew or curry goat from the neighborhood Jamaican take-out spot. As the father of a teenage son, he knew how to talk to my teenage kids, but he never offended them by acting as a father substitute. In the early days of our relationship, my kids were as excited to see my boyfriend as I was.
Despite the fact that he was allergic, he even took an interest in my cat. When the kids and I took our annual vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, he would come over and feed the cat. And when I had to go out of town for quick overnight business trips, he would stop by while I was gone to check in on everyone — kids and cat alike.
“I love how your mind works,” he would say when we were discussing politics or world events. I would share with him my take on something in the news — the Trayvon Martin case, or an article claiming that Michelle Obama was bad for feminism — and he would exclaim, “You need to pitch that!” He was the complete opposite of my ex-husband, who once told me that the fact that I made more money than him made him feel like less than a man.
And — if I’m being totally honest — he was great in bed.
What more could a girl want?
Two years into our relationship, I saw that a girl could want quite a bit more. We’d remained almost exactly where we had started. I’d met his son, but not the rest of his family. He told me he wasn’t close to his family, but that didn’t make sense to me, since he shared an apartment with his brother. He always came to visit me at my apartment, but I was never invited to his.
I also started seeing him less and less. His visits dwindled from several times a week, to once a week, to once every other week, to once a month. He blamed his newfound time constraints on new business ventures. As supportive as he was of my dreams and ambitions, whenever I tried to get him to open up about his projects, he did not. He might ask me to look at a website, or read over a contract and give him my thoughts, but the details were off-limits.
I became suspicious. Was he with another woman? Were these business ventures on the up and up? When I discussed the situation with my friends, they had a different take altogether.
“He’s comfortable with things as they are — casual,” one friend said.
And that seemed to be the best answer. It wasn’t that he was cheating, or that he was involved in something shady. He just preferred to be the guy who breezed in, enjoyed a few hours of my company, and then returned to his own life across the river in New Jersey. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a husband, but I was looking for growth in our relationship. After two years, I expected us to begin to merge our lives together — whether that meant moving in together, or just meeting each other’s families. He didn’t have the same expectations.
As he came around less and less, my kids were less and less excited to see him. “Hey, what’s going on?” he would ask, as he had always done.
“Hey,” they would respond without much enthusiasm, and then go back up to their rooms. When I asked them why, they told me it was hard for them to stay interested in someone who wasn’t interested enough in them to come by more often.
But I wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, I made demands. “We need to spend more time together. I need to have a relationship with your son, the way you have a relationship with my kids. And I need to meet your family.”
“As soon as I get things settled, I’ll figure it out,” he would say. We began arguing more and more — the kinds of arguments we had never had early in our relationship. Still, I held out hope that things would turn around. Despite his flaws, he was a better partner than my ex-husband had been — or so I told myself.
Around the time of our third anniversary, I was scheduled to take a business trip to Asia. It was my first trip to Asia, and I was both excited and nervous.
“I’m excited for you!” he said when I told him.
“Am I going to see you before I leave?”
“I’ll try,” was the extent of his commitment.
In the days before my trip, he gave me his usual litany of excuses: he was on a call that ran late; he had to be on a call early the next morning; he had to finish up a presentation to a potential investor. Still, I expected to see him before I left for the airport.
But he didn’t show up. At that point, I realized I could make all the demands I wanted, but nothing would change. I knew that he liked me. I knew that he cared about me. But he didn’t feel responsible for me, or to me.
To my surprise, I wasn’t hurt. If anything, I was relieved. Being with him was better than my marriage, but better than my marriage wasn’t good enough. It was time for me to stay true to my original promise to myself — to get out of a relationship if it no longer met my needs.
I called him from the airport lounge just before I boarded my flight to Shanghai. “There is no excuse for you not to have come by to wish me a safe trip,” I said. “This isn’t what I want anymore. I’m done,” I said.
I felt a little sad, but I was far from devastated. I had been putting off the breakup for months, and doing it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. And now I could enjoy my trip, instead of being angry at him the entire time I was gone.
For the first time in my adult life, I’d managed to avoid a scorched earth breakup. This time, I didn’t stay in the relationship well past the expiration date, to the point where the only way to get out and stay out was to do hurtful things to each other. There was no cheating, no fighting, no betrayal.
I felt empowered by my decision. I had chosen not to settle for less than what I wanted. And it felt great.
A week after I returned from China, he called me. He asked me if I really meant it when I said it was over. I told him I did. He seemed shocked, but accepted my decision.
Slowly, gradually, over a period of months, we began talking again on a regular basis.
Eventually, he said the words I’d dreaded hearing from other ex-boyfriends: “Can we still be friends?”
The most enduring part of our relationship wasn’t the time we spent together. As great as the sex was, it wasn’t that, either. It was how much I enjoyed talking to him, and how much I appreciated his words of encouragement.
So this time, I said: “Yes. Of course.”
And in the process, I saved the part of the relationship that meant the most to me — our friendship.