Heartbreak helped me grow some balls.
My first real relationship was kind of a nightmare.
I was so grateful to finally, FINALLY have a girlfriend that I let her walk all over me. She pushed me around, she blamed me for everything, and I let her do it. I had such low self-esteem that I convinced myself that I — and I alone — was the cause of all of our problems.
Then she broke up with me. And somehow, for lack of a better term, I found my balls.
In retrospect, it still angers me that it took until the end of our relationship for me to stop being so insecure. Why couldn’t I have had that spine a few months previous when she was screaming at me in front of her friends? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had some confidence back then?
But, despite the crappy timing, I eventually got there. In the face of rejection, I finally learned to respect myself.
Ella (not her real name) was the love of my freshman year at college. I’d spent my high school years nervously asking platonic friends to Homecoming dances. But once I was on my own for the first time at college, I met Ella. And it was wonderful.
We laughed, we kissed, we slept together. It was everything I ever wanted. But once it became clear that we were in a relationship, that we were “officially” a couple, the power dynamic began to shift.
Suddenly, she was the dominant one and I was the submissive. And our relationship was all about what services I could provide to her.
I had to be available to be blamed for all of her problems. I had to be attentive, but if I was too attentive, I had to be ridiculed or punished or criticized for my miscalculation.
It was a sickeningly one-sided relationship, but, in her defense, I let it all happen. I didn’t have enough confidence in what I brought to the table to stand up for myself, to argue that I had just as much value as she did.
That is, until she broke up with me.
I’m still not 100% why she did it. The summer was coming and maybe she wanted to have her options open for our long break until sophomore year. Who knows?
What I do know is that — she dropped it on me like a bomb.
We were watching a movie in my room and, almost nonchalantly, she said, “This isn’t working. I want to breakup with you.”
I sputtered “What?!” about a million times and I cried. I ugly-cried. But, surprisingly enough, in my pathetic hysteria, I never said “No.”
I never said “Take me back.” I never said “Please don’t.” I was upset and I wanted to understand what had happened, but, amazingly, there was nothing in my body or mind that was prepared to beg to get back into her good graces.
I asked her to leave. (She did.) I calmed down. And, suddenly, everything was OK.
The worst was over and, more than anything, I was relieved. It felt like a weight had been lifted.
The next day, Ella called me. She wanted to know how I was. I said I was fine.
It hung there for a long moment and then she said, “I’ve been thinking, maybe I made a mistake. Have you told anyone we broke up yet?”
I said no (which was a lie).
She responded with “Well, I guess we could still be together and no one would ever know what happened.”
Somewhere inside me, something said “I’d know.” Apparently, I said it out loud too, because Ella was silent.
So I said “I’m sorry, Ella, but I’m just not interested.” And, as I went to hang up the phone, I heard her say one familiar word.
To this day, I still see that as one of the most empowered moments of my life.
I learned something about myself in that moment that I never suspected. That I had a spine. That I had self-worth.
That I had a limit of the abuse I was willing to take. That even though I’d spent months letting this woman boss me around and shame me in public that I still had a line where, if she crossed it (even privately), I had the strength to throw up my hands and say “I’m out.”
I’m fairly embarrassed at how weak I was for the majority of my first relationship, but I loved how the breakup turned out. Because even though I didn’t have the strength to dump Ella myself, I discovered that I did have enough self-esteem to stand-up for myself when it mattered most.