Having gone through plenty of breakups myself, I can tell you firsthand that they can be a real bummer. Whether you were dumped or the one who initiated it. And even when it’s mutual.
When it’s over, it can be easy to question yourself. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people wonder post-breakup: Was I really in love? Did they really love me? Were those feelings real?
But I’ve come to realize that loving someone and having a relationship last are two very different things.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, a forever love story or a fake connection. Even if a relationship ends, the feelings you had while you were in it were real.
One and Only True Love, for a Lifetime
In another piece, I wrote about why I used to struggle with disliking anyone my partner had dated before me. Sometimes it was because these exes had hurt my partner, but that wasn’t the only reason:
I’d internalized a cultural script about monogamy and romance that was very all or nothing. I’d learned that you had to be someone’s One and Only for a relationship to be valid. And not only did you have to be their One and Only right then, but you also had to come out on top when considering their connections with others throughout their life. To be someone’s One True Love, you had to be the only person your partner ever really loved.
Because of this, acknowledging that my partner’s ex had any good qualities (let alone that my partner ever loved them) seemed like a very dangerous premise. It was safer to diminish and invalidate that former relationship in my own mind — and at my pettiest moments, aloud.
And I didn’t just have an all or nothing view when it came to my partner. I also diminished and invalidated my own past relationships. It was my way of reassuring my partner that they had nothing to fear: Yes, I’d dated other people in the past, but what I had with exes wasn’t True Love. They couldn’t hold a candle to what we currently had.
This reassurance came from a good place, a desire to make someone I loved feel more secure. But then, I’d take it a step too far: I’d say that my exes had meant nothing to me. Ever.
The words always felt true when I spoke them (or at least like something I wanted to be true). Yet, it wasn’t quite right. While it’s true that I was much more interested in moving forward with my present relationship and the future we could build together than what had happened in my past, that didn’t mean that what I’d had with other people before them was nothing.
Maybe we hadn’t worked out. We’d been incompatible for one or more reasons. Maybe we’d hurt each other. But that didn’t invalidate the real feelings we’d had when we were together. Nor did it erase the experiences we’d had or the things that we’d learned from one another.
Being Able to Honestly Acknowledge Past Relationships
As I wrote in an earlier piece, one of the greatest unexpected joys I experienced when I opened up my marriage and began dating polyamorously was finally being able to openly acknowledge my earlier relationships and how much they’d each brought to my life, without feeling like I was damaging my partner by doing so. Since we’d moved away from a place where One and Only was the only way to define love.
Finally, I was able to be honest with myself and with my partners, in a way that I couldn’t manage before. I didn’t have to pretend I had never been in love with anyone else. Not for my partner or for myself. I’d taken out the all or nothing aspect of it. The zero sum of it all. Having loved someone in the past had no bearing on my ability to love my current partner or my ability to love anyone else in the future.
It had always been that way, but now I could openly admit it.
And it was so incredibly freeing. It was honestly a bigger deal for me than the ability to have more relationships going on at one time.
You Have to Define Love Rather Narrowly to Argue for One and Only
I think the phrase, “If you broke up, you weren’t really in love” is only true if you define “love” very narrowly. It can only be true if you force love to be an all or nothing proposition. If you put it onto the relationship escalator. Require that it meets every storybook stage of love, from the moment where your eyes lock from across a crowded room and you know instantly that they’re the one for you — to the fade to black that says “and they lived happily ever.”
There’s a tidiness to viewing love that way. And this premise sure is romanticized for us over and over. We’re told love is a kind of social magic, a form of escape from the normal way the universe functions. How people meet and interact.
Love functions differently than everything else, we’re told. And it is a beautiful premise, bolstered by some magnificent biochemical processes. Risk and reward. Attachment hormones.
We’re raised to believe that when you’re in love, you can speak in extremes, and not only do you get a pass for saying extreme things but you’re honored for it. Love gives you license to exaggerate and be noble for it, even exalted. Especially when those feelings are reciprocated.
I really wanted love to be this way. Like what I’d seen in the movies. So I did my part to be the perfect movie lover. And part of that was defining love so narrowly that I had to completely disavow my past.
For the longest time, it didn’t matter how much effort it took to stick to this script. How much I had to edit out of myself, change. I felt like if I could only will reality to cooperate hard enough that I’d end up as that movie lover.
Giving Up One Dream to Make Room for Others
But it didn’t work out that way. These days, I’m an extremely happy person, but did real life play out like a movie? No way. It was never meant to. But actually, real life is a lot better than the movies.
It was painful getting here, however. Giving up this narrow definition of love was painful, since it had been a large part of my identity. A goal. I was a romantic person, a lover. At the time, it seemed like I had given up hope of ever achieving a lifelong dream. Honestly, I grieved:
Without even being consciously aware, the quasi-magical state of being someone’s One and Only had been part of a picture of romantic love I’d had my entire life. And now that dream was over. I couldn’t go back to seeing things the same way as I had before, even when I was functionally monogamous after a spate of breakups.
I grieved for months.
And then one day, the sense of relief overtook that grief. The knowledge that I didn’t have to be someone’s everything to be “enough.” That I didn’t need to put that kind of pressure on myself to be someone else’s world. That I could be an important part of a life that was also rich outside of their love for me.
And like that, other dreams took that former dream’s place. Once I got over the sting of seeing the storybook romance for what it was and no longer recognizing it as mine (or even as something I wanted to strive for), I was able to replace it with something that’s somehow both more realistic and better.
Part of that includes a personal schema that allows for many different definitions of love and an understanding that a love can have its time and have it pass without invalidating what it once was.
One where I never have to tell myself or someone else, “If you broke up, you weren’t really in love.”