The worst break-up of my life – the break-up that hurt the most – was the one I never saw coming…and then was forced to watch in slow motion.
It was June 2004, and I was 22 years old. My girlfriend was in her second year at Oxford, while I was trying to finish a Masters at another university. I’d moved back home at Easter to work on my dissertation from the Oxford libraries to which I still had access, and to spend more time with her, after eight months of long-distance dating.
I was also desperately in love – mainly with J, but also with the effect she’d had on my confidence, happiness, and sense of self-worth, all of which had plummeted in the four years since my previous relationship.
That desperation was always visible, I think, just under the surface: visible whenever I caved, and scrambled to make the peace after a fight; visible in every four-hour train journey I made between Durham and Oxford to see her – even more so in the ones she didn’t; and visible in the way I tried too hard to make her feel as happy as I did, all the while ignoring the voice in my brain that told me I was doing too much, and at the same time not nearly enough.
Inevitably things got worse when we were able to see each other more often. That kind of emotional imbalance is impossible to sustain anyway, but proximity only accelerates its demise; I was in way too deep, and the more I pressed, the less attractive to her I became. What started out as discomfort quickly became disengagement – something I sensed but resolutely refused to acknowledge or confront, in an ostrich-like display of both stubbornness and fear – and just as I started to dream of a long, loved-up summer together, she pulled away completely.
The break-up itself was awful for a number of reasons, few of which will need much elaboration for anyone who’s ever had their heart crushed in that way. The worst bit was the waiting. J wanted a week to think about things – to decide whether or not she really wanted to be with me – and of course I gave it to her, because that’s what you do when you love someone and want nothing more than for them to keep loving you in return.
A week spent tossing and turning, checking my phone every 30 seconds for a text that I knew would never arrive – well, that would have been bad enough anyway. What made it even more excruciating was the part-time job I’d just accepted, invigilating exams at my mum’s school. It meant three hours at a time in pin-drop silence, watching the minute hand on the clock…tick…slowly…by, with only my own maliciously masochistic thoughts for company or entertainment; I’d emerge from each session and practically run to the car park, my lungs practically bursting with the need to scream at the sky. It’s no coincidence that my first and only speeding fine came on one of those terrible, tortuous afternoons.
All of that made the final blow a bit of a mercy killing. A week of silence had stripped away all my remaining hope, and I drove into Oxford with nothing left inside me but hollow, empty sadness. When I got back home a couple of hours later, I walked into the back garden, saw my parents’ faces, and promptly burst into snotty, gulping tears. It wasn’t one of my finest moments.
Most break-ups are no more than speed-bumps on the road, slowing our progress without knocking us off-course. The break-up with J was the other kind – the sort of life-altering shift in direction that washes you up somewhere strange and unsettling, forcing you to find new bearings and see the world in a different way.
I spent the rest of that summer nursing my wounds. I listened to the mixtapes she’d made me, and wrote angry, pleading letters, most of which remained mercifully unsent. I played video games for hours in my parents’ conservatory, till my eyes swam and my brain felt numb enough for sleep. I replayed every conversation we’d had in the month before she dumped me, and agonised over what I could have done differently – all the things I could have said to make her keep loving me.
I lost weight. I bored, alienated and neglected my friends in equal measure. I completely forgot about my dissertation, because what good was a Masters degree if I didn’t have her. What good was anything, frankly. And then one afternoon, almost three months to the day since we’d split up, I got my answer…
I want to back up for just a minute though. I started writing this post not because I wanted to share past trauma, but because of a couple of things I’ve read recently by people working through their own post-break-up issues. It didn’t surprise me to see that in both cases, the end of a serious relationship brought with it a sustained period of celibacy, but I suppose it did make me think about my own experiences of having sex for the first time after losing or leaving a long-term partner.
What I don’t want to do is suggest that those experiences are in any way universal, or a blueprint for what other people should do. We’re all wired differently, and what worked – or might work in future – for me isn’t necessarily what would work for someone reading this. As ever, you do you.
J and I never lived together. We didn’t have joint finances to disentangle, shared possessions to divvy up, or mutual friends to fight over. A clean break should have been easy, and in some respects I suppose it was. After she ended it, we didn’t see each other again in person for six whole years. A couple of weeks later she closed off all communication between us, a decision that I can now see was born not of cruelty but of kindness; as much as her silence hurt, it was certainly preferable in the long run to the false comfort she would have provided by replying to my anguished emails and bitter texts.
Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Missing her. Wanting her.
The paralysing grief I felt over that long, wasted summer didn’t kill my sex drive – not after the shock of the first few days had worn off, at any rate. I was 22 (and then 23) years old, so of course I was horny. The problem was that every time I thought about sex, it was her face, her body, that I saw in my head. I saw the sex we had and the sex we should be having, and those were bad enough; far worse were the times when I let myself think about the sex she was having with the guy she dumped me for. The sex they might well have had while she and I were still together.
I thought about sex with J for lots of reasons, few of them healthy or positive. The one that took me a while to figure out though – that I guess I only saw with the benefit of hindsight – is the reason I’m writing this post today.
Because here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter how much someone has hurt us, or how much we’ve hurt them: we cling to love after it’s gone. When its tangible markers have faded – the shared possessions and the mutual friends – we seek comfort in the ones that live on inside us. The private jokes. The life we imagined together. The last sex.
When we’re entwined so fully with another person, separation feels like death, and we mourn accordingly. At the same time though, we begin the process of moving on – of adjusting to life without them – because that’s how grief works. Behind the anguish lies a kernel of practicality, which grows and hardens with each passing day.
To nurture that kernel is not to deny the significance of the preceding loss, nor do we betray the memory of our last relationship by seeking emotional closure in preparation for the next. I didn’t see any of that at the time though. Instead I spent three months trapped with my pain and my bitterness – trapped by the guilt I felt whenever I allowed myself to think about other women or look to the future. Hope was a crime, because it invalidated my own sorrow – cheapened it somehow.
That didn’t all change in early September, when I slept with Tara. Indeed in the immediate aftermath I felt nothing but confusion and regret; not because it was an awkward, perfunctory shag with someone I didn’t care about, but because J was no longer the last sex. If she still had my heart, wasn’t I being faithless by giving my body to someone else? And if I could do that, could just have sex with another woman, what else might I be ready for?
I didn’t have answers to those questions at the time, but in a sense I didn’t need them. A process had been set in motion the minute I invited Tara the Bank Teller over to my parents’ house and into my single bed. I’d snapped off one of the biggest guy-ropes still tying me to life with J, and even as I bobbed and pitched in response, I could feel myself starting to float a little higher.
I believe strongly in sex as a palate cleanser. Whether it’s a bad one-night stand, a boring fling, or a loving, long-term relationship, we all have sexual experiences and memories that we no longer want to taste. To get them out of our mouths – and to prepare for the next course – we need the sorbet, the apple, the pickled ginger.
It doesn’t have to be great, and we don’t need to see them again afterwards. It just has to be sex with someone else. Someone who will allow you to look back at the last sex you had, and not see the face of the guy who broke your heart or the woman who cheated on you.
For most of us, sexual fulfilment is a key driver of overall happiness – regardless of what that fulfilment entails. When I fucked Tara I took a big step towards re-establishing that link, but I also learned something important about myself, which has stayed with me ever since. In preserving and jealously guarding the memory of sex with J, I’d artificially narrowed what sex meant to me in a more general sense. I’d tied it up with love and intimacy – projected onto it an emotional resonance so strong that it could only be found in the kind of relationship I’d just lost – and completely forgotten the recreational side to it. The basic physical need. The fun.
Fucking someone else didn’t stop me missing J. Fucking someone else reminded me that there was a life beyond her, and that I didn’t need to martyr myself in order to legitimise my grief. It was the reset button that enabled me once again to see sex in a heathy, holistic way. As something that lives on after the relationship, rather than dying with it.
Sex is only a small part of a wider healing process, but for various reasons it’s one we often neglect or leave till last. That clearly works for some people, and back then I thought it was how I had to approach things too. Wait till I’m ready. Wait till I’m over her. I was wrong – I didn’t need to wait. I needed a palate cleanser.