I told him goodbye, on my terms
A significant number of women are choosing to forego romantic relationships altogether
Love notes from Siel is a weekly newsletter from Siel, who used to live in Los Angeles but is currently traveling around. If you love the notes, subscribe for free.
Dear friend —
Or to be more accurate, I’ve been exhausted for a couple weeks, since I got back to CDMX.
The first week was understandable: I was jetlagged from the eight hour time difference. But even after starting to sleep fine, the exhaustion remained — and took on a more emotional, turbulent quality —
There are a lot of things I could blame. The cumulative effect of two years of travel. The delayed effect of quitting coffee a few weeks ago. And of course the world has been falling apart — the endless cycle of mass shootings, attacks on the right to bodily autonomy, an ongoing war, etc. etc. — loading all of us down with a psychic weight that’s exhausting to carry around, day in, day out.
But, perhaps selfishly, the real — or at least main — reason that I feel so exhausted is because of a personal disappointment.
Back when I was in CDMX at the beginning of the year, I started seeing this guy. He was sweet, empathetic, thoughtful, open. He read books on toxic masculinity and emotional availability and took them to heart, actively striving to become a better type of man. He was far from wealthy, but generous with his time and affection. He helped me with my Spanish. He took me to places he thought I might like: a historic library, a theater that showed indie movies, an artisanal market. He made me arepas for breakfast and introduced me to the local metro system and taught me how to use a DSLR camera. He was a photographer and liked taking pictures of us together —
Then I had to leave for Madrid; I’d already made unchangeable plans before I’d met him. While I traveled in Europe for four months, we kept in close touch — and when I decided to return to CDMX, he told me he was excited, he wanted things to go back to the way they’d been between us. He helped me pick out my Airbnb. For months and up until the day I flew back, we talked about places we wanted go together: secret corners of Chapultepec Park, Museo del Futuro, a beach vacation in Oaxaca —
You can probably tell where this is going.
The man I returned to bore little resemblance to the man I remembered. This new man looked familiar but felt like a stranger — one that was strangely critical, irritable, callous, and cold. He made plans with me then canceled them last minute, or cut them short, giving me excuses about things he needed to do — or simply preferred to do. He invited me out with his friends then proceeded to ignore me most of the night. When we did spend time together, he held himself away from me, both emotionally and physically.
In fact, he suddenly seemed ashamed to be seen with me at all.
And I suddenly started feeling exhausted.
Which is to say the exhaustion I’ve been feeling is a familiar one — one that I know intimately. The last time I felt it, I was still living in Los Angeles. Officially, my then-boyfriend and I were still together, and my mind found ways to convince myself everything was okay. But my body knew better. It sensed, even before I understood it intellectually, that I was with a different man now, one who bore little resemblance to the man I remembered. I started to wake up enveloped by a heavy lethargy, an overwhelming fatigue that made it difficult to work, write, think — much less enjoy anything. All I wanted to do was lay in bed, immobile.
And predictably, not too long after, that relationship ended.
People fall out of like or love all the time of course, for all sorts of reasons. What jars me, though, is that more than once I’ve been blindsided by a guy whose personality transforms seemingly overnight. For weeks or months he’s kind, and gentle, and warm — then one day, for no discernable reason, I wake up to find him dismissive and brutally mean.
In years past, I automatically assumed the problem was me. So I tried to fix myself. I read books on relationship styles and attachment theories and personality types. I castigated myself for being too needy, or too desperate, or too difficult somehow — and for not being more understanding, more obliging, more forgiving, more endlessly patient, in short, more doormat-y. This is, after all, the message the world sends women, even now. If a relationship doesn’t work out, the problem is you. If a man treats you badly, you must have messed up somehow.
Which is to say, I know that this experience I’ve gone through — too many times — is far from unique to me.
In the last couple weeks, I’ve started making new female friends here, and also catching up with old friends around the world. And we all have our latest stories. One had recently discovered the guy she’d been dating was an actual swindler, of the Tinder Swindler variety (Don’t worry — She wasn’t actually swindled herself) — and so left that city to build a new life in a new place, focused on friendships. Another told me her divorce was still dragging out, it having turned into a long, financial lawsuit — her ex had signed her name to enormous debts while they’d been married — and that she never wanted to marry again. And yet another shared the shitty behavior she’d encountered during recent dating experiences might have turned her off men for good.
I realize I may be accused of cherry-picking examples here, and I realize there are many wonderful men out there, some of whom are friends of mine. But for whatever reason, there are simply too many men out there who think it’s okay to suddenly start treating the woman they’ve been seeing as a subhuman being whose thoughts and feelings don’t matter. Too many to the point that a significant number of women are choosing to forego romantic relationships altogether.
Statistics highlight this trend in hard numbers. According to Pew Research, a majority of single women are simply choosing not to date: “Single men are far more likely than single women to be looking for a relationship or dates – 61% vs. 38%. This gender gap is especially apparent among older singles.” And many magazine features, personal essays, and trend pieces outline the reasons why. “The reason most women quit dating is that men don’t seem to want to behave like decent people,” opines one. “I’m done expending emotional labor with someone knowing it’ll never be reciprocated in the same manner,” declares another. “Not subjecting myself to potential abuse, manipulation, or garden variety fuckery isn’t selfish. It’s self-preservation.”
Like these women, too often I too have had men treat me as something akin to a pawn in a vampiric game: How much affection, love, and loyalty can I suck out of this woman while giving nothing in return? What is the bare minimum of decency I have to treat her with to get her to serve all my emotional and physical wants and needs?
It’s strange, because I’ve never had a female friend treat me in such callous fashion. Sure, I’ve had disagreements, fights, and even dissolutions of friendship with women — but I’ve never had a girlfriend who for no reason suddenly started treating me like an animal she could justifiably kick around.
At least today, I know better than to believe there’s some terrible flaw in me that I desperately need to fix. In the case of this guy in CDMX, I tried to have a constructive conversation with him about what I was thinking and feeling, and what he was too. He listened, he talked, and he seemed to empathize — then in the proceeding days grew even more distant. He maintained he wanted us to keep dating, but stopped making plans with me. He lived a mere fifteen-minute walk from me now, but I heard from him less than I did when I was in Istanbul.
So this weekend, I told him goodbye, on my terms.
That, I’m proud of. What I don’t really know is where to go on from here.
One of my favorite authors, Elif Batuman, has one of the most interesting “About” pages I’ve read. In it, she details why, for a time, she wasn’t producing any books: “so much of my time and energy was going into ‘romantic’ relationships: a phenomenon that has been well described by Shulamith Firestone.”
I’ve been following Elif’s career with a certain level of obsession, which means that a few years ago, on Instagram, I read about a talk of hers in which she said (I’m paraphrasing here) she’d had enough of bad treatment from men, so she’d started dating women. By the time her second novel Either/Or came out earlier this year, she was happily ensconced in her first lesbian relationship with someone she described in interviews as “the woman with whom I hope to spend the rest of my life.”
“There’s this force that’s constantly working to wrench young women’s energies away from themselves and each other, and towards men,” Elif said in another interview.
In any case, the trajectory of Elif’s love life has fascinated me because I tend not to think of sexual orientation as something you can redirect through effort. By this I mean I’ve not thought of my own sexual orientation as something malleable by intellectual force of will (“Men have treated me terribly, therefore I have logically decided to henceforth date women”). I’ve assumed I was doomed to always be attracted to men, for better or for worse.
But now I wonder: Could I change sides? Could I become attracted to women if I worked on it? Or is Elif just more bi than I am, allowing her a certain level of flexibility that’s not available to me?
Ha — This love note has really gone everywhere, huh?
Writing to you, reader, has been remarkably helpful. I feel significantly less exhausted having done so — and I’m grateful for you even if the vast majority of you never click the little heart that lets me know you liked what you read lol.
I forget sometimes, but writing these love notes and staying in conversation with you gives me purpose, and strength, and hope. Thank you for being there, and thank you for reading.
Three links you might like — all encores from previous love notes:
“I gave up on love, and it was the best decision I ever made.” A personal essay from the lovely Laura Warrell, whose first novel, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, comes out this September from Pantheon. Preorder now!
Why women pretend they don’t desire more from their men. “Performing non-dependence is not about women at all, but rather about reading him carefully enough to know exactly what kind of un-needy-ness he – ironically – needs.”
How did the desire for emotional connection become uncool? “The word ‘demisexual’ refers to those attracted only to people with whom they share an emotional connection. Before the sexual revolution, of course, many people thought that most women were like this. Now an aversion to casual sex has become a bona fide sexual orientation.”
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