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Surviving a breakup in a small town should earn you a trophy

Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist who has written extensively on a wide range of topics, from the art of revenge to the thrill of tracking polar bears in Canada's far north. When she's not writing, she's likely travelin...

My small-town breakup had everyone picking sides and I was the outsider

After a breakup, it’s bad enough knowing that you could bump into your ex in the city where you live. Imagine the chances of that happening jump exponentially because you live in a city of 13,000 instead of 3 million. That’s my story.

My partner and I fell for a grand Victorian home in a cute-as-a-button town. We made the move and not long afterward, the relationship ended. We lived together in our dream home for four years until Jan. 16, 2011, when I was informed the relationship was over. I didn’t have an opportunity to participate in the decision. It was done for me and to me. It was devastating — to the point where I ended up in the hospital three days later courtesy of my first-ever anxiety attack.

To make the situation worse, my ex had no immediate exit plan to leave the house that was split 75/25 with me the majority owner. We lived together in silence and uneasiness for two more months. Finally, my former partner left, along with the three beloved cats we shared, despite a verbal agreement that they would stay. My lawyer had to arrange visitation so I could see them.

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Five months later, I received legal documents — colorful works of fiction seeking spousal support and half the proceeds from two bestselling books I had written. Among the grievances — my ex driving me to the airport for business trips without receiving compensation. Oops. I didn’t see that meter running! Plus there were grander accusations like me regularly sleeping with an ex-boyfriend and the FedEx guy to boot.

In the meantime, I struggled as a new single woman. Some new, local friends seemed to vanish. A month before the breakup, we celebrated Christmas together. Afterward, silence — not a single text saying ‘sorry this happened, I hope you’re OK.’ Clearly, sides had been taken. To quote Dr. Phil, no matter how flat a pancake is, there are always two sides. They never bothered to look.

Complicating things in this small town is the fact that singlehood puts you squarely outside of social circles. Couples dominate. A local friend, whose marriage also ended in a blindside, experienced the same profound loneliness. Being a third wheel among twosomes does not boost one’s popularity. In a big city, the unattached can find our own kind in new tribes. Here, the tribe is small, more fragile.

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On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked to attend gatherings to which my ex has also been invited. Even five years after our split, I do not want to socialize with someone I’d be happy never to see again. I spare myself such awkwardness and decline. A therapist even diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder because of my recurring nightmares and anxiety. In a big city, goodbyes can be final. Here, in a tiny fishbowl, not so much. Some friends who rode the breakup roller coaster with me don’t see why I won’t just suck up my feelings to endure ‘let’s all be one-big-happy tribe’ social situations. And that’s caused riffs.

If I had still been in my former city, my split would not have created ripple effects of the same magnitude. My neighbors would unlikely know my ex moved out. And the woman doing my pedicure wouldn’t be the same one in the courtroom while we worked out our legal issues in front of a judge. (Totally happened!) My tribe would have been large enough that it could reconfigure and allow previous friendships to co-exist without the lives of former partners overlapping.

Still, this is my home. It’s a good town full of good people who just want everyone to be one big happy family again. That’s sweet, but it’s unrealistic. I can’t erase the past and how it shaped me. All I can do is step boldly into a bright, yet untarnished, future and ride the highs and lows that come with it.

I’m still in rebuild mode. I’m in a new, relationship (now in its fourth year) with a man (not a local) who has made me happier than anyone previously. Meanwhile, my ex and his new wife live less than three blocks away from me — on the same street. I’ve cobbled together a small sub-tribe, including a few from my former life. But it’s still awkward. There’s always a risk of bumping into my former partner that casts a dark shadow over my life here. If I see my ex’s vehicle in the parking lot at the supermarket (one of only two locally), it’s an easy decision to turn around and forego buying that can of diced tomatoes. It’s not worth the price by any count.

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