Dylan* and I weren’t supposed to break up. We hadn’t gotten married, but we’d been a couple so long our years together obliterated my view of who I was before him. We’d built a life. We’d planned a future. We had cats. And when I told a mutual friend that Dylan was moving out, he said, “I feel like my parents are getting divorced.” We were that couple. Together forever.
Forever ended when I learned about Valerie.
“A relationship shouldn’t be this difficult,” Dylan said of ours. But I was raised with a work ethic that applied universally. I thought hard work could fix anything. “Not this,” Dylan said, and I was consumed by anger—most of it directed toward Valerie. Dylan had made a commitment to me. He owed me more than a hasty departure for another woman. And Valerie, woman to woman, owed me more.
I wasn’t a runner, but I signed up for a marathon because running was the only way to get the rest of my body to catch up with my racing heart. I ran, I cried, and I drank, not necessarily in that order and sometimes all at once. In the process, I discovered that everything that I’d thought was mine was really ours, and without us, I let go of my job, my career, my San Francisco apartment, my city, my pets, my plans. I signed on as a deckhand aboard a leaky, tall wooden ship. I ran off to sea.
I brought a duffle bag of thrift store clothing and a moral compass that pointed most often to my own righteousness. Sailors, it turns out, aren’t known for monogamy and long-term commitment. Sex among my colleagues didn’t bother me, but I knew what it felt like to be the shaky leg of a triangle. I preached that women should always have the backs of their fellow women, that if we supported one another we could spare the world that kind of pain. I wanted desperately for it to be true. I had long talks with my shipmates, condemning their behavior on behalf of those who waited for them back home. I was a one-woman crusader for fidelity. I was so sure that I would never do what Valerie had done.
Until I did.
John wouldn’t have made it through the filters of my online dating profile. Too old, too tall, too bald, too… married. But in person, compatibility and chemistry trumped all. We met as educators in a sea-going science and sustainability program. We lived and worked together in San Diego, Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas, bouncing ideas off of one another late into the night. Our trajectory traced a well-worn path from colleagues, to friends, to the realization that we were falling in love.
John had been married for 25 years, but they’d long struggled through counseling, affairs and multiple separations. They’d met as kids. They didn’t know how to be apart. But staying together was slowly killing them both. John confessed to his wife about me. They set sail on a two-month vacation on their live-aboard cruising boat in an attempt to reconnect.
I’d wished for that same space from Valerie, for me and Dylan to come to an ending on our own. John and I stopped talking altogether for half a year, and then spoke only when necessary about work-related issues. The work suffered. We suffered. And his wife continued to suffer, too.
A year later, they filed for divorce. Their problematic union doesn’t excuse the choice we ultimately made to pursue a relationship. I take responsibility for not being strong enough to live up to the values I’d both preached and aspired to. John wishes he’d had the courage to end the marriage years before he met me, and his ex understands that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Many times I’ve admired her generosity of heart, her willingness to see us all as flawed humans struggling for love and happiness. I wish I’d been that graceful when I walked in her shoes. John grieves his marriage deeply, and bearing witness to his pain finally allowed me to understand the grief that Dylan felt even as he moved on with Valerie.
A few months after Dylan moved out, I sat with my phone in a shaft of sunlight on the hardwood floors I loved, in our apartment that I could no longer afford. I blamed Dylan for that, blamed him for all else I was about to lose. I was angry with him and with myself. I was worn down by jealousy, depleted by a constant, aching emptiness. I called because I was so tired of the pain. I wanted only to love him again.
“Tell me about Valerie,” I said, and Dylan cried as he described her and the man she allowed him to be. “It’s all love. It’s love that connects us all,” he said, sounding like the opposite of himself.
“Are you f*#%ing kidding me?” I said, but my voice was light and I was laughing because he was the only other person in the world who would understand why this was so funny to me, and because in that moment, for that moment, I felt it, too. Our hearts had cracked wide open, and we were flooded with grief but also with love.
Some people marry too young. Some make mistakes. Some hurt one another too deeply. Some aren’t able to grow while their roots are entangled with the other. In order to become most fully themselves, they need to break the promises they once made in earnest. And although love is often the glue that holds two people together, if the pieces simply don’t fit, all the glue in the world might not be enough.
Dylan married Valerie and they have a daughter. I always thought he’d be a great father, and I hope I get to meet her someday. Three years in, John and I have built a solid foundation for our future together. John and his ex are forging a new kind of relationship that preserves the best parts of what they had, and she’s with a man 20 years her junior. In the end, the gift we’ve all been given is a deeper, more nuanced perspective on love, loss and the limitations of being human.
I look forward to someday when the six of us might share a bottle of wine and talk about it.
*All names have been changed throughout.