Tentative Love-Letter to a Relationship Now Concluded
I met Ben in January 2021. He’s the first person with whom I ever fell in love. We broke up about a month ago (August 2022). Since then, my feelings have consisted of a lot of sadness, loneliness, anger, frustration, and intense jealousy, even though none of these are rational or constructive. This blog post is an aspirational attempt to situate the relationship into the context where it belongs and see if that helps me get closer to feeling like a whole individual again. With that in mind:
The relationship was a good thing that concluded successfully, exactly when it was time for it to end.
I met Ben just two months after my mom died. At the time, I felt adrift and like there was a big hole in my life that I wanted to fill. I needed someone to hold on to. Ben had been out about as long as I had, was attractive and disarmingly sweet, knew interesting engineer things, and wanted to date me. Our first in-person meeting was at Wingers in Brigham City where he apologized for talking too much and I felt instantly drawn to him. For our second date, we went skiing at Nordic Valley, after which we ended up at his house where we kissed our first kiss there in the half-dark of his kitchen.
After my mom’s funeral, for weeks I had been having nightmares that involved her dying and my feelings of guilt and helplessness, which, in the dreams, were often the cause of her death. The nightmares woke me up almost every night, usually around 3, and kept me from falling back to sleep. The night after my second date with Ben, I had a different kind of dream. In it, I met a young girl who told me she had just been with my mom, who, she said, was really funny and smart and nice. I told her that, yes, that sounded like my mom. Then, the young girl said, “and she told me to tell you that she likes the guy you’re seeing.”
I didn’t get to come out to my mom before she passed away. By the time I would have been ready to do so (just a couple months after coming out to myself), she was really struggling with her health and memory, and it didn’t make sense to me to spend our last few conversations introducing new wrinkles in my life that she probably wasn’t going to be able to fold into her understanding anyway. Maybe she already knew, and maybe she had always known. I so wish she could have lived to see me as an authentic person, and I wish I could have heard her say she loved me after I told her I was gay.
The conversation with the dream girl, though, helped me understand what that might have felt like. It also ended the stream of nightmares. And that this came about in the context of dating Ben made me feel like I was getting myself into something good and that I was where I was supposed to be. It felt like I had been given a sign.
Ben was, as one of my brothers called him, “a good companion” to me. I didn’t have to face the world alone when my dad died. Attending his funeral with someone felt altogether more tractable than having to gut it out solo. In the years prior to meeting Ben, I had gotten tired of traveling by myself, but the ability to now share places with an intimate someone brought joy back to travel. Visiting places with Ben that I had been to before allowed me to see them through un-jaded eyes and build new, fresh impressions of them.
Most notably, though, we were also companions to each other in navigating the process of accepting who we were, coming out as gay men, and figuring out our new lives. Like:
- Getting ourselves out-out. We coordinated our announcements via Facebook that we were (a) gay and (b) in a relationship with each other.
- Introducing someone as my boyfriend to family and friends. Conversely, meeting my boyfriend’s parents, brother, and extended family, all with the expectation that these could be people I’m seeing off and on for the rest of my life.
- Kissing another man in public and not so much worrying that we’re out in the open in one of the various conservative bastions of Utah. I remember meeting after work for dinner in Brigham City one evening, going for a walk, kissing several times in a small roadside park where anyone could see, and being happy and a little surprised that we got away with it and no one cared.
- Having someone to sit next to on the airplane. And then holding hands with him, in public, on the airplane. And then having the gay (I’m assuming) flight attendant give us extra snacks and drinks or whatever else we wanted because we were a gay couple being gay on his flight in his section of the plane.
- Going to a family event (my dad’s funeral) with a partner and not having to be at another gathering while feeling solo and weird. As it turns out, the world seems better able to relate to me as a gay man in a relationship than it could when I was a straight-appearing guy who, despite being okay-enough looking and readily employable, doggone it, just can’t quite find the right girl. I felt suddenly far less inscrutable to people who had known me my whole life.
- Visiting our first gayborhoods and their various establishments — Cap Hill, Boystown, Hillcrest, Arenas Street, Wilton Manors.
- Buying club wear at the gay clothing stores together. Shopping with another person, trying something on, coming out of the dressing room, and having someone to ask, what do you think? And having that person be invested-enough to give an honest, well-informed answer not only because he liked certain colors or patterns or fits, but also because he knew exactly what was in my closet and where this thing could fit in. And being trusted enough to do the same for him as well. I kind of loved that we were emotionally invested in each other’s wardrobes.
- Our first time going to a clothing-optional gay men’s resort. Considerably less creepy than a lot of other gay locations I’ve been, and, as you’ve probably heard about nude beaches that you also haven’t visited, the nudity wasn’t all that exciting — just slightly more liberating than a speedo.
- Wearing swim briefs in public spaces.
- Going to gay meet-ups like the CUB events in Lava, the theme nights at Try-Angles, and the gay rafting trip.
- Exploring the ins and outs of intimacy together and discovering how different and how much better it is with someone to whom you’re bonded and in love.
- Going to a Pride event for the first time, the Utah Pride in Salt Lake. The festival was fine? We ended up watching a couple of the musical acts, which was fun, we saw some acquaintances, Ben bought an apron, and we shared some sort of rainbow cake. The next day we rented scooters and rode out to the parade, which — and I usually hate parades with all the strength and energy I possess — impressed me. It was amazing to see all these people living and acting out their authentic lives and be able to bask in a sort of group-based mass feeling of freedom and relief. I don’t know why it took a parade for that to hit me, but that hit me at the parade. It was beautiful.
- Going to Palm Springs for the first time and realizing just how okay it was to be gay there. I don’t think a straight person can quite comprehend how meaningful it is to go to a restaurant as a couple and have the waiter not ask if we want separate checks because, obviously, undoubtedly, expectedly we two guys are a couple. Okayness that comes over you like a wave is outstanding; Palm Springs was full of those waves. This has been the greatest thing about coming out — realizing that, in fact, I’m just fine, I’m not broken or invalid. Being in Palm Springs, us being a couple was just a normal thing, no one was freaked out, no one did a double-take (unless they were checking one of us out), and no one thought it was weird for us to be together. Because why the hell should it be weird for two adults in love to be a couple? It isn’t, it wasn’t. I’m so glad we got to experience Palm Springs.
I don’t understand why breaking up has to feel like so much unhappiness. It should be possible to look at the relationship as a vacation. You go on vacation, have some experiences, maybe some awkward moments and a few challenges, then you go home a little tired and maybe a little relieved, but almost always happy you went. Then, once you’re home, you look back with joy at your photos, brag about the trip to your friends, and think about how great it will be to go on your next vacation to wherever, whenever.
I mean, I understand why the parallel doesn’t work. You get into a relationship with the idea that the relationship *is* your life, not a temporary, scenic break from it. You don’t enter a relationship imagining it will end, you go in expecting it to last forever. Then, if that expectation isn’t met, you feel unfairly deprived, and you want to apportion out all the blame. But, now that it’s over anyway, I’d rather declare it a vacation. I wish I could force this paradigm on top of my feelings and just be relieved, happy at the memories, and looking for the next great person-as-destination.
A lot of the things that I’ve read since the breakup have suggested that, from the point of view of “processing your feelings” (I am tired of having so many feelings to process), it’s helpful to consider the positive ways that the relationship changed you. So, here are some things that changed in my life, day-to-day things that I learned or learned to do differently as a result of the relationship, small and big:
- How to use the bookmark feature on my car stereo to be notified when bands I like come on satellite radio somewhere.
- That I need more color in my life. Not everything has to look like fog rolling in over Puget Sound. The Sugarhouse condo is getting a fridge that’s blue and orange.
- How to use the bounce feature for live photos on my phone to make it look like Aela can dance.
- That, living in Utah, I might as well give in and just be a proud Delta Airlines flier who uses their credit card.
- That I like using a coffee grinder rather than pre-ground. I can’t actually taste the difference, but it definitely adds to the ritual. Plus, it allows me to be a snob about one more thing.
- I know how to go to a bar, what cocktails I like, how to talk about bourbon tasting notes, and what drinks I want to avoid (sours, beer, and anything with vermouth or beet juice). I even sort of know what a mash bill is now. Yet another thing I can be a snob about now.
- I acquired a strong appreciation for layer cakes. Rovali’s in Ogden makes some great ones, as does that one bakery down by the Tacoma Dome. Plus, I got a lot of great lines from watching the Great British Baking Show with Ben.
- That the last 10 or 12 seasons of South Park are amazing. Incredible insights. Altogether too many poop jokes still, but the predictive power of that series over the last decade-plus is astonishing; it’s very often intelligent and funny.
- I now understand the benefits of sous vide preparation. Ben encouraged me to claim my dad’s sous vide device, which has made cooking meat incredibly easy — whatever I make ends up perfect every time. My sous vide’d thick-cut pork chops with thyme are amazing.
- I’m trying to take better care of myself now, seeing the doctor or dentist or whatever. Having a person central to my life, who saw me most days, and who encouraged me to go get stuff checked out, plus who depended on me to be in decent working order made me realize it was probably time to do right by my body.
- I’m good with riding scooters in town now, so long as they have some sort of suspension (unlike the ones at Port Ruston).
- This next one is serious.
- That I can love someone and feel loved. The worst thing about being the repressed gay man I used to be was the persistent feeling of hopelessness and like I was a fundamentally broken, invalid human who could never be anything other than alone. Not only did I not have anyone in my life, I didn’t have the je ne sais quoi to do anything about it. There was no igniter switch, no path, no torch for the darkness, no means by which to connect or bond with another person. It turns out that sexuality isn’t sexual intercourse — it’s the ability to form a profound romantic connection with someone. This relationship showed me I was capable of that, and that’s an awesome thing to ponder right now. Thank you, relationship: you helped me a lot here.
It’s easy to over-romanticize the relationship in retrospect, so, as counter-point: we broke up because we weren’t the right people for each other. Despite being closely bonded, being together usually felt like stress and tension. I found myself exhausted mentally and emotionally — sometimes depressed and exhausted, which was scary because I couldn’t find the energy to pull myself out of it. I have a long, written list of feelings and emotions I experienced due to the dynamics of the relationship. The list helps re-center me and remind me why I need to be alone right now rather than with my ex. It’s awful, though. It’s terrible to feel so profoundly attached to someone while proactively trying to force yourself out of love with him.
As Ben was my first love and first real relationship, I had a lot to learn about couple-hood, needs, and relationship style. Some things I figured out:
- I enjoyed the times when it didn’t feel like the weight of responsibility was entirely on me.
- It was also, I dunno, *interesting*? to be perceived by others as part of a dyad. We had couple friends, for instance, where I wasn’t really sure which individual was friends with which other individual, but it was pretty clear that our dyad and the other dyad had a friendship. Was also interesting to be perceived as part of Ben and to have Ben perceived as part of me. I don’t know how else to say it — it was interesting to observe, and it surprised me how comfortable these perceptions were to take in. I liked being a couple and having other couples as friends. It’s a little confusing at this point, though, in that I don’t know if those couples are *my* friend still? Or are we just going to be out of touch until I’m part of a couple again, at which point we’ll re-friend? The breakup has caused me some social disorientation.
- I really like certain kinds of touch. Right now, this is the part of the breakup that makes me the most unhappy: I miss physical proximity and being touched. I really liked sitting on the couch holding hands. I really liked having parts of me caressed (but not my shoulders — holy *hell*, not my shoulders). But, every time I’m hanging out with one of my gay friends now, I’m kind of hoping he absent-mindedly puts his arm around my back and just kind of forgets it’s there.
- Also, I miss having someone to check in with at night and check out with in the morning. The rituals and homey patterns, those were things I hadn’t experienced since I left my parents’ house at age 18. I really liked getting into those patterns.
- I enjoyed having someone to cook for and appreciated having someone else do the dishes a lot of the time.
I also learned some things that, I think, will help me be a better partner later.
- I learned that, even if I’m mad and frustrated, it’s not okay for me to go hide for hours or days without any communication when there’s someone who cares about me, is worried about what they did, and doesn’t know how or what I’m feeling. I suppose that should have been obvious, but prior to this relationship, I’d spent almost 49 years without any sort of partner — if I ran away and hid from a problem, there wasn’t ever anyone to notice.
- People experience emotion differently. This has really been driven home since the breakup. I’ve told friends about how I’m feeling and had them act surprised and confused at the strength of my emotions. I’ve had others, of course, tell me the opposite — that they’ve felt exactly what I was feeling, they know that pain and that longing, that it’s normal, and that it’ll be more-okay later. I guess this means that everyone’s different in yet another way.
- I learned that I need to know what I want and need. This was a hard part of the relationship for me, and the more exhausted I felt within the relationship, the less able I was to get outside myself for the high-level view that could tell me what I needed. So, now I’m making lists, trying to figure out the exact set of things that are needs and the exact set that are wants. Everything I read tells me that I should view being single again as an opportunity to get things figured out. But: I need to be more confident in understanding what I need from a partner and assertively making that happen (or moving on).
- I learned that it made me happy when my partner was happy. When I’m really over-romanticizing the relationship, I’m remembering all the times when Ben was smiling or laughing or just enjoying life, particularly when I was the cause of it. Those were genuinely amazing moments. When I try to imagine a future relationship, it’s one where those moments are frequent and we find ourselves locked in a virtuous cycle of focusing on each other’s needs and wants and blissfully bringing them to life for each other.
Back when I was still trying to act straight, I used to think that if I could just experience a real relationship with someone *one time*, that would make me feel like my life hadn’t been a complete waste, even if that relationship was short-lived and angry or ended in a quick divorce and confused children. Coming out of this relationship with Ben, even while I’m still foundering in post-breakup soreness, I say my pre-gay self was totally right.
The utility delta between catching zero fish and catching one fish is many times greater than the delta between catching one fish versus catching two. It’s probably greater than the delta between one and ten. Relationships — by which I mean intimate, bonded relationships like Ben and I had — are to life what catching fish is to a fishing trip. You catch at least one, it was a worthy trip. Catch none, however, and you wonder why you bothered. My mere year-and-a-half relationship with Ben has made the entirety of my life feel like it was probably worthwhile.
Given this observation of my own life, then, anyone who says things like “it’s okay to be gay — so long as you don’t date anyone or otherwise act on it” needs to shut up, get over their arrogant selves, and stop uttering self-satisfied nonsense on topics they don’t understand. I may never find anyone else to love, but, even if I don’t, I caught a fish this one time, so mine wasn’t a total waste of a life. Plus, once these breakup feelings recede back into the ocean and I’m feeling good with myself again, I’m going to try to find someone else to love. I’m romantic enough to hope that next time it will be longer lasting, a relationship that’s with me to the end. That anyone would advise me against pursuing that — that’s unconscionable. It’s evil. I hope such people are one day made to understand their error and suffer for the hell they’ve helped construct for those of us they never bothered to know.
Okay. Breathe in, breathe out.
It’s been a difficult, eventful, and emotional last couple of years.
One more thing. The initial impetus for writing this post was photos. Specifically, once we broke up, I purged all (almost all?) the identifiable photos of Ben and me from my social media. He came down from Facebook and Instagram. I hid all the recent photos of him and us from myself on my phone and computer and other devices so I didn’t have those emotional landmines to step on. Further, after a couple of interactions with him post-breakup left me emotionally wrecked, I decided I needed to go completely no-contact with him until I could get over him. And that’s where we still are. We’re shut off from each other such that if I wanted to talk to him right now, unless I were to catch him at Try-Angles on Bear Night, I would probably need an intermediary to re-establish the connection.
Point being, I initially wanted to include all the best photos of us in this blog post so the universe could access them somewhere and know what an important part of my life had looked like over the last year and a half. That would mean including our first photo together taken from inside the Tesla I test-drove in Salt Lake, the photo his cousin’s wife took of the two of us in front of Delicate Arch, the photo of him hanging out with Aela on the bed at the Homewood Suites in Queen Anne, the one of him leaning into me while we sat dressed all dapper in suits at the back of the party bus after his friend’s wedding in Chicago, the one of him pulling me by my shirt as we touched foreheads in front of a lake in the Uintas, the one of us sitting on the deck drinking coffee at the Ruston AirBnB before I headed over to the house to help divvy up my parents’ stuff, the one of us making out aggressively on a ledge of the Crimson Trail above Logan Canyon followed by the one taken a moment later where he has his arm around my shoulders and is grinning intently into the camera, the one from Old Snowbasin Road where Ben’s beard is trimmed handsomely short and he’s wearing a gray pullover he just bought from Target, the one from Seattle at Christmas where he’s wearing a Santa cap and I’m in my plaid union suit and Aela is staring intently at the wrapped present he has in his hand hoping it’s for her, the one of us bundled up in front of Multnomah Falls grateful for not having slipped and broken our necks on the iced-over walkways we took to get there, the one from the Oregon Coast where Ben’s head is tilted into mine and we look happy and content and fully in love, the photo of us at Carlos and Harleys with empty ramekins of salsa in front of us and Ben adjusting the tips of his moustache like a melodramatic villain, the one from skiing at the top of Powder Mountain with blue skies that seem to reach forever behind us, the one of us hanging onto the rail in the turquoise-tinted pool in Palm Springs on our first trip there, the one of us looking out over Colorado National Monument with our sunglasses reflecting the snowy red cliffs in front of us, the one of us at the arboretum where I’m wearing my bear hug t-shirt and Ben is taking the suggestion to heart, the one of us standing in front of the rainbow-painted cement at the Crystal City metro stop in Arlington, the one of us perspiring through our shirts and with toothpicks between our teeth while eating sweaty beach cheese at his cousin’s wedding in Key Largo, the one of us with arms around each other’s backs at Utah Pride and Ben is wearing his bear flag suspenders and I’m adorned in my dearly departed aviators, the one of the two of us in front of the excavated wall at Dinosaur National Monument smiling for the camera despite having only slept for an hour and a half while parked at a rest stop near Glenwood Springs the night before, and the last-ever photo of us kissing where we’re standing in front of Mt. Rainier on a gorgeous and clear day at the top of the Crystal Mountain gondola. That last one was taken four days before we broke up; at the time, I think I knew the end was coming soon, but there was nothing fake or forced about that kiss.
Ben and I did a lot together. We made an adorable couple. Other couples should be so lucky as to look as good as Ben and I did together.
We also made each other miserable a lot, we didn’t often enough bring out the best in each other, and we wanted and needed things that the other wasn’t able to provide. Entering the relationship, my motivation was to fill a hole in my life and learn what it was like to have a boyfriend. In part because of that, I didn’t pay attention to incongruences in personality and communication and needs and life-goals. On the other hand, we’d both been out for less than a year when we met, neither of us had ever been in a meaningful relationship before — how could we have known what we wanted or needed? How could we have known who we ourselves even were?
We couldn’t have. Not without having a relationship first, a relationship like the one we had, one that dutifully fulfilled its purpose before it passed out of our lives.
One day, I need a public place to put these photos of us, but right now it would feel like a violation to do it without talking to Ben first. And, as I can’t at the moment talk to him without feeling all the pain of the breakup *again* and probably finding myself crying in the dark into an inflatable mattress in Sugarhouse for 12 consecutive hours *again*, that isn’t happening. Maybe in another month or two? I don’t understand how emotions work or why I can’t just snap my fingers and be over all this. And I have no idea how Ben feels about the relationship right now or what his timeline might look like. I’d like for us to be friends one day and for the post-breakup to stop feeling like a broken arm.
I had a relationship for 18 months with someone I loved and cared about. It needed to end, and so it ended. But it was a successful relationship, full of a lot of hope, warmth, energy, and meaningful experience. I eagerly await the day I can look back at it with nothing but gratitude and happy recollections, like it was the grandest of vacations, just like it deserves.
Edit — a few more things that I realize developed as a result of the relationship:
- I can swear credibly.
- Once-a-month now seems like the correct cadence for travel. I expect to travel somewhere interesting exactly once a month.
- My weekends consist of stacks of activities. This last Saturday/Sunday, I drove to SLC Saturday morning, met friends for lunch, painted for a few hours, went to a potluck dinner with mostly people I’d never met before, then went out for drinks. Sunday, I went to brunch with a good friend, attended an afternoon barbecue, then had a softball game before driving back to Logan. Ben was all about activity stacking, which I seem to have picked up from him.