I think I had known for months that he wasn’t right for me; I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.
It didn’t matter that he actively disliked my favorite book—and never let me forget it. Or that he clearly was still hung up on someone else. Or that all of my family and friends didn’t like the way he treated me like an afterthought instead of a priority. We were (nominally) friends. And I thought that was all the foundation we needed for a healthy, reciprocal, romantic relationship.
It was the week before the second semester of my junior year of college, and I was visiting with a friend from school and her family out of state. The rest of that break, I had spent all of my time falling head over heels for this guy, interpreting every ounce of attention I received from him as a positive sign that we were finally, finally going to admit our feelings for each other. This week was the first time in a while that I was not surrounded by places and things that reminded me of him, that I could not actively seek out opportunities for us to be together.
Towards the end of that week, the house was quiet. My friend and I were cleaning the house, preparing for guests who were arriving later in the evening. Her mom put on a playlist so we could relax while we worked. A familiar song came on—Ben Rector’s “When I’m With You”—and I listened closely to the refrain as I swept.
But when I’m with you, I’m no longer wandering.
And when I’m with you, I swear I can breathe.
I thought about this guy and enjoyed the rush of tender emotions and happy memories that came with it. Falling asleep in the front seat of his car on the way back from a road trip. Sitting side by side during a movie, just enjoying being next to him. Drinking tea while we played cards and discussed our favorite class.
When I'm with you, I know who I am and who I wanna be.
That lyric hurt a little. Self-knowledge eclipsed my rose-colored memories. I thought about the times he stopped listening to me mid-sentence because someone more interesting had entered the room. The fact that he had never actually said anything that I could point to as evidence that he was interested in me.
But most of all, I thought about how I actively suppressed the parts of myself I didn’t think he would like when we were together. We got along best when I was invulnerable, when I was the perpetual sunshine in case of his rain. We spent the most time together when (from his perspective) there was no one better around.
I already knew this was not how I wanted to be treated. But at the very least, was I the best version of myself when we were together?
Yes, there were parts of myself that came to the fore when we were together that I liked—enthusiasm, intelligence. But many of the defining parts of my personality I placed on the back-burner. My sensitive heart felt like a sign of weakness when we were together. His insecurities quickly became my problem, and building him up often came at the expense of tearing myself (or others) down in speech.
I wondered in that moment whether it was time to let my feelings for him go. I decided against it, but in hindsight, that was the moment I knew it was going to end. I fought it for the next several months. I forgave him when he changed his plans so they no longer included me, remained insensitive to my misfortunes, took my companionship and positivity for granted on an off day.
There was no music playing the day I decided I did not care for him anymore, but this song was definitely in the back of my mind.
I realize now that I can’t blame this man for how I behaved when we were together, the times where I sold myself short or did and said things that did not sit right with my conscience. But I will also say that our friendship, at least in the way it existed at the time, did not affirm the best in me.
I can now say with confidence that a good friend—even if we were not more than friends—would have encouraged my love of books, even ones he did not like. Even if he was not romantically interested in me, I should not have been treated in a way that made me feel like a burden. In short, I should not have been made to feel bad for simply being who I was.
The immediate lesson of this song—that it was time to move on from a man who did not bring out the best in me—is one I am constantly re-learning in all my relationships. A healthy relationship not only affirms who you are but helps to pull you in the direction of who you should be. I have found this kind of love in my parents, who encourage me to persevere in my studies even when I doubt myself. I have found this love in my siblings, who encourage me to do the right thing even when it is difficult. I have found this love in my friends, who cherish my gifts and encourage me to put them to good use.
Today, listening to the song that once signaled the end of an era, that could bring tears to my eyes, now brings comfort and a sense of quiet strength. It was a hard-won lesson, but I am infinitely the better for it.