It was a Saturday in summer, and I was waiting by the phone for a text that didn’t seem to be coming. After a bad breakup and years of shunning all romantic relationships, I’d signed up for a dating app. Within a week, I’d matched with Josh; we started messaging about my travels, his dog, and our mutual dislike of the summer heat. He’d asked for my number and Instagram the day before, with plans to take our conversation off the app and hopefully meet in person if we were still talking. Except that none of that would happen if he didn’t reach out.
I played music, ran errands, and at the end of the day, ended up giving him a little nudge on the app. The good news is he did end up texting. But I was surprised how much I’d thought about it, and how hopeful I’d been to hear back from someone I’d known for so little time.
After my big breakup, I’d been closed off for years. My ex and I had had an inconsistent relationship, and it seemed to exist in its own little bubble: no friends or family allowed. He was four years older than I was and seemed so intelligent, mature, and self-aware. But he was incredibly private and often cancelled for last-minute work emergencies, often leaving me waiting at his door. For years, I hoped it would grow to be the kind of relationship I wanted, but there was always some obstacle in the way.
When it finally ended, I didn’t have much of a support system. At the time, no one I knew had experienced such a dysfunctional relationship. I wanted to stop feeling anything, but I also didn’t want to lose the memories. Closing myself off seemed like the best option to stop hurting.
I ended up throwing myself into my job. It led to the kind of professional success I could never have expected. I traveled internationally like I’d always dreamed of doing. I went to dance classes, yoga, networking events. I edited and published a book. I met amazing people who showed me that it’s okay to feel your feelings and be real, instead of trying to be stoic all the time.
But I wasn’t hopeful about love anymore. Trusting someone else and wanting more always seemed to backfire. I joked that I had “ex-boyfriend PTSD,” but in the back of my mind, I thought I would end up just like my bachelor uncle: the family provider, the one with the good job, the one who was fine with being alone.
When I met Josh for our first date, I told myself it was just another networking event. (I could add him on LinkedIn when it was done!) As we started seeing each other regularly, I didn’t let myself get my hopes up. When we planned things, I made them sound optional and easy. He didn’t know that I had a back-up solo activity ready if plans with him fell through. The first time he said he’d pick me up, I got ready at the last minute, in case he didn’t show. When my friends asked about him, I simply said, “No matter what happens with this guy, it’ll be a good learning experience.” Even after I said I wanted us to be an official couple, it took months before I warmed up as much as I had with other boyfriends. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be excited—and, inevitably, disappointed—again.
When questions or conflicts came up, my mom and my friends supported me, but also challenged me in good ways. Was I being upfront and asking for what I wanted? Was I being kind? Relationships are a two-way street, but was I putting in the work? And their perspectives reminded me to ask myself an important question: if I really care about this person, am I coming into this with an open heart?
In the fall, we started growing closer. He’d met my parents, friends, and co-workers. When I left for an international trip, it was good to hear him say he would miss me, and even better to see him the day after I flew home. The first time I referred to him as my boyfriend, my friends were surprised and delighted. “You always called him ‘that guy’!” they said. I talked to him about feelings, my past, how hard it is to be vulnerable. I even dared to think about what might happen in the future, like falling in love or moving in together. It wasn’t perfect or easy, but I was excited for what we could do together. For the first time in a long time, hoping for more didn’t seem like a losing game.
Our relationship ended during quarantine, almost a year after we met. The aftermath of the breakup is hard, as all breakups are. The shelter in place orders, staying healthy during the pandemic, and the resulting absence of FOMO are giving me some much-needed quiet time to reflect. I’m grateful for this opportunity, because taking time to process a relationship’s end with all your feelings is better than trying to forget it ever happened in the first place, and only being able to remember the bad parts.
In this time I’ve realized that my heart is actually stronger because I let it be open to the possibility of hoping again. Opening up is a risk, but without letting ourselves see others and be seen for all we are, how will we ever make genuine connections? Despite everything, I’m now okay with being hopeful, whether it’s alone or with someone else in the future. My heart ended up being so much more open than I thought I had left it all those years ago—and stronger for it.