I think a difficult aspect of any relationship is knowing when that relationship has run its course. Every relationship has its unique quirks and rhythms, and it’s difficult to discern whether a problem is bump in the road or a sign of the end. Even though I learned a lot from my relationship with Tom, and I would like to think that if I saw similar patterns in another relationship, I would know enough to exit immediately, I cannot discount the love factor. I look back and see so many red flags in my relationship that I overlooked at the time because I truly loved him.
Tom secured a new, better job at the beginning of December, and for about a week, everything seemed to be on a positive path. He was calmer and happier, excited for new opportunities, and I was looking forward to putting our relationship on the forefront after, understandably, dealing with some stress due to his job difficulties. Unfortunately, life would have other plans.
If you know The Great Gatsby at all, you know that some of the major themes of this iconic work are driving and drinking. Partygoers drink until oblivion, metaphors of “good driver” and “bad driver” represent people’s morality, and some of the most pivotal moments of the novel occur when people drink and drive. One of the most pivotal moments of my relationship occured when Tom chose to drink and drive. And though many people make this choice with no ramifications, Tom got pulled over. In his state, he would automatically lose his license for seven months for a first offense in addition to paying thousands of dollars in fines and spending time in court and in educational classes.
In my mind, drinking and driving is inexcusable. Though I don’t want to comment on my own choices, I know that after my experiences with Tom, I will never drink and drive. I know that many of my friends and acquaintances have probably had a bit too much and chosen to drive home. Not every drunk driver is a deadbeat who has no consideration for other people on the road; in fact, I think most drunk drivers are people who made a stupid decision that would eventually cost them a lot, both literally and figuratively.
Tom’s job depended on driving. If he lost his license, he would lose his job along with, he felt, his reputation. He watched his carefully constructed world potentially come crashing down, and he retreated into survival mode. Honestly, I can respect that. I am very similar. When I make a bad decision and subsequently have to deal with its ramifications, I also retreat into survival mode. At some point, I will probably write about the months I spent in survival mode while at my old job.
Being in survival mode and dating someone in survival mode are two different beasts. I felt myself caught in a stressful and damaging situation. I needed to respect that Tom had a lot to grapple with, but at the same time, I wanted to assert that I still deserved certain things from our relationship. Though I consider myself a strong, independent person, I knew that I wanted and needed to support Tom through this issue, and I allowed his needs to overshadow my own.
When I think back on these moments, I am reminded of Martin Seligman’s experiments on learned helplessness. Seligman connected dogs to electric shocks; some of the dogs could control the duration of the shock while others had no control over their treatment. These dogs learned to put up with the shock; they lay in their cages passively waiting for the pain to pass. Even later, when that group of dogs was placed in a situation where they could end the shock treatment, they instead dropped to the ground and waited for the shock to end.
Similarly, as my relationship progressed, I learned that Tom was almost like Seligman’s electric shock. I had no control over the outcome of our conversations, and instead of learning to assert myself and my needs in our relationship, I was like a dog that plopped down in his cage and waited for it to be over.
Whenever I approached Tom with a concern or a need, he would lash out at himself. He would berate himself and panic that he had ruined everything and that he didn’t deserve me. Because I felt so bad for him and the situation, I comforted him. I didn’t realize what he was doing and what the situation was doing to me.
Why did I stay? I think there are a number of reasons. One, I loved him. Period. Two, I had previously run from every other relationship after a matter of weeks if the guy showed any smidgen of weakness or dependency, so here was my chance to prove that I could deal with a real problem. Three, I enjoyed my time with him; we were fantastic friends who had a lot of fun together. Four, I wasn’t sure if the situation was a problem or an endpoint.
Tom and his lawyer kept delaying his trial. He refused to talk with me about the particulars of his case (yes, a huge red flag in hindsight) because he was “so embarrassed.” He pushed the case back month after month, and every month when I thought we would at least have some resolution, so I could make a conscious decision about how to move forward, the case would get pushed back again.
In the interim, Tom got laid off. The company made cuts; they had no knowledge of his situation, and their choice to downsize actually preserved some of Tom’s dignity. He could leave the company, collect severance, look for another job, and have an excuse for not driving after he returned his company car.
He spent December through May in a depressed state. The former workaholic who always maintained an extreme and unhealthy control of his life now had to deal with the mercy of the court system and the perils of looking for a job. He gained a lot of weight, and after losing his job spent a lot of time hanging with friends. Slowly, he started to return to the land of the living, and when he ultimately lost his license in May, he seemed to take it in stride.
In June, he joined a program at his gym to jump start weight loss and get back into shape. He devoted himself to this program, working out for hours every day and cutting back his meals to the bare minimum. In the meantime, I had quit my job and was planning to leave the country for Korea. We talked a lot about my decision, and he assured me that after he fulfilled his obligations to the State, he would join me in Asia.
I had a very, very difficult summer. I left my job and my apartment, he didn’t want me to move in with him, so I had to move back to my childhood home, and I started to feel like an afterthought in my own relationship. I asked a lot of my friends for advice.
“How do you know when it’s over?”
It’s a question that’s difficult to answer. I even talked with Tom in July, confessing that I thought our relationship had run its course, but he assured me that all relationships have their ups and downs, and together we could weather the storm.
I was profoundly unhappy, but I couldn’t figure out why. However, a message from one of my students kept ringing in my head.
I wrote a lot of letters of recommendation this past summer. My students would meet me at Barnes and Nobles and share their insights about their high school careers and their hopes for the future. For the most part, these meetings were fun and full of banter. I loved getting to know my students outside of the classroom.
One meeting was a bit different from the others. This student came into Barnes and Nobles with red eyes and a weary look, and before we could begin the college chat, she told me that she had broken up with her boyfriend the night before. Though I will not betray this student’s confidence, I will tell you that I learned something profound from one of my students.
She said, “Miss D., I couldn’t stay with him and be the person that I always thought I was.”