Almost a year after separating from my partner, we had a second breakup.
Our first breakup, though incredibly painful, was what I can only describe now as tender. After trying to surmount the difficulty of a nearly ten-year age difference, our romantic relationship ended upon the realization that I was not yet ready to “settle down” and wanted more time to explore life as single twenty-something.
We moved out of our shared apartment and embarked on a month-long road trip, during which we celebrated the love and friendship we still had for one another in spite of the shift that had taken place in our relationship.
My ex then moved out of the continental US to the Latin-Caribbean island where her mother and a few other extended relatives live. I spent much of the months that followed traveling, ultimately moving across the country to begin my doctoral studies.
In the year after our initial breakup, we remained deeply entwined with one another, communicating nearly every day by phone. In some ways, we became arguably closer during this time period, often marveling at our ability to make a successful transition from romantic partners to best friends. However, that would eventually shift tremendously. She ended up meeting someone new, and our friendship quickly fell apart in a flurry of hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and ultimately, the decision to cease communicating altogether.
In spite of what I would still characterize as a relationship littered with fond memories and important lessons learned, it was only after the second split that I began to view my breakup, or breakups, as political in nature. This revelation left me with a series of questions to wrestle with: What were the power dynamics in these breakups? Did we really love one another? How did our identities show up at the end of our relationship? What does this mean for me in future relationships?
I identify as a Black, queer, masculine-of-center, non-binary person. Interestingly enough, for me, seeking relationships seemed quite simple for much of my early dating life. I had previously seen relationships as a fun and rewarding challenge, whereby you met someone you found attractive, presented the best version of yourself possible, and then, if there was chemistry, you clicked and sailed off into a sunset of bliss. It wasn’t until my more recent long-term relationship with my former partner that this paradigm was turned on its head. She — a white-passing, Latina, queer femme, cisgender woman — and I were shaped by very different cultural contexts and lived realities. While dating one another, these differences sometimes made for interesting discussions, but oftentimes, they opened up large chasms of misunderstanding.
I would say we each had the best of intentions to make the other person feel loved and affirmed; however, in hindsight, I question how much true affirmation is possible between two people when at least one person doesn’t understand their partner’s lived experience, or moreover, make a concerted effort to understand. In a conversation we had just after the second breakup, I recall angrily asking my former partner through tears why she had never really engaged me in conversations around my Blackness and my gender identity. Her response, seemingly sincere and said with a tinge of guilt, was that it had never really occurred to her to do so.
Her honesty felt like a blow to the gut. How was it possible she’d heard me on numerous occasions talking passionately about my experiences connected to my identities, but had never thought to engage me in conversations about them? Further, why had she never considered her own experience as it related to our relationship? What did it mean, to her, to love a Black person? What did it mean it mean to love a queer, non-binary Black person?
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It was after this second breakup that my feelings of warmth and continued affection began to shift to anger and regret. Having spent much of the past year still deeply connected to my former partner, I realized how little time I had actually spent grieving the loss of the romantic relationship and doing things to cultivate growth and development within myself.
While it’s undeniable to me that I actively chose to engage in our dynamic after being the one to officially call it quits, the decision to remain in close contact was made in large part to ensure that my former partner did not feel abandoned or socially isolated. An introvert by nature, she has never been one to cultivate close friendships, and in the immediate wake of our initial breakup, she expressed feelings of deep despair at the idea of us no longer communicating.
Though I felt it was best for the romantic relationship to end at the time, I’d grown accustomed to doing things to make my former partner feel safe and tended to, so I pledged to her an unwavering commitment to stay by her side (at least by telephone) through the ups and downs of navigating a new normal. However, after some amount of time, I too became emotionally dependent on this arrangement; life on my own was much more frightening and difficult than anticipated.
As I think is somewhat typical in queer breakups, we clung to each other, perhaps out of fear that no one else out there would love us the way the other person had. For those who identify as anything other than straight, idiomatic euphemisms like “there are plenty of fish in the sea” are sometimes lost on us. In retrospect, though, I ended up giving my former partner something she would not ultimately provide in return: the continued comfort of knowing we would endure this difficult time period together.
After a series of unfortunate events revolving around her new relationship, it seemed as though the metaphorical tables had turned. I was now the one left feeling devastated and reaching for her to reassure me that I still had a friend in her. However, her feelings had changed. She no longer felt communicating was good for us — or her.
In the weeks that followed, I flailed emotionally, hoping desperately that she would call, sending one too many “casual check-in” text messages, many of which went unanswered. Then I had a conversation with a close friend about the situation, whereby he illuminated a sad but notable observation about the dynamic within the relationship: my ex and I had subconsciously fallen into a too common narrative when it came to prioritizing feelings in relationships. He (a straight, cisgender white man) asserted, “What’s amazing to me is that she was able to use her emotional fragility as a tool to get you to stay invested in the relationship. Now that you’re the one who’s sad, your feelings are seen as overwhelming and potentially threatening to her newfound happiness. Why aren’t Black masculine people allowed to feel broken, too?”
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His sentiment gave words to a feeling that had been swimming around in my mind for days. Why had I felt such a dutiful obligation to protect her from the emotional heartache of feeling isolated from me, and inversely, why had she ultimately been unable — or unwilling — to return the sentiment?
This question brought me back to heated arguments we had during the relationship regarding her strong identification with the term “woman of color.” She had been enraged by what she felt was a lack of acceptance by non-white-passing-people-of-color, citing her cultural experiences of growing up with a good deal of Latinx cultural customs as evidence for her belief that she was not White. I tried on a number of occasions to relate to her that while she was entitled to identify herself however she saw fit, there needed to be some acknowledgement that her experience, her physical self, and the privileges that she was afforded due to the way she is seen by the world at large were fundamentally different than that of other people-of-color. As an added layer, her femininity in combination with her ability to be perceived as White would inherently allow her to be viewed as vulnerable, and therefore worthy of love and protection.
Ultimately, I am left with a glaring question–do I love myself? That is to ask two things: Do I value and enjoy the person that I am in isolation from my romantic partnerships, and will I be tasked with providing love for myself if I should ever again find myself in a relationship with someone who doesn’t fully understand my identities, or how my identities and experiences differ from theirs? It is my hope that I will one day be able to share these sentiments with my former partner, and discuss the ways in which our breakup(s) reflected what society tells us about who has access to certain types of treatment. However, today, I will simply continue asking questions to further my understanding of what love means for those navigating queer, intercultural breakups.
The Queer Insomniac is a queer, non-binary writer. They consider themselves to be bicoastal but culturally southern, a master at crafting hypothetical questions, and adept in all things that require a keen sense of direction. They are currently working on their PhD in the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities.
[Feature Image: A person standing on the left of the photo. They are wearing a ball cap, white t-shirt, and jeans. Their hands are in their jean pockets, their back to the camera. They are looking at the reflection of a mountain on the water. In the background are trees and the mountain. ]