My breakup survival plan? Binge-reading the New York Times Vows column
We know the classic post-breakup tropes. Some people cry over ice cream. Others hit the gym or work around the clock. Less common, but featured prominently in the thriller genre, are those who simply will not accept a breakup. The type who turns up wild-eyed at their rejecter's doorstep in the middle of the night, hyperventilating, "Why can't we just give it another shot?"
I, unfortunately, am the poster child for this category.
My inability to let go crescendoed with my first two relationships in Los Angeles. At the end of each, I was dumped by a boyfriend I was still deeply in love with. I felt blindsided. I had no idea how to let go. Turns out being the ex who shows up unannounced, mid-panic attack, isn't usually well-received. I pity any man who has to break up with me. My instinct is to keep reliving the same relationship in a "Groundhog Day" scenario, trying to make it work, no matter what.
Enter The New York Times Vows column. I realize I'm not the only person with a predilection for this column, but I'm pretty sure my Vows obsession goes beyond the average reader's devotion. I'm not into them because I've been dreaming of my wedding since I was a little girl. My preference doesn't have anything to do with couples' age, sexuality or race. What I find most abhorrent are the ones where the relationship had been a steady progression from the start. My interest lies in a specific subset, searchable by the terms: "broke up got back together."
These couples were the gospel of what was possible. They'd accomplished my dream of successfully getting back together with an ex – so successfully they were getting married: Angelenos Jenny Fritz and Michael Schreiber. Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet. Punk-rock couple Huai-Bin Mabel Ko and Tom Thacker. There were dozens more, and if they could do it, why couldn't I? Maybe there was a special code hidden in these tales of reunited love.
I was hooked. I have an app on my computer that constantly tracks my productivity. For years my record for most time logged in a day was 14 hours and 37 minutes, spent exclusively reading Vows columns in which couples broke up and got back together. If I had spent that time working, say on a film set (as I often was those days), I would've gone into magic hour, made double overtime, and been showered with meal penalties. This wasn't my job, though. It was a stalling tactic. A distraction from the necessary business of putting myself back together.
It started as a salve for my breakup, but I got in too deep. During perhaps the darkest point of my Vows fixation, I read them voraciously from the reception desk at the production company where my job was to smile and greet guests. I was vigilant about conducting my searches in Incognito Mode, concerned that IT might flag me as unstable. Yet inevitably, I would fail to wipe away the tears in time for visitors – a dead giveaway that the receptionist was unwell.
As I began to memorize the stories, I slowly realized that they weren't very helpful as how-tos. Someone always had an epiphany. You can't make someone else have an epiphany; that's manipulation. I knew that, but I still couldn't stop reading rekindled love stories as my masochistic Rubik's Cube. If I could just figure out the winning combination...
Like when after several breakups and a period of no-contact, Jenny Fritz ran into Michael Schreiber "on a city street. "Her heart leapt as her stomach dropped. He got rattled as well. 'Seeing Jenny felt like an out-of-body experience,' he recalled. 'I asked her if she wanted to get lunch.' "
I fantasized about how I might get my moment. How all of the sudden the sky would part and I would be met with fireworks on the street. What would I be wearing? Out running errands, I would catch myself in a ratty T-shirt and yoga pants, simultaneously aghast and exhilarated by the thought: Oh God, what if this is supposed to be the day!
But that's not how the Vows column works. It's not a yellow brick road; it's the weekly chronicle of a new love story, however mangled, that leads to marriage. Many of which, such as Fairchild and Peck, won't work out.
If I was reading them as how-tos, the lesson I should have extracted is: Move on. Give your computer-glazed eyes a break, girl. Unrequited love isn't romantic. Don't wait for the Prince Charming who jilted you – get on the goddamn horse and ride on to your next kingdom. If for no other reason than you are guaranteed to be less attractive if you've been pining over someone for six months or more.
But it took me a while to get the message. Starting over is scary. Why move on when there's the mystery of a broken relationship to solve? Who knows, maybe if you're a good detective you'll get another try!
I did get back together with both of those guys. I got my second chance, and it didn't work. Again. Not because of me, not because of timing, just because the relationships weren't right. Reuniting made me realize they were meant to have an expiration date. A period, not a comma.
Now I have a boyfriend of a year and a half, and it's been steady from the start (so annoying, right?). My distaste for linear love has waned, as has my appetite for struggle. Occasionally I'll happen upon a Vows column, but I don't seek them out. I'm not familiar with the new headlines as I scan through now. I have to go back to July 2016 to find one that I recognize. But once I click on it and begin to read, it's like riding a bike – someone else's relationship comes rushing back to me. Ah yes, Janaka Stucky and Andrianne Mathiowetz, 3rd time's a charm... she ate the mushrooms!
I hope my current boyfriend and I don't ever break up, especially not to find each other again. But if we do, I'd like to think I've matured in my ability to move on, that I could handle heartbreak with a little more self-preservation.
Still, those second chance (or more) Vows columns will always have a special place in my heart – for keeping me company when I felt most alone. And for helping me believe in love when I was worried it might be lost forever – even though we are never, ever getting back together again. – © 2018. Washington Post
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