Communication

True Stories: How We Broke Up to Stay Together

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 The other day, my friend called me a unicorn. She was referring to my relationship.

I’m 26 and I’ve dated the same person since I was seventeen. Among other things, our relationship encompasses four years of college, several jobs, a handful of apartments, one break-up, one reconciliation, nine birthdays, seven Christmases, and a cross-country road trip. To some, the fact that we’re still together after all of that seems mythical, even unbelievable.

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Danny and I met the day after I graduated from high school, at senior week in Ocean City, Maryland. For the first five days that I knew Danny, I was in a semi-constant state of drunkenness and he — always sober — still wanted to be around me. We did crossword puzzles on the dingy couch of the beach rental and he made me laugh so hard that I surprised myself. I fell for him and was unusually secure in my feelings. Three months later, when he visited me at college four hours away, he told me that he loved me. He didn’t have to — I already knew.

I think it’s true (though I draw from personal experience rather than statistics) that most romantic relationships fall apart in college, especially if they began in high school or involve long distance. College is a time of experimentation, exploration, and immense change. I went into college knowing that and wanting, desperately, for all of those things to happen to me — the transformation, the maturation, the experience, the adventure. What I decidedly did not want was to be consumed by my relationship. As much as I loved Danny, I didn’t want our togetherness to make me forget about my me-ness, about the person that I was and wanted to become.

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For that reason, I felt protective of my alone time and my sense of independence. Danny understood, so we were able to strike a mostly harmonious balance that took us through four years of college. There were difficulties — weekends he visited were fraught with expectation because our time was limited, and that led to arguments — but mostly I remember those years as filled with happy anticipation. Danny sent me a mix CD every month for an entire year. He mailed me seasonal packages with surprises inside — brightly colored leaves in the fall and dandelions in the spring. We wrote e-mails to each other every day. Somehow, I was never tempted to cheat on Danny, though I could have plenty of times. I didn’t need to. No one was as attractive or funny or thoughtful or interesting as him. No one made me feel the way he did. We were on the same wavelength. Our “honeymoon period” lasted four years, and mostly because of the distance between us.

The real difficulties — the ones that would truly test our relationship — came after college, when we lived just a few blocks apart in Philadelphia. Again, I felt I wanted to protect my independence, this time post-college, so I moved into a rambling old twin-home with three female roommates instead of moving in with Danny, who rented a place with his brother.  People often asked why we didn’t choose to live together after all those years, and my answer was simple: we weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready. If I move in with Danny, I thought, I might never have another chance to live with a bunch of girls in a rambling old house in the city. I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity, and I’m glad I didn’t. There were late-night parties and mornings on the front porch and long talks in the hallway and shared clothes and episode after episode of The Biggest Loser. I knew I had made the right decision. I also knew that my relationship with Danny was starting to suffer.

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We couldn’t seem to get on the same page. We fought too often about stupid things and exhausted ourselves. I can see, in retrospect, that what we were dealing with was exactly what we had been able to put off for those four years in college—real life. Post-college, we had to make decisions about our futures. Where would we work? Where would we live? How would we pay the bills? All of those questions were ten times harder to answer when forced to consider someone else’s needs. Danny, who had always been more willing to compromise than me, suddenly started pushing back. He needed his space, too. He needed time to figure out who he was on his own. After so many years, I was blindsided by his request for space and, unlike him, I was unable to grant that space gracefully. Soon we were both pushing and pulling and neither of us was happy. The only thing to do was break up.

Danny and I had decided that whatever resulted from our split could only be good for both of us. Either we moved on and found better partners, or we found our way back to each other, with renewed commitment and a stronger sense of self. We had a plan, but that didn’t make the process of building a life without Danny any easier. For a while, I thought of him every second of the day. I stalked him on Facebook. I let my finger hover over his number in my phone. I made myself crazy.

Then something changed. I started spending more time alone, going to the movies and local concerts. I made time for coffee with friends. I started seeing new people and remembered what it was like to feel butterflies, to start something wild and uncertain. Danny, of course, was doing the same thing.

After nine months of separation — nine months of travel, work, friends, nights spent at bars, and making out with other people — we found our way back to each other. This time it was different: we had made a conscious choice to be a team. We weren’t together out of obligation or routine or dependence. We were together because we loved being around each other, and we no longer felt we needed to be apart.

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Nine months, to be sure, isn’t an impressively long time. We could have gone a year or two years or four. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened in that time, what other ways we might have changed, but Danny and I have always been good at changing together. A year and a half ago, we filled a rented minivan with all of our belongings, saved a little space for our dog, and drove across the country, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t even have a place to live, but we knew everything would be okay. Now we love our life out here, largely because we made it happen together. And you know — we’re still changing every day.

Are you in a long-term or long-distance relationship? How do you make it work?

Heather Simons lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and their dog Kodi.

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