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By Kathleen Stewart
I met him when I was 17. He was a state-champion-level athlete, shy, thoughtful, and awkward. I was an outspoken, lost girl with an eating disorder. As we began dating, I opened up to him easily, spilling out my pain and strength and confusion, letting my constricted heart dissolve and absorb into his warm boy-hands. He was my first and my last love.
We dated through my going to treatment and fighting to recover. We dated through him leaving for college and me staying in my hometown, detailing our lives through childish letters and long phone calls. We were growing together, developing on our own academically and socially, but safely within the commitment of each other.
I was always edgy for marriage, anxious to build a life together. I’m from the south, where babies and marriages happen young, where graduating college with a “Mrs.” is a sought after achievement. We all were putting wedding bands on our hands, and I wanted my own, wanted to solidify my future.
In July of 2012, he played a song he had written for me on his guitar and kneeled in front of me on the city square we had grown up on. I cried when I saw the ethically-mined white sapphire ring. It was perfect. Everything was perfect.
I was excited to plan the same type of large church wedding my friends were having, neatly packaged together by matching flowers and hand-tied save the dates. I buried myself in websites, toured venues and sought after just the right shade of table cloth material. I also began to hate all of it.
I was stressed by the wedding budget, and unconcerned with the details of cake trimmings or the politics of guest lists. I was over the wedding before I was over getting married, although that would follow soon after, the way one begins scraping off too-sweet icing before throwing away an unfinished piece of cake.
Six months before our wedding date, I began my senior internship and fell in love with my work. I began to dream of multiple degrees, of exciting international work opportunities. My dreams were suddenly more voluptuous than immediately becoming a wife. I also inadvertently developed a short-lived, but agonizingly anxiety-ridden, crush on another person that left me nauseous and tossing in my bed at night.
I was often so anxious at work my vision blurred and for the first time in our relationship, I wasn’t telling him everything I was thinking and feeling. It was like I had discovered that I had headspace of my own, a vault that was capable of storing detailed fears from his caring inquiries. It was strangely terrifying.
I had dreamed of my wedding day for years. I wanted nothing else but to still be elated to marry him. He sensed my distance, and I sensed his. Our lives were no longer aligning; we were drifting, swimming apart while treading desperately to keep our relationship above water. I knew I was in trouble when I began to imagine standing before him in my wedding dress with dread, instead of anxious, joyful anticipation.
I loved (love? How does one put a tense on these things?) him too much to be inauthentic.
Everyone said that engagement and pre-wedding jitters are common. My mother assured me I was just getting cold feet, but it felt more significant to me. I graduated in May in a whirlwind of accolades and dreams.
We began to avoid the suffocating, cloudy fear of our future. I cried often, alternately playing for hours on end Conor Oberst’s “Land Locked Blues” and Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell.” One night, we finally talked. We agreed. It was time to call it off.
The wedding was scheduled for June 29, 2012, and we left each other in May. We split our savings account in half, refusing to nitpick ownership in our state of non-embittered brokenness. We outlined who would make what phone calls, cancel what details, made lists and plans.
I gave him a box of his things, and he left a similar one on my doorstep a week later. We agreed to give each other space, to sever all connections until at least December -- a reasonable amount of time, we hoped, to begin separate lives.
At first, our separation felt surreal. His love and support was a constant I had grown to take for granted after five years, certain as the sun rising each morning as I called him on my way to work. Calling off an engagement is hard. People would walk up to me and ask me how wedding plans were coming, and there was no gentle and natural way to explain without making the other party feel awkward.
I went out more, went on dates, drank harder and with greater frequently. I applied to graduate school, but my last minute change of plans prevented my acceptance. I began to realize that after years of imagining our lives together, of waiting for the golden day of graduation and subsequent cohabitation, I had no idea what I was doing. I was alone, and at a loss as to how to weave together dreams when the one person whom could always inject in me the courage to try was gone.
The grief came in stages, in little blows that made me bite my lip and large ones that knocked me off my feet for days. The oddest part is knowing that you did have a plan for your life, a good one, but now, as your Facebook swells with the season of engagement rings and weddings, you no longer do.
It’s still a shock. I spent Christmas day crying in bed, knowing it was supposed to be our first Christmas together but became only another day of depression and fear. Some days, I’m more hopeful and proud.
I know that calling off an engagement is not uncommon. I began to realize after canceling my own how many people have done the same. Many told me, “better to call it off than be unhappy for the rest of your life,” but the decision for me was different. I would have been happy, probably. It just didn’t seem right.
Ironically, our breakup caused me to comprehend the extent of my love for him. I loved him enough to not selfishly force us together, but instead, when necessary, to walk away. We’ve spoken since December, and neither one of regrets that decision, although I think about it every day.
Sometimes people still ask one of us how married life is. Google still begs me to plan a wedding (although I never will again!). I wish I could tell everyone that we didn’t fail, we simply trusted each other. I wish that knowledge made it hurt less.
I lost relationships when I moved across the country to try to begin a new life, one unimaginably void of him. I face loss every time I walk up the stairs and know he is not in my apartment cooking dinner, loss every morning I wake up and am not in his arms. Loss in the knowledge that every joy and defeat and dream and plan is not ours, but my own.
It feels odd to write about us in a “contest,” as though our relationship can be reduced to a few hundred words floating online, open to examination and criticism. However, I believe that our story is worthy of being told. We all suffer love, most of us suffer at least one or two broken hearts. However, I hope that each of us currently unable to conceive a future of happiness void of the soul most like our own can claim futures of our own, can trust ourselves to make decisions best for ourselves and others.
Right now, my former fiancé is about to leave for Peru to do volunteer work before beginning his career as a teacher, and I feel like he has successfully crafted a life for himself. Alternatively, I cry every day at a job I am desperately unhappy at, unable to pay to fix my computer, struggling to pay rent.
For the first time in my life, I can’t formulate a plan for my future. I hope it includes him, but I’m not certain. For now, every day forces me to breathe into the pain, to bolster myself, to trust myself again, and to tell myself I can weave together a life that may or may not include my best friend.