It’s a Wednesday night, and I’m watching Natalie Portman give a wholehearted performance in Closer.
She is currently describing the best way to leave a relationship. Not through hysterics or accusations, but simply with these words:
“I don’t love you anymore. Goodbye.”
Jude Law, her love interest, doesn’t seem to buy it. “Supposing you do still love them?” he asks, wrinkling his handsome nose up in skepticism.
“You don’t leave.”
Fast forward one year, and I am scrolling through a wikiHow article titled “How to Let Go of Someone Who You Deeply Loved.” It’s a well-intentioned editorial, full of bright graphics and cheerful tips. The advice has been broken down into 11 steps, all neatly categorized under two sections: “Changing Your Mindset” and “Regaining Your Independence.” The last illustration depicts a woman and man gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes, having successfully moved on and fallen in love with a new partner. At the bottom of the page, a small ticker lets me know that the article has been read 1,242,584 times.
I wonder if this number includes my own viewing, or if I am in fact the 1,242,585th reader.
Either way, the figure is still vast and terrible. Each number seems to represent a stranger’s heartbreak, and collectively those heartbreaks comprise a quiet tragedy on my computer screen.
I take a brave gulp of coffee and swipe from left to right on my keypad, guiding the screen back to my original Google search:
“How to leave someone you still love.”
Natalie Portman’s character in Closer, of course, would never have approved of all this Googling. I am certain of this, because I have spent the past year internalizing her advice, convincing myself that love is always worth fighting for and that I should never abandon a relationship if I still love my partner.
I’ve been lucky, because over the course of the last 12 months, I experienced enough smiles and laughter to last me a lifetime of rainy days. I learned to care for another human with a wonderful, warm, special kind of tenderness, with a depth and intensity that I didn’t know existed within my small body. I fell in love, and with it I tapped into both an emotional vulnerability and a capacity for joy that I never knew I possessed.
Yet in many ways, I allowed love to cripple me.
Because about nine months into my beautiful, loving relationship, events took a jarring turn for the worse. Trust was shattered and respect discarded. I remember how in the weeks following, my friends urged me to leave the relationship.
“You deserve so much better,” they said, “and he’s really not worth it.”
To which my invariable response was, “But I still love him.”
What happens if you still love someone? You don’t leave.
To clarify, my relationship was never one of abuse. Yet looking back now, I worry that I allowed it to hover dangerously close to something emotionally destructive: not out of fear or weakness, but because of my own strong conviction that love transcended all else. And no matter how he might hurt me, I still loved my partner.
I spent the last few months of my relationship waiting for the morning that I might wake up and feel suddenly empty, devoid of love. Hoping that there would be a moment, a triggering word, a sudden realization that all the tenderness in my heart was gone. That I would be able to stare into my partner’s beautiful brown eyes and say, “I don’t love you anymore. Goodbye,” with all the sincerity and simplicity of Natalie Portman’s 2004 delivery.
Maybe for some lucky individual the moment of realization does arrive, quiet and unannounced, allowing for a graceful breakup. For myself, all I know is that I could have waited years and years, and it never would have felt like the right moment. I would have stayed paralyzed in my role as the girlfriend, bound by my love, while the relationship spiraled further and further out of control and into oblivion.
Leaving someone with a hug and the words “I love you” hurts more than leaving in a tearful rage. I would argue that it hurts more than, “I don’t love you anymore, goodbye.” It takes strength and sensitivity.
When we finally did end the relationship, it was not because our love had reached an expiration date and curdled. Sitting here and writing this now, sipping a latte and listening to the Beatles, I still love my ex-boyfriend. But at the end of the day, I prioritize our personal health and happiness over romantic love.
This is what allowed me to leave.