As the calendar moves forward, Matthew Rozsa looks back at 6 life-changing relationships he’s had and lost.
In less than 72 hours, the dictates of the Gregorian calendar system will draw the current year to a close and a new chapter—on this occasion 2015 A.D.—will begin. As humanity collectively commences with this latest small slice in its epic history, it’s generally regarded as useful for each person to take a step back and look at the history of their individual life … with an emphasis on the word “story” and the type of protagonist everyone hopes to be when writing their own.
For me to do that here, I’m going to talk about six people who had a major impact on my life, including two ex-girlfriends, two former friends, a would-be mentor, and an erstwhile colleague. As my rampant use of the past tense in the preceding sentence most likely revealed, I’m not currently in touch with any of them. Indeed, the point of this article will be to explore what we can learn from the loss of important relationships. Because I don’t want my observations confined to a single type of relationship, I have used a wide spectrum here, including close professional and platonic relationships as well as romantic and sexual ones. Similarly, because it’s equally important to learn both from how we were wronged and how we’ve wronged others, these stories run the gamut in terms of my own moral culpability in the relationships having ended (a factor that is often subjective anyway). Finally, I must stress that it’s quite likely the parties mentioned here would disagree with part or all of how I recall events. While I can’t fully account for how memories may differ and my own biases have slanted my interpretations, I can at least assure you (and them, if they ever read this) that I have done my best to be as detached and self-critical as possible.
I’ve already written extensively about the bullying and general social ostracism I experienced while growing up. While my experiences stemmed from having Asperger’s Syndrome at a time when the autism spectrum wasn’t widely understood, and to a lesser extent from being Jewish in communities with very small Jewish populations, there are plenty of people who bear the scars of childhood mass peer rejection. The causes can range from being marginalized for one’s race, sexual orientation, or gender to simply having unusual personality traits, being socially awkward, or not adhering to consensus standards of attractiveness, but there is one bottom line: When you are victimized by this brutal alienation, isolation, and abuse at such a developmentally formative time in your life, it defines every single relationship you have for the rest of your life.
We can start with romantic relationships (a topic that I’ve discussed in the past in a piece co-authored with a close friend). While I’ve stayed in touch with several of my ex-girlfriends, there are two who have severed all ties with me—and both still haunt me to this day. One of them, who I’ll refer to here as R, was in a relationship with me for five-and-a-half years, encompassing the last two-thirds of my undergraduate career at Bard College as well as nearly four years after that. That relationship ended for a variety of reasons, ranging from ongoing tensions between myself and her parents (who made no secret to her, or me, of their opposition to the relationship)”to our mutual volatile temperaments, which caused incessant bickering due to both of us carrying fresh insecurities from being bullied in high school.” Regardless of why it ended, however, the fact that our couplehood corresponded with so many milestone events in my life makes it hard to return to those memories without feeling that they’ve been tainted by this sour note (more on that in a moment). The other, known here as K, dated me from the end of December to the middle of April this year. Having reached out to me as a fan of my writing, I naturally was thrilled at being able to subsequently form a deep bond with her over what I consider to be my art. What’s more, as a fellow writer, I enjoyed running article ideas by her and being genuinely stimulated by the insightfulness and creativity of her feedback, as well as her sharp eye as a proofreader. When she broke up with me, she specifically cited the fact that I was “an Aspie” and that “70% of what you do is objectively annoying” (her examples included my oft-brazen loquaciousness, odd gesticulations, difficulty making eye contact, and need for tightly structured day-to-day schedules).
While these romantic tribulations were certainly quite painful, they weren’t more so than the friendships I’ve also lost over time. Both of my examples actually took place this year. First there was B, with whom I’d maintained a continuous friendship for longer than with anyone else in my life, even as he had frequently blown hot-and-cold with virtually everyone else in our mutual social group. Although we had never fought, that abruptly changed when I invited a female friend to an informal party I was throwing to celebrate acquiring the minimum number of signatures necessary to appear on the ballot for a local elected office; he threw a temper tantrum because he didn’t want any girls to join us. After several months of refusing to speak to me, he finally warmed up only to immediately freeze me out after reading an article I’d written for this site about Gamergate, a movement to which he was sympathetic. There was also A, an art school dropout with whom I’d had numerous arguments during our sixteen-year friendship. The straw that broke the camel’s back on this occasion was a financial dispute: After hiring him to be my driver while I worked as a field organizer for Tom Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign, I was dismayed at his unreliability and inability to be available on important occasions when he was needed, ultimately prompting me to fire him. While that didn’t end our friendship on its own, our subsequent dispute over his compensation—in which he demanded half of what I’d earned from the day I’d hired him until the day he’d been discharged and me arguing that he should only be paid half of what I earned on those days when he showed up for work (an offer I felt was still incredibly generous, since his sole responsibility had been driving me)—put the nail in its coffin as far as I was concerned.
Finally, I’ll discuss two professional mentorships that have since come to a close. The first was with C, a professor at Bard College who taught one of the most fascinating classes I’ve ever taken (on the history of American intelligence gathering) and soon inspired me with his iconoclastic and fiercely independent-minded political philosophy. Soon he took me under his wing, offering tips on the art of crafting op-eds and networking as a writer that I still follow to this day. That relationship was terminated rather abruptly, after I accused him of being a bigot following an email in which he expressed angry criticism over actions committed by the State of Israel (in retrospect, I probably would have agreed with 90% of his arguments had I received that same letter today). The other incident occurred with L, a young woman my age who worked as my editor during one of my earlier writing gigs. More than a year after we both left that organization, I found myself chatting with her about ways I could improve my career. While the conversation was initially quite normal, I soon began venting to her and projecting my own frustrations out on her, at times even implicitly blaming her for not doing more to help me out. Instead of apologizing afterward, I then tried to act like nothing had happened and she was overreacting. She promptly cut me off.
While the loss of important romantic, platonic, and professional relationships is very painful for anyone, it is especially so for those who struggled socially at an early age because of how easily those past agonies can be looked upon as “failures.” When an important interpersonal connection is severed, and then rendered incapable of being restored, it reinforces the sense many of us have that we are inherently unlovable and/or unlikeable, as well as that there is something intangibly and ineradicably “wrong” with us that will prevent us from ever succeeding in our careers or personal lives. Perhaps worst of all, the accumulation of experiences is extraordinarily disempowering. After all, few people intentionally sever important relationships for no good reason; when a relationship fails and then can’t even be partially restored, it cements the idea that we simply lack the power to better our own lives, no matter how hard we try or how much we learn from our past mistakes.
These lost relationships are also painful for another reason: Those meaningful connections were instrumental in shaping the human being you are today—and, with very rare exceptions, has an equally powerful impact on the other person as well—so losing touch with them can cause a jarring sense of confusion and disconnection in terms of how you perceive your own identity. For one thing, it is always important to know that your recollections of the past are roughly the same as those of the other individuals who shared portions of it with you; permanently losing touch with men and women who were previously central characters in your life leaves a host of lingering questions about whether the shared story that you’ve incorporated into your own larger narrative is, in its essential respects, the same one that they recall. Existential and introspective questions abound: Maybe I’m not who I thought I am? Maybe the narrative didn’t really progress as I thought it did? Maybe I don’t have as much influence on my own life as I would like to think (see my earlier observation about disempowerment)?
This brings me to the major lessons we can learn from these lost connections:
- Talk about it.
Both men and women face a significant stigma when it comes to discussing lost relationships. While I will leave to a female writer the task of exploring the taboos held against women who try to be vulnerable on these issues, I can say that as a man there are two main struggles: (A) There seems to be an expiration date on how long you’re allowed to still be upset over these things, after which you’re viewed as “lame” or “pathetic” if you acknowledge that they still bother you; and (B) You’re almost never allowed to express emotions like heartbreak or mournfulness in an unrestrained manner, which is viewed as “unmanly.”
Again, I have no idea how much these themes overlap with what women experience, but I can say that—regardless of gender—no one should ever feel ashamed to openly acknowledge and converse about parts of their past that still hurt.
- Learn from your mistakes: Accept that you were sometimes morally wrong.
This is almost certainly the toughest rule to follow, but we can’t let ourselves off here. It’s especially difficult for individuals who, like me, spent most of their childhood being persecuted; there is something galling, even rage-inducing, about the notion that those who have spent so much time being victims that they could also adopt the role of victimizer (Gamergate is a great example of this). At the same time, the sad truth is that those who have been mistreated in the past are more likely to mistreat others, in part due to pent up resentment and anger and in part because they are subconsciously patterning their behaviors off of what they became accustomed to during their early years.
When it comes to my own experiences, I can honestly say that there are many occasions which have left me with deep moral regrets. Because R was my first serious girlfriend, I found myself bungling the awkwardness of her parents’ opposition (which, in an eerie foreshadowing, was rooted in the fact that they felt our idiosyncrasies made us too similar, with her mother exclaiming after first meeting me, “Oh God, there’s two of them!”) More seriously, I frequently argued with her when I allowed the doubts and insecurities I’d developed in my earlier years to flare up. With A, I forgot to treat him like a friend and instead “fired” him in a letter that was insulting and demeaning, which set things off on a sour note from which it subsequently became impossible to recover. It was similar with C, wherein I disregarded years of friendship and kindness by allowing my momentary feeling of outrage at what I perceived to be an anti-Semitic slur to overshadow what I’d long known about him as a human being. Of all the parties discussed here, none were more unambiguously in the right than L, who I forgot was a person with her own vulnerabilities and instead used as a symbol for my own frustrations—none of which were her fault, and many of which she had actively worked to help me effectively address. Although she did accept my apology when I offered one later, I still very enormous regret over how I handled that situation.
- Learn from your mistakes: Accept that others have wronged you.
Though this may seem paradoxical, the same impulse that makes it difficult to admit that we can be wrong also makes us inclined to be too harsh on ourselves. Even as we’re reluctant to think that the victim can ever be the victimizer, so too are we inclined to think that we were victims because we deserved to be. Consequently, it is far too easy to assume that the hurt others have inflicted on us was deserved even when a detached perspective reveals quite the opposite. From there, it behooves us to learn how to stand up for ourselves and never again allow others to abuse us.
R, for instance, never stopped projecting the rage she had developed from her own high school persecution onto me, just as I was doing to her (although she did stop hitting me when I confronted her about how I had never done that to her). With K, I actually committed virtually the opposite mistakes from what I had done with R. After having had several girlfriends between R and K, I had developed an almost-obsequious demeanor in which I allowed myself to be nitpicked for harmless quirks (many of them related to having Asperger’s) under the notion that if I stood up for myself, I would be “abusing” her. In retrospect, K’s constant ridicule—often public—for things like being obsessed with scheduling or struggling to make eye contact was in itself severe emotional abuse, teaching me that I should never allow a woman to act like “having Asperger’s” is a valid cause for criticism or complaint. Just as L was unambiguously right for being upset with me, B was unambiguously wrong; having never had a girlfriend and being notorious within our group for his frequent sexist comments, it’s no coincidence that our two blow-ups both occurred over gender-related issues. While A was correct for calling me out on being disrespectful and demeaning in my email terminating relations with him, his subsequent demand to be paid for days he didn’t work was so transparently irrational that it seemed almost deliberately vindictive.
- Learn to balance trusting what you know with questioning who you are.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the greatest struggles that comes with losing connections which were important to you—be they romantic, platonic, or professional—is that they cause you to feel a sense of disconnection from your past. To answer two of the three questions posed earlier in this article:
Maybe I’m not who I am I am? Maybe the narrative didn’t really progress as I thought it did?
Maybe not, but in the end you have no choice but to trust your own memory. Instead of viewing it as an infallible recorder of truth, however, look at your recollections in the same that you might look at one movie director’s adaptation of a classic book; it’s based on the same source material and, unless you’re severely mentally ill, the odds are that it has the basic plot points and major details down right. That said, certain aspects of that interpretation are likely to be plumb wrong, and many others will be neither right nor wrong but more subjective in terms of questions like “What happened?” and “Who was right or wrong?” As such, while you should trust your memory, don’t hesitate to question it.
To answer the third question—Maybe I don’t have as much influence on my own life as I would like to think?—I turn to my final lesson.
- Pain is an unavoidable part of life. Once you understand that, figure out what you want in the relationships that are important to you and never hesitate to be bold and adventurous in pursuing them.
It may be impossible to sever past bonds that have been lost, but I’ve always believed that hesitation and self-doubt are the mortal enemies of emotional intimacy and true happiness. No matter what you do, you are always going to be hurt, and you are always going to lose contact with people who had once been very important to you. The worst mistake you can make is to give up on forging future bonds because you’ve been burned in the past; not only will this deprive you of the only authentic cure to loneliness that exists in this life, but it reveals an unrealistic expectation about how relationships unfold. Show me a person who hasn’t lost touch with people that he or she once cared about, and I’ll show you someone whose timidity has prevented them from reaching out at all. One thing you’ll never find, I assure you, is someone with numerous positive relationships and no negative ones simply because they lack the flaws that can alienate or disconnect people from them; no one is perfect, and so such an example simply does not exist.
Once all of this is understood, the rational course of action becomes clear: Talk about your past with others, learn how to stop hurting those you care about, learn how to stop letting those you care about hurt you, cautiously trust your memory, and—most importantly of all—do your best to find the right people with whom to form new relationships in the future. When you feel those insecurities bubbling up that insist you’re unlovable, ignore them; when you feel the hesitation emerge that urges you to avoid reaching out lest you be rejected, recognize it as foolishly timid and dismiss it accordingly; and finally, when you feel that spark which tells you that you’ve found a true mentor, friend, or romantic partner, do everything you can to cultivate it.
To me, Orson Welles understood this best:
We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.
There is an important corollary to this lesson—the importance of learning from your own experiences to become a better person. “From these damaged goods, Saints arise,” blogger and activist Ariel Gordon once wrote when discussing growing up as an adult who was bullied, “Not always, of course, but there are those special individuals whose decency and courage cannot be shattered. When these Saints stand back up, push their way through the carnage, and allow themselves to be reborn, they become the ones this world needs.”