“I just don’t desire you anymore.”
I let the words hang there, floating like fumes in the middle of the room. I felt like they could suffocate me. I swallowed, and spoke.
“What does that mean?”
It meant the end of a relationship I’d held close to my heart. It meant that the suffering and sacrifice were over, but with the death of a partnership instead of a revival.
And not just that.
Those words, somehow both sharp and blunt, felt like a heavy boot trampling over a little green shoot that I had been trying to cultivate. The identity that was growing a little more every day — the woman I wasn’t born as but was meant to be, stomped on as if it wasn’t even there. I wasn’t desirable because I wasn’t a woman, and I wasn’t a woman because I had been too afraid of losing the relationship to say “I’M TRANS!” instead of “I’m genderfluid and want to figure that out.”
Being unwanted hurts deep. Not even seen, deeper still. My mind scrambled and panicked as I tried to understand how all the years together, everything shared, led to this. I felt like I had simply been given notice, everything I had poured into that relationship suddenly worthless even as it came at the cost of becoming myself.
It’s not difficult to recall how I felt in that moment. I remember the feel of the couch, the lighting of the room, the terrible tension that crept through my muscles as I sat there, bewildered. It’s a frozen moment. I call it up, my eyes lose focus as I live there for a moment, and letting go of the memory feels like waking up in the world all over again.
Almost two years have passed since that night. I’m with someone else, someone who reminds me they desire me every day, but that memory still aches. To be told that there is nothing you do, or can do, to inspire the love you thought you once shared is a cut that dives down so far that the wound may never fully knit back together. It’s a statement that seems to undo reality, calling into question the past as well as the future.
Yet I feel like I’m not supposed to talk about it.
Breakups are strange. Almost everyone goes through at least one at some time or another. Many of us feeling the terrible, sucking sense of loss, even when we know the person we split from wasn’t good for us. We know healing can’t be accomplished with booze, retail therapy, or even finding someone new. Cutting a person we loved out of our lives feels like losing parts of ourselves, like cutting the moldy corners off a piece of bread and feeling like you’re left as this mangled, stale thing.
Recovery doesn’t come fast, and it doesn’t come easy. Sometimes it takes years, if it happens at all. And yet there’s a tendency to look askance when people talk about old hurts. “Move on,” is the message. Breakup advice books — which I scoured in the months following my own shattering experience — are full of affirmations. “You’re beautiful. You’re wonderful. You’re a fox. They didn’t see it. Find someone who will.” As if we could just look in the mirror — as if we could even meet our own eyes — and say “You’re pretty” until the past can no longer reach us.
Death, our friends would understand. If we permanently and tragically lost someone, everyone would accept that the pain might subside but never be wholly erased. A breakup, though, we treat like a lost job. “Chin up, you’ll find another,” as if we simply have a slot for Partner or Partners in our life and we can feel better just be filling that position. If we still struggle after we find someone new, there’s no shortage of malicious whispers that we’re still hung up on the person we lost. We forget that love requires vulnerability, and vulnerability can leave terrible scars. We take the risk every time we say “I love you.”
A breakup isn’t just the loss of a person, a relationship, or a home. A breakup is also a loss of parts of ourselves, a reformation of who we are in a new context. And even if we don’t see it, those hurts haunt us. How many of us have started a new relationship, finally free to stand up for ourselves, only to find ourselves in an argument where we feel like we’re fighting against the person who left even though they’re long gone?
Not to mention that all of the “You’re wonderful, they don’t deserve you” mantras aren’t fair to the person you split from. Perhaps those words really are true. Toxic and terrible people exist in the world. But we can all-too-easily make exes monsters, recognized by their actions but not the hurt and suffering they had to deal with, too. Not that those facts are any excuse for abuse and neglect. But we, the abandoned, feel justified and righteous while the person who left is turned into a caricature not worthy of empathy. I’m as guilty of that as anyone.
Some might prefer to leave these things unspoken. We all find ways to believe in the new life we want to make, even if it feels like an afterlife. That doesn’t mean the hurts are gone, though, or that old injuries are shielded from being poked unexpectedly. When you’ve tied so much of your life to a shared experience with someone, no wonder some of us talk about being ripped apart. If we suffered such physical wounds, it would take ages to heal. Yet we don’t tend to give each other the time to do that when the lacerations are emotional and invisible.
No one owes you their desire. Part of the reason why is because desire isn’t just a thing that exists in the ether or that you receive as if it’s inspiration that arrives on a sunbeam. Maybe you’re lucky enough to get a spark to start with, but desire is still something cultivated over time. And when you are the only one tending that plot, wondering why your partner doesn’t want to help anymore, the isolation is more than confusing. It’s crushing.
How could those tortured feelings simply evaporate, as if simply filling a bed were enough?
In my informal self-assessment, my injuries aren’t as severe as they were at first. I don’t feel like I’m emotionally bleeding out. Part of the process wasn’t healing my relationship — especially because there wasn’t one to mend anymore— but healing myself. One terrible sentence had disproportionate power because I had subsumed myself in my partnership, feeling fortunate anyone would want to be with me at all. I felt undesirable even before that terrible night, and I didn’t have any confidence to be someone worth desiring. I feared that being myself would be met with retribution and abandonment, that saying “I’m transgender” would bring more uncertainty and chaos than I felt ready to deal with. So I stayed small, hoping that my service would be seen and appreciated, instead of claiming myself. Perhaps, if I was good, things would get better and I could maybe say how I felt.
To finally say “I want” for myself, my life, was a powerful moment, but one with a dark side. Even a positive change can highlight the dark of the time before.
I still get an emotional stitch or a limp now and then. A reminder. Sometimes, in the dead of night when I wake up with my heart racing, all I can do is take a breath, curl around my girlfriend, and try to put my mind into my fingertips, the touch of skin on skin. I’m not there. I am here. I am here with someone who loves me. Each time, I get back to sleep a little faster.