Interview: It's only after you've lost everything you're free to do everything
May 04, 2017
This is the first a new interviews series I'm doing. In this interview I talk to William, a good friend of mine from college who (at the time of writing) went through a recent breakup with his college girlfriend. This interview is particularly interesting because at the time of writing William feels he is not yet fully recovered. He mentions that although he doesn't want his ex back, he still sometimes misses what they had together. At the same time, due to her lying and infidelity, he realizes that what he thought they had and what he thinks he is missing, is an illusion. It doesn't change his feelings, however.
Jesse: Could you walk us and any reader or listeners through your relationship covering the main descriptors, how long were you in a relationship for, what type of relationship was it and how long have you been broken up?
William: Let’s start with the beginning. I had a relationship for 9.5 years. And this was my first -- the most intense relationship until now. Before this relationship I had girlfriends for several months and this was the first soulmate -- the first woman I had a really strong connection with.
We were both students living in our own comfort zone enjoying student life and both having our comfort zone it’s pretty okay that you do you’re both really independent. Enjoy the good moments, have fun -- and that’s how it all started.
You can interrupt me if I’m too detailed about this.
After two years or so the bigger questions of life came up. You’re planning ahead, you’re discussing with each other what you want to do with your life. There was some silly question: what if one us wins one million euros, what are we going to do with this money?
Jesse: So this is something you discussed with your ex-girlfriend?
William: Yes, something like a brainstorm and see what are the big dreams and maybe we can live the dream without actually winning a million euros. And well, she came up with an answer: her parents and her grandparents had built up a family business and her big dream was to continue this. And this was a topic that we never discussed before, it was not always that clear that she wanted this. So this was a big eye opener -- and kind of a shock maybe -- but also kind of interesting because I didn’t know anything about the subject and, yeah, from then on we started to work on the family business and we were experiencing what it was like to maybe continue this in the future. What are all the aspects, what is important.
Jesse: So this was several years into the relationship?
William: Yes, two years or so, it’s hard to… I don’t know by heart. After two years or so.
At first… I was always a bit of a nerd with computers and math and my sister is a veterinarian and she was always the animal person in the family. I was more into nerd stuff. When you get to know all the aspects of their industry it’s quite beautiful and it’s quite interesting. The more I got involved the more I became enthusiastic and we were working more intense to help and to plan ahead. Fast forward a few years ahead and we were actually discussing how to build the next generation version of the family business with fully automatic technology.
Jesse: So you were really getting into this idea?
William: Yes, I was really enthusiastic. But yeah, it’s her family, it’s her family’s business. I was always a helper. It’s hard to find the right words.
That was maybe an important characteristic about our relationship.
Jesse: So how did the relationship evolve from there? My understanding is that the dynamic changed at some point.
William: Yes the dynamic changed. I also got a master in applied physics and I did my Master’s thesis in a city across the country, I went to live there and she went to live with her parents. So the dynamic of the relationship changed in that way that we saw each other only on the weekends. During the weekdays we both had our lives -- of course we kept in contact. In the weekends you see each other when the highlights of the relationship should be. So there was -- maybe -- tension during the weekends that it always has to be top notch entertainment, or intense or romantic… That was different than before. Well we managed and it was temporary so it was okay.
After that she had a burn out, she was living with her parents, she really needed a place for herself -- a comfort zone for herself. We really needed to live together. After the day-to-day business was finished, we moved in together. It was the first time we lived together, so that’s also a next step in the relationship. And also you learn all the day-to-day aspects of someone else. How messy they are, what they think about planning household tasks and all that kind of stuff.
We were also planning ahead for the family business. I was always helping and -- yeah… Investing time and effort into her family business. Also enjoying it, but trying to do the best I can to help them. And maybe without recognition, sometimes. And maybe this was an indication of imbalance.
An indication of imbalance also became clear when she graduated, finally. This was also a very difficult moment for her to finish her Master’s thesis. I spent a lot of time and effort in helping her write her thesis. There was one big moment during her speech that she wanted to thank someone special in these difficult times and she pulled up a bottle of champagne. And I thought, well, this is a really romantic gesture where I get credits for my work but to my big surprise it was her best girlfriend who got this champagne because of course she also helped, but it was a good moment to thank me as well. It was a really strange moment. Especially in retrospect when the relationship ended and you see things more clearly that maybe it was imbalanced and I was always trying to help her and help her family. But maybe she didn’t want this. And the more I tried to help, the more distant she became.
Jesse: So you’re saying, looking back now, perhaps there was a theme of you giving and not getting as much in return?
William: Yeah. But expecting something in return, but if you don’t get that something in return, you’re trying harder to help even more. But this doesn’t work -- apparently. You have to focus on your own things and become your own individual, and your own things and become more independent is perhaps a way I should have taken. But okay, it happened and you cannot change this.
Then we lived together. We planned to move back to the town of her family to really help in the day-to-day business in the evenings and every weekend to really make the next big step.
Just a few days after moving I discovered that she was keeping some secrets from me and that she was seeing another guy. Not really sure about the details but the details that I saw was more than enough red flags to ask her what was up with this guy. This guy was always described as never to be of any concern.
Jesse: Can we slow down for a little bit?
William: Yes, of course.
Jesse: Because there is a lot of information in this part. This is when you were living together and you moved to a new place to live together and right after the move and right after the move you discover certain red flags. Is that correct?
William: Yeah. Two weeks in.
And okay during the move.
I made this discovery by accident, or semi by accident. She left her phone in the car and her dad was calling her on her phone to do something for the company and to pick up some dinner for the employees. The order changed so I had to wait in the takeaway restaurant and while I was waiting there with her phone in my hands I was just opening up -- because I noticed there were some changes in the dynamic and… there was a gut feeling there was something wrong between us and there was maybe another person. So I checked her phone while I was waiting and I discovered a few chats that really unravelled… I discovered the secret she was keeping from me.
Jesse: So from these messages you could tell it wasn’t just messages, there had been more going on than just messages.
Jesse: What else can you tell us about this gut feeling that you had?
William: Yeah it’s hard to tell. But when you know someone so well you you’re feeling that she… yeah we were drinking a few weeks earlier and I noticed she was flirting with some guys and normally I don’t care. You shouldn’t be jealous but this time I was jealous. And I noticed that I noticed that she wasn’t comforting me or letting me know that everything was okay. So there was a bit of a drama and afterwards I felt bad and I apologised to her and she told me “No, you don’t have to apologise.” And that really made me suspicious, that she was kind of acknowledging that she was in the wrong as well. Or that something fishy was going on. Maybe this was some event like this that was making me suspicious.
Jesse: You mentioned that for you it was also new that you were jealous at this point, that in the past you would not have been.
William: Yeah I always trusted her and I always trust people and I am never jealous. I try not to be. And it was really difficult for me to feel jealous and to feel this strong emotion.
Afterwards when I was convinced -- when I had the evidence that I was right and that I should be jealous, there was something wrong, your phone is your privacy and you shouldn’t check it. But if I hadn’t checked it maybe I would have been in the dark for even longer. If the relationship doesn’t work, you should break up, you should end it. It would be a waste of time to just continue if it’s already beyond repair.
But we tried that by the way. We tried to repair. I confronted her in such a way that she didn’t know that I checked her phone. I asked her if there was something that I should know, if she did this and this with this person and she said “No no no I would never do this” and “This guy means nothing to me” and “I would never do this”. So I said okay, on your phone I saw these messages, what’s up? “Oh, okay, maybe I should tell you something. There is something going on, well yeah…”
Jesse: And this guy, do you know who it was?
William: Yeah I know who it was. It was her ex-manager from a previous employer. With whom she professionally had some meetings with and afterwards sometimes she had a few drinks, just a friends. She always said to me this guy is the last guy on earth with whom I should try something and you shouldn’t be concerned, nothing is going to happen, ever. So just let me have some drinks with him. And of course that’s possible and of course you don’t want to limit each other in a good relationship.
Jesse: You confronted her with this discovery and she starts off denying that anything is wrong. Then you say “I checked your phone and found these messages.” Then she admits, then what happens?
William: Then we start to talk. What is wrong. What is wrong with our relationship? Why she’s acting in such a way. Why is she seeking comfort or… I don’t know what she was looking for. But why these things are happening and apparently our relationship is not balanced -- or in the way she would like it. There was room for improvement so to say.
Yeah well, we were so pot-committed. We wanted to try everything to make it right to go from here. Every relationship has its ups and downs. So maybe this was just a downswing and we could work it out. And if we could overcome this we would be stronger than ever. We tried some couples therapy and we were given some assignments and we talked about this and we talked about her contacts with this guy. We agreed she would never contact this guy again, for now. We’re doing our best to save our relationship. And it would help to help me to trust her again to not have contact with this guy for this.
Jesse: You say the assignment would help you trust her again. Tell me about your feelings of trust at that point.
William: I wanted to trust her. I wanted to -- I wanted to be in this relationship and I wanted to stay with her and I wanted to trust her. And I wanted to not be jealous. And that’s hard. You wanted to try but your gut feeling isn’t lying. So, it helped if she wouldn’t have contact with this guy, to promise me… then I can trust her. Does that make sense?
Jesse: Yes that makes sense
William: So that was the agreement. But then I found out that not only was she contacting this guy but when I was on a weekend away with my friends she was planning to visit this guy at his place. I discovered this as well, afterwards.
The last drops of trust were vanishing. It was really hard to trust her. Without trust I don’t think you can have a relationship with someone. That’s one of the fundamentals.
After that there was not one -- but several incidents where she was really… yeah… she wasn’t keeping her promises and I lost all trust and then came the moment that everything was beyond all repair and it was the best to end the relationship.
Jesse: Talk to me about that moment that really flipped the switch for you.
William: I was half asleep and she was still awake and she came an hour after me to bed. I was half awake half asleep and I saw that she was texting someone. And I just rolled over and asked “Let me check, what are you doing? You aren’t just texting this guy again?” And she was. She was contacting this guy again. This was just the moment. After all these promises it was the evidence that I couldn’t trust her. Promises of hers weren’t worth anything from this moment. She could promise me anything but she proved to me that she never could keep her promises.
And during the relationship it was always hard for her to keep her promise, maybe also on day-to-day stuff. We agreed on stuff and then maybe last minute it changed or it was convenient for her to do something else and she would do something differently.
Jesse: It also -- and correct me if I’m wrong -- but it also sounds that after that initial discovery, and you go into couples therapy, that there are more slipups on her side, she kept doing exactly what was causing the problem in the first place with this guy. Yet you still had hope that things would change. You still persevered, you still tried to make it work. You made multiple attempts. Is that correct?
William: Yeah, yeah, that’s correct.
Jesse: Talk to me about that.
William: It was always the same. It was always her promising not to contact this guy again and then for me to find out that she did. And that she was planning to meet him in person or to stay at his house or whatever. There were multiple occasions of this. But always me finding out through her phone that she was doing this.
Jesse: What I’m interested in trying to figure out with you is that I think some people would have quit earlier and some would have quit later. What I’m trying to understand is why did you quit at that point after so many attempts and not earlier for instance.
William: Yeah, everyone can make a mistake. The incident that I found out about was that she was drunk -- and he is a womanizer who gets with every woman he can -- so maybe it was just a moment of weakness while being drunk. This can happen of course. My brother says well at that time that she did that it’s over. Although she might drunk. Drunk is never a good argument or a good excuse for something. You can always make a mistake. In my opinion it was… Yeah… We were in such a relationship that such a mistake wasn’t something we couldn’t manage. Because we knew each other for so long, we had been together. We had some difficult times and we overcame it. It would be a shame to end it for such an incident. But for the point of no return was that she proved that time after time she could promise me something -- and I would believe her time and time again -- that she would break her promise and disappoint me. I couldn’t trust her anymore and the promise wasn’t anything to me. Just a few hours ago you promised me something and now you’re already… truly sober… You didn’t drink anything, you’re just lying to me. I hate when someone lies to you, it’s not the kind of person you want to be in a relationship with, How can you have a family or a relationship with someone you cannot trust.
Jesse: Of course you can’t
William: And that was the realization that… yeah… Maybe I was too hopeful that she would change, but that was the moment that I realized she wouldn’t change. It was done.
Jesse: I have one more question about this period. When you entered couples counselling. That must have been a period… very intense emotionally and very important to you. Who did you talk to outside of your ex-girlfriend and outside of the counsellor? Did you talk to other people about this issue you were having?
William: I talked about this with my brother and my sister… and a friend. But my brother also had something… not similar, but he also ended the relationship of more than ten years less than a year ago before this happened. If that makes sense.
And he also went through couples therapy and he knows, he had some good books, he knows what’s going on… how the ending of a relationship works… when to just realize that if it’s worth it or not. What is going on. And also, my brother and my sister knew her very well. They knew they could interpret… understand the story behind it.
Jesse: And do you feel you had sufficient support from them during this time? And from people in general?
William: Yes, I guess so and it was also reflected in a dream I had. A dream, a few weeks -- or a week after the breakup.
During this couples therapy there were some assignments and you had to write some things about your relationship, what do you really want to change in the relationship, what you need in the relationship and what you are missing, and what you really like. All these things you had to write down and write letters to each other. And I also felt during these assignments I felt that I was putting more work in and doing more effort to save this than her. She was always a little bit lacking. She wasn’t putting much effort in.
But afterwards I had a dream where… she didn’t want to break contact with this guy. She thought he was special in a more professional way, she thought she could learn something and make use of his network or something. She was always struggling between him and me and her relationship with him and bla-dee-bla.
So I had a dream we were walking on a parking lot, I was carrying lots of stuff of her. Big boxes with something heavy in it, I don’t know what it is. She wasn’t carrying anything and we were walking past this guy -- the third person. He didn’t say anything he was just minding something else. He was doing his own stuff. She was really nagging me about why is he ignoring, what is going on, why isn’t he acknowledging me? And I was like there “Hello, why aren’t you more committed to me and caring about all this heavy stuff I’m lifting for you, because it’s your stuff. And we are in a relationship and we are trying to move across this parking lot because on the other end of this parking lot there is some place that we want to be with the both of us.
Then I woke up. It was clear to me that she was not caring about me but about this guy and she wasn’t caring about what I was lifting for her or me lifting it or about the stuff I was lifting, it was just this guy.
And that was really symbolic for me, the end of the relationship at that point.
Jesse: This was after you broke up?
William: Yes, after we broke up.
It was really symbolic. I’m not sure if I remember every detail correctly, I understand the feeling, the message.
I woke up so then I was like “Wow what the fuck was this?” And it was really symbolic and intense, how do I cope with this. Then I thought “Wow, I have to go back. I have to go back to this parking lot. I have to go back to this situation and I have to deal with it.”
So I went back. It was amazing that I could go back to the situation. To finish it once and for all. I went back and what I did was, I smashed everything that I had in my hands to the ground. Like “fuck you”.
I smashed it and I turned around and I saw every friend and family on the other side of the parking lot opposite to where we were going and I felt this overwhelming warmth of support of my close family and close friends. And it was like “Come with us, you don’t need all this stuff and her. It’s okay to be with us.”
Jesse: That’s a beautiful metaphor. I’m interested to hear what you mean by that you were able to go back. Was this the next night?
William: Back to the dream.
Jesse: But how did you go back.
William: The same night. I just closed my eyes.
Jesse: So you fell back asleep and you were able to return?
William: Yeah, I was half awake. I could realize it was a dream and I was awake, but I wanted to go back to the dream. Sometimes you have this feeling you close your eyes and you remember what is happening and try to continue the story so to say.
Jesse: How did this help you?
William: To realize that life isn’t over when you break up. In difficult times you can find support by close friends and close family. It isn’t the end of the world, after breaking up in your relationships. It was really insightful. When you breakup it seems like the end of the world. It hurts like hell. But it was really -- yeah -- a hope-giving moment, a hope-giving realization. That it isn’t the end of the world. Right?
Jesse: I agree. That is a beautiful metaphor. And I am happy for you that you were able to do it in that way.
William: Yeah, and unconsciously. It was just there, the realization. It wasn’t that I was trying to realize it. It was just given to me through a dream.
Jesse: So you felt, after you woke up, presumably the next morning, you felt a difference compared to the period before. You could still have that realization, sort of, close to you?
William: Yeah, yeah. It’s a very vivid memory. A very vivid realization. And it’s just a dream!
Jesse: Our mind can be very, very powerful, and it can help us in these ways. Perhaps this is a good segue to start talking about things that have helped you in your recovery. Because now you are eight months in, it’s been eight months since you guys broke up, tell us a bit about how has the breakup been, how has the period been afterwards, what were your biggest struggles and perhaps your biggest insights, and where do you feel you are right now?
William: Right now I don’t think I’m fully recovered yet.
Jesse: What makes you say that?
William: Well, I think every day, multiple times a week. Also during dreams, I feel this strong… I’m thinking about the relationship and I’m feeling sad about that it’s over… and it is over.
There is always a little bit of sadness that it is over. Every day there is some pain that you are missing the relationship. Irrationally, emotionally you are feeling it. If you think about it you can come to the conclusion that it was the best to end it. I’m better off without this relationship. Because it’s very difficult when you love someone, and I think she loved me as well, but you come to the realization that you are not meant to be or you’re not fit for each other. You can love someone without being a good match for that person.
That’s really contradicting. It’s really strange. You still love someone, but you cannot be together. Why are we not seeing each other if we love each other? But for the long run it’s the best. You’re not meant to be, or you’re not fitting or you’re not compatible. You have to realize this and open your heart for someone else.
Jesse: But is that how you feel now. You feel you love her but you don’t fit together.
William: Yeah. Yeah. And also because it was my first very long relationship. We had so many phases through that we overcame. We had so many different dynamics. We still managed to stay together and have a wonderful relationship. Finally you come to the conclusion you’re not compatible, that you’re not meant to be. That’s hard. It’s still a person that you loved for a really long time. That’s strange. It hurts. That’s making your heart bleed. It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard to mend it or to repair it. Give it time and energy, attention. And that it’s okay to feel sad. And I think I’m in that stage and you cannot rush this. You need to complete this stage to eventually recognize a different person and to open your heart to someone else without carrying the weight of the sadness of your previous relationship.
Jesse: Very good point. You mentioned that now you still feel sadness every day regarding this. How have your emotions evolved since the day you broke up, particularly the intensity of for instance the sadness. But I’m also interested in other emotions you might have had. How has that evolved?
William: Yeah there are some different stages that you are going through. There is a lot of anger. Denial. There was also freshly after the breakup we had some contact just for general stuff. Trivialities. Generic stuff. And this contact, because we broke up, there was no tension anymore that was there before the breakup. We ended the relationship so there was no stress on the relationship. There was no relationship at all. Therefore it was feeling like the start of the relationship. You are independent again. You have your own day-to-day business. It’s strange to then see someone else you really love and know for a long time and you don’t feel that strong anger anymore because there is no relationship anymore. It’s really strange. Some denial or so. You’re starting to feel like it could work. You’re denying all the sadness that has happened. And it’s good that we agreed to not have contact pursue any contact or meetups or something like this. Because, it’s over. But it’s really tempting to hang out again to try again. The loop Hank Moodey in Californication is always in. He’s always trying to start over. And always finding out it doesn’t work. There is always… what is this, denial… optimist… you’re always trying to do the same thing over and over again. And he eventually finds out it doesn’t work.
So that’s one part. Anger is also a part. I also really needed to say things for the record to have her know some thoughts how this all went. I wanted to say some last things about the relationship. Not a conversation to discuss it but I want her to know that I feel like this. And I also read a lot of books about this. I think it’s a great way to get some grasp and know that you are not the only one and I think it’s a good way to know that you are not alone and that there are some phases. I read about this and they suggested that maybe write a letter to that person. In that way you don’t have a conversation but you can express your feelings and your thoughts. And I experienced that when you put those thoughts on paper, they lose their power, they are gone. They’re on the paper. Someone can read it, but maybe not. They’re out of your head. So I wrote her a letter, but never sent it. It was good enough to just get it out of my head.
Jesse: Was this with pen and paper or on the computer?
William: No this was on a computer.
Jesse: Do you think that works just as well?
William: Well my handwriting sucks.
It’s an ongoing thing in your head. I was flexible to put things when they pop up in your head that you can just edit to this list or to this letter and get it out of your head. So that’s why I chose the digital way. But I think pen and paper works as well. It was suggested that you can send it, but you don’t have to. For the more romantic guys you can put it on fire or tear it and throw it in the sea. I have it just on my computer. I know it’s there. If I want to add some things I can always do it. The urge is gone. It was just an instrument to get it out of my head and to save it, or file it or archive it.
Jesse: That’s interesting. It’s a known technique to work in different types of therapy. Expressive writing helps to put your emotions into context and to understand how they relate to one another. I have written down that the things you said that helped you were (1) writing (2) reading books and a feeling of shared experience (3) agree to no contact. Is there anything else that you would, if you were able to talk to yourself eight months ago, what type of advice would you give yourself with the experience and insights you’ve had so far?
William: Yeah, take your time. Comfort yourself. Do nice things. Go have fun. Try to have fun. Don’t sob in a corner. Enjoy. Try to enjoy different things. As hard or easy as it may sound. You cannot rush this. Eventually it will all work out. It’s really harmful… You’re in real big pain right now but it’s all worth it in some way or another. It’s a great reason, or opportunity, to see who you are really. There is some quote from Fight Club:
The guy who has lost everything, has the biggest freedom.
(Edit by Jesse: The actual quote is: It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything.)
When you lose everything, you can go anywhere. I think eventually you will grow as a person if you don’t rush it. And really acknowledge and understand what is happening it can really help you grow as a person. This will eventually get you in a relationship far more complete than your previous one because you know what you’re looking for. You take all this experience with you, that in the end will make you happier -- hopefully.
William: And it’s a necessary pain. And there is no medicine to ease this pain. And know that you are not alone. I think everyone has experienced something similar and you can, by talking to other people about this, you can deal with it. You can handle it. You can become a bigger person.
Jesse: I agree. That’s it for our interview. Thank you so much for your time, William.
William: My pleasure.