What the Wrong Relationship Can Sometimes Get Right

boyfriend writers club man repeller

The most interesting mistakes are the ones with twist endings. Which is why the below three stories caught my attention while I was reading through July’s Writers Club submissions. The prompt had asked: What’s the worst mistake you’re glad you made? Below, Molly, Catherine, and Cameron share stories about missteps in love and fractured romances that, in the end, aren’t really about those things at all.

A Difficult Habit to Break

By Molly McLaughlin

The worst mistake I ever made was a boy. More accurately, it was believing everything that boy told me was true. I was 17 when I started believing him and 21 when I finally stopped. I believed he was smarter than me, more important than me, and that it was therefore my responsibility to make the relationship work. I also believed him when he told me that the Arctic Monkeys were the height of musical brilliance and Lolita was a completely unproblematic work of genius.

Before this particular boy proved me wrong, I regularly believed men in general. In my head, their opinions were always true and unbiased, because they spoke them with such authority and, well, society said so. Whether it was my dad, my teachers, or random men catcalling me on the street, I rarely considered that my experience could be valid in the face of a competing male narrative.

That all came crashing down with the evidence that the boy I had loved for years was actually kind of a dick. When he broke up with me in his dingy college dorm room (for no reason he was able to accurately communicate), my best friend told me she had known all along.

One time, she reminded me, he criticized me for loading up the camping gear incorrectly after we had spent the weekend at a music festival. I had almost forgotten that moment. To me it was insignificant, despite the fact that I regularly camped with my family and he had been camping approximately zero times before. I do remember that he broke a tent pole doing it his way while I sat in the car, glowing with rage-tinged vindication.

After a lifetime of not believing in myself, it was a difficult habit to break. It was winter in a new city and I felt alone every day, like I was constantly fighting my way home through a heavy fog. I listened to The Goldfinch audiobook, all 32 hours and 24 minutes of it. I didn’t really enjoy it; I was just waiting for the fog to lift. Eventually it did. All I know is that everything reminded me of my mistakes until one day I woke up and realized I hadn’t been wrong, at least not in the way I thought.

Sometimes I feel stupid for believing him at all. But maybe if that boy hadn’t broken my heart so completely, I would have kept on ignoring my desires, discounting my expertise and silencing my own stories. Making that mistake in my early twenties made me the bossy, honest, vulnerable woman I am today. It’s still scares me to say what I think and ask for what I want, but it gets easier all the time. It feels like the truth.

Growing Pains

By Catherine Devine

I was surprised at how much I could cry for such a dehydrated person. I had just begun to process my first-ever fight with a boy, and my reaction was shock, shame, and, “Shit, Catherine, why’d you do that?”

In a moment of emotionally charged frustration, I flipped out on the guy I was dating because I thought he wasn’t spending enough time with me. I blew up his phone (while he was at an important family dinner nonetheless) with calls, text messages, the whole shebang. I had become a meme. The trope of the needy partner personified.

I never thought of myself as capable of this kind of behavior. I believed I was competent, strong, independent, someone who didn’t need validation from men, but I had proved myself wrong in a single evening. What else about my identity have I fantasized? I wondered.

The aftermath wasn’t good. In an effort to pick up the pieces, I stupidly told him that I loved him. He was mad, and I was tragically embarrassed and spiraling.

So there I was, one day later, sitting in my pajamas on the sidewalk outside my dormitory, on the phone with my incredibly patient mom, who can always tell when I’m sad based on her call log: the more calls the sadder I am. That day was the most I had ever called.

On the phone, I begged her to tell me that it would all go back to normal. “He’ll come back right?” I repeated into the receiver, as though her confirmation could make it true. My mom has always been my protector, my emotional rock, someone who made me food and read me bedtime stories. I wanted her to soothe me, to stitch my heart back together and tell me that I did no wrong. But that’s not reality—nor was it true. And there comes a time when a mother’s kiss cannot make it better.

She took a deep breath into the phone. “You know Catherine, this is just growing pains,” she said.

And I couldn’t think of a better way to frame my young adult angst. Growing pains: a natural byproduct of the maturation process. An acknowledgment of the banality of my situation that didn’t rob it of its significance.
I’m embarrassed about how long it took me to truly appreciate my mom’s wisdom. Psychological heuristics tell us that it is only natural to oversimplify people—it promotes brain efficiency—but how wrong I’d been to forget that my mom is many things, and has so much more to offer (to me and the world) than just comfort.

It was a bittersweet wake-up call, but I am grateful for it.

Anyway: Dating Him Was a Big Mistake

By Cameron Gunn

My sophomore year of high school was spent trying desperately to be a girl I was not—a girl I despised, actually—in order to please my totally popular, totally egotistical boyfriend. I can say this now because I graduated in June, and I know for a fact that [insert his name here] is not cultured enough to read Man Repeller

This boy is now a subject of my empathy. I’ve come to see his worldview—in which he is the star and the rest of the human population is either audience or ensemble—as sad, not to mention bound to result in an early existential crisis. This self-centered outlook isn’t entirely uncommon, although most of us grow out of it around age five. Anyway: Dating him was a big mistake.

I had recently quit dance, my lifelong passion, which left me with an insatiable void that I attempted to fill with his approval and attention. I developed new insecurities about every aspect of myself—my body, my intellect, my sexuality—because he constantly put me down, elevating himself in turn. I neglected my long-time friends, rejecting invitations and failing to be there for them, in order to put all my time and energy into him. I also became the most unhinged version of myself: I was completely irrational and overthought everything that concerned him. If he was at a friend’s house and the friend had an older sister, my stomach hurt with jealousy.

But despite the terribleness that was our one-sided, soul-crushing relationship, I don’t regret dating him. Because he inadvertently and ironically led me to find my truest love. He had signed up for theater as a resume builder. It was not enough to be the athletic and intelligent golden boy, he must also be artistic. And since he took theater, I took theater. It was a way, I thought, to gain one more hour with him, but what I actually gained was a very necessary outlet and a life path.

My newfound passion for theater provided me all of the love and affirmation I’d been searching so hopelessly for within another human. It was there that I learned that, for me, the key to self-acceptance is finding something to put my energy into that makes me feel good and whole and proud.

I’ll be studying theater in college this coming fall—and I have to thank my 15-year-old self for making the mistake of basing all of her decisions around a boy. Because I have no idea where I’d be without theater, and therefore I have no idea where I’d be without her.

Photo by Sherman Oaks Antique Mall via Getty Images.

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