If bad advice could win awards, I’d nominate the utterly meaningless “When you know, you know.” That the right choice could bring with it a sense of existential certainty, of placid unquestioning — that there even is one definitive right choice at all, one we can locate through some kind of gut magic — is, to my mind, a foolish idea at best, and a dangerous one at worst.
Having said that, here are two moments of clarity I’ve personally experienced.
The first: I was 26, and my boyfriend had hollowed out into a figure that only vaguely resembled the person I’d loved for eight years. One night, something broke: I could see myself from a distance, measuring every word so as to be the least demanding, most amenable version of myself — the human equivalent of a beanbag chair. I pitied that person, and I hated her, too, and then I heard myself, the floating one, say firmly, “I can’t do this anymore.” My boyfriend went quiet; I immediately tried to backtrack, but he’d heard it too — that strange, violent certainty — and that was the last time we spoke until five months later, when I found out he’d been sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend and I decided to leave the city where we’d lived together.
The second moment was quieter, easier. On our third date, my now-husband confessed to having read most of my work online before we met. I’d been dating, and writing, for years, and not one of the men I’d dated in the past had ever read my words. It was, I realized suddenly, the first time that any guy had taken the same level of interest in me as I had in them. It was the simplest indication of care, and it took my breath away.
These moments were just that — flashes, quickly supplanted by the endless questioning and second-guessing that feel, to my relentlessly anxious brain, much more like home. But they each taught me something, and each propelled me toward a decision in which I felt stronger and more confident than I did before (in one case, the decision to go; in the other, to stay). I think some of the most important work we’ve done in the sphere of modern relationships is to normalize the uncertainty of romantic love; to dispel the myth of soulmates, of unquestioning monogamy, of passive acquiescence to fate. And yet I’m fascinated by the way we can, despite all that, often pinpoint the exact moment our choices became clear.
What makes those moments shine more brightly than the others? How do we recognize certainty when we feel it? Below, nine moments, in all their crystal clarity.
“My now-husband showed up to help me move out of my apartment after I’d been traumatized by a home invasion, even though he’d just broken his clavicle in a bike accident.”
“My relationship had become really heated, and I decided to go upstate for the weekend. In my time away, I spent hours crafting a really long email in hopes of resuscitating whatever we had left. I wrote:
I feel that in a relationship, this is going to happen a million times over – two differing opinions and the challenge of coming back together in spite of it. I think even when a couple disagrees, they have to be able to acknowledge that each other can have a different perspective. I don’t know how a couple survives otherwise. I acknowledge yours. I see why you distanced yourself from me. I think you’re an incredibly fair and thoughtful person, but at times I feel your opinion is your opinion and there’s no budging. That’s your right, too, I’m just not sure where to go from there. I’m not sure how we last.
He wrote back, and said a lot less, but there was only one line that really mattered in his email: ‘Do what feels right to you, is what I always think. That’s the right thing to do.’
It was clear, then, that he didn’t understand what I was asking: I was seeking a collective decision, not an individual decision. I wanted to create a new way of being together, not operate as an individual. He, on the other hand, believed that what each of us wanted — alone — was paramount. What he wanted wasn’t wrong. What I wanted wasn’t wrong. But they didn’t match up. We no longer fit. It hurt like hell (and still does), but there was no denying it.”
“I was clinging to a relationship that had already failed, and my anxiety was so bad that I had lost 20 pounds and no longer recognized myself when I looked in the mirror. I had this amazing moment of clarity when I was in Vermont and looking at a beautiful lake and feeling so sad that I was incapable of enjoying it.”
“I knew I was done with my first serious boyfriend the moment I let someone else kiss me.”
“We had a huge bag of trail mix and over the course of a few weeks, my grimy hands found every single M&M but left the nuts and raisins. Without saying anything, my partner bought a giant bag of M&M’s and mixed them with the remaining trail mix so I could fish them out again.”
“My former boyfriend wasn’t there when I had a medical emergency. It took him two hours to get to the hospital because he had to shower and drink his two coffees. That was my moment of clarity.”
“I dreamed that my partner and I were getting married and I was trying to tell people that I didn’t want to but no one was listening, and when I woke up I genuinely believed it had happened and I didn’t feel anything — no horror or joy — just this leaden acceptance, a deep, melancholy resignation. We broke up a week later.”
“There are two moments I can identify when I knew my husband was the person I wanted to be with for life. The first was the moment I met him: something inside of me actually shifted. For the first time, a romantic partner engaged in what I consider healthy communication. We addressed the messy stuff, the stuff of imperfections, and we celebrated that. For the first time, I felt wholly safe in being myself.
The second time was when he betrayed me. The journey that we went through to pull ourselves out of our trauma was one of the hardest things a couple could go through, and we actually came out stronger.”
“The tricky thing about self-identifying as a romantic and having grown up watching Boy Meets World and listening to Ja Rule, is that I learned to fall in love with the chase. The courting. I only knew the moments leading up to the first kiss. I only knew how to say sorry and ask for forgiveness in a way that didn’t ask me to identify the reason I was saying sorry in the first place. I didn’t know how to recognize true love until I almost lost it. It was when Carlie said, ‘I’m not asking you to make a choice, I’m just letting you know that if you don’t, you will lose me,’ that I realized that a life without her, like fully without her, wasn’t a life I wanted to live.“
Collage by Madeline Montoya.