Can We Ever Go Back?
It's OK If You Don't Want To
The relationship was over. We'd both moved on long ago though our friendship endured. We’d reach out from time to time, and occasionally meet for coffee or a walk to reconnect and catch up. We still cared, and time together always felt comfortable and safe. It had been an open and honest relationship, perhaps the first one in my life and, at least with each other we spoke easily and truthfully, even on more difficult topics. One afternoon he broached the subject of “friends with benefits and, while I wasn’t surprised by his boldness, I was taken aback by the request itself. We'd been over for years, both involved with other partners. Why would I want to go back or jeopardize what I had now? Why would he? Especially since by this time, he was already married.
I still loved him, and the sex had been fabulous but, I wasn’t willing to risk my current relationship on something with zero future. My partner had long-term potential and we’ve been together now for almost thirty years. Even though I loved the easy, open communication of that relationship, something my husband and I worked hard to achieve, an occasional roll in the hay could never take the place of the lasting partnership I built with my partner.
I gently told him it wasn't possible, and I hoped we could still stay in touch. It was a choice, one that I’ve never regretted but, the question continued to roll around in my head... Can we ever go back?
Opportunities may sound enticing, greener grass, and all that but, at what cost? In this case, for me at least, there was too much risk for small tangible gain to warrant consideration on my part. I did love him, but I loved my soon-to-be husband much more. In this instance, it was an easier decision but, what about when it’s not?
A few years back I chose to end a lifelong friendship. I walked away, not just from a childhood friend but from the entire family as well. Over the years, the relationship had become more one-sided, demands made for my time, skills or other things I could offer with no appreciation and little to no regard for what else may be going on. I was always wrong. Whatever the situation, I never handled things the way they felt I should, and disapproval was routinely on full display. I closed the door and didn’t look back. It was months before they even noticed. When a family emergency revived the disapproval, I responded in the ways I felt were right for me, not anyone else. Wrong again.
I understood, in the pain of the moment, the natural desire to reach for a friend who’d always been there, and the expectation that I always would be. But not this time, I couldn’t go back and pretend these things hadn’t happened. I’d been treated terribly, taken advantage of, harmed financially and emotionally yet, in this moment, none of that mattered. All that mattered was I wasn’t there, standing in the proscribed box and acting in the prescribed manner, putting all else aside to be the placeholder for that period. Understandably, there was anger. I’d dutifully stood in the box for years, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put on that costume yet again. There was nothing to be gained and minimal risk to my emotional well-being if I failed to stand firm in this decision.
So why did it feel so much harder to stand my ground? Shouldn’t it be way harder to remind the ex we couldn’t have hook up anymore? What if I’d decided to go back? Not to the ex, that’s out. But what if I’d done things differently? What if, just this one time, because there was an emergency, I’d chosen to step back into the proverbial box?
I couldn’t seem to shake this question. I don’t remember exactly what triggered it but, in my pondering, I played out multiple scenarios in my head. Each one ended the same way, with some sort of indentured servitude. I could have gone back, been there to support the family as I’d done every time in the past. I never stopped loving any of them so the pull to be there and to make things easier had real teeth to it. I wanted to be there for people I cared about. They’d been there for me too but over the years the dynamic had shifted in a way that was not just unsustainable, it was toxic. The more I thought about this, the more I realized I wasn’t alone. We can all have that blind spot, where we sacrifice what’s best for ourselves to do what’s best for others. We do this again and again. It happens in parenting all the time. When my kids were young, I had a file folder in my head called, “I fucking hate this but, it’s for your own good so we’re doing it.” The things in that file could fill my garage by now, but I did them anyway. In weighing the risk reward scenarios, it was usually a bigger risk not to do (or let the kids do) the thing because we believed in the growth or opportunity that could come down the line.
I asked myself, in thinking about this friendship, what was the most likely scenario if I were to step in? The answer I came to was always the same. The same, more of the same. Stepping into the role I’d always played would only lead to the expectation of more and the resumption of business as usual. It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take. As much as I loved them all, I still didn’t want to go back.
They say time heals and while I know that’s true, time also brings wisdom and, I know I acted in the best way I could, given the situation at the time. I also know this fueled deep anger and resentment in a family I still care about to this day. Those feelings may or may not pass, that’s not up to me. The further I got from the word salad of emotions and vitriol, the more I understood that little had changed for them, they hadn’t even noticed I was gone until now. Nothing had changed “over there” but I had changed “over here.” I was stronger now. I chose to protect my heart and emotional welfare and time has shown it was the right move for me. I no longer feel guilty for not being there, I’m grateful I chose to be there for me instead. At the time, it was difficult to override my emotions but deep down inside, I knew I could never go back.
In the end, it made a huge difference for me to step back from things that no longer served any higher good and to move away from people and places that took me for granted. There is so much strength that can come in when we finally say, “no more” and open that space up for something else to emerge. It took me a long time to step away from that relationship, a lot longer than it probably should have but I’ve seen over and over again it was the right decision for me. Not allowing myself to be pulled back into situations I knew in my heart were not in my highest good allowed better opportunities to be revealed and, in the ensuing years, new friendships have arisen to fill the void. I’m blessed to be surrounded by friends who love, value, and respect one another, people lift me up every single day. Together we have built open, honest, and mutually beneficial connections that I know will last for years. That’s something I’m willing to go back to, over and over again.