Names have been changed.
Peter and I met in physics class when I was a freshman. We were told to decorate our folders with something related to physics and we both chose the iconic spaceship from the television series Doctor Who. We lived near each other so we started walking home after school together, often with our other friends. He was funny and a talented singer and improv actor. Once we became friends, I could count on him to be there for me. He was sensitive and protective of people he cared about.
Before I had even met Peter, I had envisioned my life playing out like the song “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift: two best friends realize that they had been in love all along. Over the course of our friendship, several people told us that we would be a cute couple, and it got me toying with the idea.
So when Peter expressed more intense feelings for me about a year after we became friends, I thought, “Wow, is this really happening? This is exactly how I’d imagined it.” I was reluctant since I knew that our friendship would probably never be the same, but I also figured that if I didn’t date him now, I might regret it.
Two days after we started dating, he confessed that he had been down because he felt like I wasn’t expressing my feelings for him. Even before that, I had noticed that he seemed sensitive and needy, and I often felt like I was letting him down. I felt pressure to express strong feelings before I actually felt them.
Much of what I said to him was to make him happy and to make him feel better about himself, not because I actually wanted to say it. A week after we started dating, we were texting almost non-stop. We had already exchanged several “I love yous,” and he had given me my first quick peck on the lips.
He walked me home most days, and he would often take pictures of me, even though I told him I would rather he didn’t. One day, he asked me if I was OK with him recording a video of me saying “I love you.” I hesitantly obliged, even though I was uncomfortable.
One place where I did stand my ground was with how physical we would be. I had learned from talking to my older sisters that you and your partner need to talk about sex before you’re in an awkward situation where you might be expected to do something sexual that you’re not ready to do.
So as soon as I got home from our first date, I texted him, explaining that I had some rules and it would be a deal-breaker if he wasn’t willing to follow them. They could be summed up with two words: consent and abstinence. I told him we would not be doing anything unless both of us were OK with it, and had verbalized clearly that we were OK with it. And we would not be doing anything sexual. (I never clearly defined what I meant by sexual, but to me it meant anything beyond holding hands or kissing.) He agreed, and never pressured me for more.
Still, our relationship felt unbalanced. He wanted to spend more time with me than I did with him. A few weeks after we started dating, we had a day off from school, and we planned to hang out and watch The Breakfast Club. He had never seen it and it was one of my favorite movies. But the night before, my friend invited me to a Twenty One Pilots concert. A few other girls from our school were going, and we would have to spend most of the day waiting outside the venue so we could get in. I told her I would get back to her.
I really wanted to go; they are one of my favorite bands. I told Peter that and that he and I could watch the movie any time, but the concert was only on this one night. He told me I should go, but I could tell he was disappointed. After a few hours of feeling guilty, I told my friend that my parents said I couldn’t go. At the time I was happy to have made Peter happy, but looking back on it now I wish I had gone to the concert.
Conflicting Religious Beliefs
There was also tension between us about my religion. I am a Christian and he is decidedly anti-religion. He blamed God for the death of his grandmother, his problems at home, and almost every bad thing that had ever happened to him. One of the first times the subject came up, after I mentioned a Christian TV show, he gave me a long, heated tirade about how religion ruined his life, and how God has never been there for him. He ended by saying, “I don’t think we can be friends based on how we stand on this issue.” A few hours later he changed his mind, but I made sure to tread carefully after that.
Still, my religion is a big part of my life, so it was bound to come up again. One day, after we started dating, I was curled up in an armchair, doing homework and texting Peter. We were talking about the multi-verse theory, that there are an infinite number of alternate universes, each varying slightly from the others. “So there’s a universe where you’re an atheist,” Peter texted me. (An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God.) I was confused, but I thought that he was just teasing me. I played along and replied, “So that must mean there’s a universe where you’re a Christian.”
“Yeah, I’d like to live with atheist you,” he said. I dropped it but I was offended. Was he saying that he would rather be with theoretical atheist me than the version of me that he was actually dating? I felt disrespected. I thought, “If that’s really what you think of Christianity, why are you even talking to me, much less dating me?” The problem wasn’t that we had differing religious beliefs, it was that he didn’t make an effort to understand or respect mine.
I had a full schedule, so I barely had time to myself even without a boyfriend. Once Peter was in the picture, I still needed time to myself just for my emotional health as an introvert, so almost as soon as we started dating I missed the freedom that came with being single. This, combined with all of the other problems in our relationship, made me realize that I would be happier without dating Peter.
We had been dating for a little less than a month when I decided to end it.
I texted him and said, “We need to talk. Can I steal you for a few minutes after school?” He didn’t respond, and I couldn’t hang around school waiting for him because I had an after-school internship. Later that day, I was babysitting when I got a text, “No, but you can steal me now. What’s up?”
As soon as I got home, I texted to ask him if we could talk tomorrow; I didn’t want to tell him over a text message. But he wanted to know what was going on. “Are you breaking up with me?” he texted. So I explained my reasons, and he tersely said goodbye, and that was the end of it.
Peter would say that he didn’t matter, I was his life, and he wanted his life to revolve around me. I found that obsessive and frightening. Being put on a pedestal like that is stressful, and it was too much pressure for me. Maybe I should have talked to him about the space that I needed, but I’m not sure if it would have helped.
I felt guilty about harming his fragile self-esteem, but I was going through a lot with my family and having my own feelings. I had other priorities. Still, after it ended it was harder for me than I had expected. I lost one of my best friends.
For about a month, I felt like anything could set me off crying. Of course, it wasn’t just because of Peter; it was also my grandparents, who were having health problems, and the fact that a sculpture that I was making for a school project kept collapsing, and that my friend abandoned me on Halloween.
On the flip side, it was an important month because that was when I made taking care of myself a priority. I hadn’t given much thought to self-care before, because I had never needed it, but now I know how to make myself feel better when I’m sad.
I started wearing make-up to school, because it was fun and I needed to cheer myself up. One day on the way home, when I was feeling emotionally fragile, I walked through the Union Square Greenmarket and bought myself a flowering plant. I named it after one of my favorite book characters, Mattie Gokey, from A Northern Light.
In the end, I am glad that I dated Peter because if I hadn’t I might not have learned to value being single. I also know now that a relationship just for the sake of a relationship is not worth the effort. I dated Peter because I felt like I ought to, and I didn’t want to let him down, not because I was attracted to him beyond friendship. Next time, I will only enter a relationship if I want to, for myself. Not for the other person.