For most of us, writing a hit song isn’t an option. But plenty of us peasants know the feeling: We have stared down an unraveling romantic relationship and wanted desperately to spew one more sick burn or two about a now-former partner. We should resist that urge. Airing all your grievances in a breakup is undignified and it is unkind.
I recently got out of a nearly two-year monogamous relationship and faced the temptation to present a litany of all remembered grievances to my ex. “I’ll never have a chance to say these things to him again! I have to get it off my chest!,” I reasoned during one late-night battle of wills between my best self and my cruelest texting fingers. There is so much that a person does wrong in the course of a relationship! They withhold affection! They are too clingy! They obsess over their looks! They give up on their appearance three months in! They are blasé about the political turmoil of the country! They get too worked up by every little news item! They have no sense of adventure in food! They unnecessarily add peas to perfectly good recipes!
I am being deliberately vague about what the petty grievances were in my relationship. I didn’t end up airing them with him, and I certainly don’t want to air them for the public here. The breakup itself was about one primary issue: a clearly irreconcilable difference in who we were and what we needed. Talking about our shared and mutual failures in that realm was expected and necessary. But we weren’t breaking up over a compilation of small annoyances we had with one another, and we mostly managed not to bring them up.
As difficult as it was to bite my tongue and swallow my pride when I had such eloquent turns of phrase with which to drag him at the ready, I am glad for having withheld them. By doing so, we refused to engage in behaviors that would otherwise be beneath us. And most of all it meant that the main issue of our relationship’s demise was cast in sharper relief. Without extraneous insults about hygiene, punctuality and choices in adult friendships, there was more space to see the edges of the Big Issue. And it was that space that let us see that it was big enough to break us.
Friends have asked whether it was advisable to withhold these things, if I was sure I was going to be okay if I never “got them off my chest.” That idiom gets tossed around so casually that we forget its literal gravity: To have something on my chest doesn’t refer to a stray hair or some Cheeto dust on my shirt. It refers to a burden so great that it impairs my ability to breathe. If a minor grievance is suffocating, it is more often than not that we are using it as a cover for some greater issue. That, or we are just looking for excuses to be unhappy with a partner.
We think that rattling off the internal lists we’ve been poisoning ourselves with will bring relief, but they hurt both parties. For the most part, these endless little errors in our ways do not cause others real and lasting harm. They just make us human. The blood of a bit tongue is far less rancid than the bile of resentment, particularly against a person who is already hurting.
As much as I guffaw at the immaturity of Bieber’s claims to not care anymore while casually tearing his ex apart, when I really listen to that song, I am horrified by its cruelty. Consider the line: “Cause if you like the way you look that much / Oh baby you should go and love yourself.” The subtext is: “Because I certainly don’t like the way you look enough to love you.” And I can’t think of anything more hurtful than the likes of the line: “My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone.” On the surface it is cutting, but the core of those words is: “You are impossible to like, by even the most generous standards.” If you can say things like that and find your chest relieved of a burden rather than weighed down heavily with guilt, well to borrow a phrase from Bieber: “The only problem was with you and not them.”
Since my ex and I withheld our minor agitations with each other, it allowed us to walk away with more of our integrity and our decency intact. There was certainly great pain inflicted in what had to be said, but we chose to see that pain and know it was enough. We knew all the words that would cut each other deeply, and we chose to inflict the discomfort of precise but necessary incisions rather than sadistic gashes. There was more than enough pain in that. Even though we couldn’t love each other anymore, we hoped with more sincerity than sneering that we could each go and love ourselves.