I probably could have written the Modern Love essay, Exit Left, Wordlessly, in this past Sunday’s New York Times. Not that I could have penned it better than writer Aimee Lee Ball, just that I have a story which is frighteningly similar. Ball’s tale is about breaking up with a man only to have him resurface eight years later for round two. But instead of the happy ending that would ensue in Rom-Com Land, after a few months of “too good to be true” dating, the man disappeared from her life without explanation. “No message. No note,” she says. I refer to this dating phenomenon as ghosting — when a man disappears without a trace.
“Ambiguous loss” as Ball calls it, is a particularly heinous and cruel way to have a relationship end because you’re left without any indication of what might have gone wrong.”[It's] unfinished business, without closure or understanding,” Ball explains.When the man I was dating for the second time in one decade dematerialized without any warning signs, I was baffled. Then I was bitter. Then I just walked around with an open wound that I expected would never heal. I would try to tend to it, but I couldn’t because I didn’t even know what kind of bandages to use. Explanations from him, I assumed, would be the only thing to make the pain stop and the wound close. But I knew intellectually I would probably never get them.
“There’s a cauterizing process following any breakup, ” Ball says. “Hardly anyone gets through life without hearing, ‘I’ve met somebody else’ or ‘This isn’t going the way I’d hoped.’ Couples come to the end of a road with each other for valid reasons or for no reason, but they find a way to say so. Absent any saying-so, I began a lapidary process, chipping away at our history in a search for enlightenment.”
I went through my own search for enlightenment once the initial shock passed. I mined our time together for nuggets about what might have gone wrong. I came up with lots of theories. New theories all the time!
He got back together with his ex.
He relapsed on alcohol.
He didn’t feel anything when he kissed me.
He didn’t think he deserved me.
But the search for answers was a fruitless one, as I’d never really know anything for sure. Ball found balm for her “ambiguous loss” by watching “Mad Men.” Don Draper’s character reminded her of her ghoster — the man who only likes beginnings. I, on the other hand, poured over episodes of “Intervention” and read all the addiction memoirs I could get my hands on. My ghoster was an addict and coming from a family (and extended family) containing no addicts, I didn’t understand the disease. Maybe if I had compassion for his illness, and understood his betrayal as a symptom, I would feel less enraged?
Not really. More than a year went by and I still craved closure. Every few months, I had dreams where he showed up and I asked him, “Why? Why would you make a grandiose entrance back into my life after years only to screw me over again? What kind of a cruel person are you?”
I fantasized about various scenarios of running into him in real life. Would I kick him in the balls, spit on him, wave and keep on walking? A few months back, I finally did run into him. And when it happened, I did absolutely nothing. I pretended not to see him, rendered dumb and mute. I let him pass me by again, wordlessly. After that I was forced to consider the possibility that maybe I didn’t really want answers.
Have explanations ever made a breakup any less painful?
No. “Reasons why we’re breaking up” are always bullshit. When you get down to it, the only reason anyone is breaking up with anyone is because two people are no longer right for each other. A reason is a carefully constructed consolation prize to help assuage the loss. Maybe I didn’t want answers because if I got them, I’d have to go through the grieving process all over again.
If that day, my ghoster had explained that he accidentally slept with his ex, or that he was afraid I knew too much about him, or that the way I kissed turned him off, would it have changed anything?
Ball’s moment of closure came when she considered the method by which her ghoster exited:
“This man’s way of ending things, I realized, was as clear as an X-ray, not of bones but of character, and surgically clean of the platitudes, excuses and lies that often accompany a breakup. The epiphany was one I resisted because it was so convenient to censure him. But in revealing himself that way, the cad actually did me a favor.”
She seemed to answer the final question that was lingering in my mind, the thing that would help me cauterize the wound for good. I don’t really need to know why he disappeared, I only need to know how. And I do; there’s nothing else to uncover, no more answers that will satisfy. His wordless exit is the one thing I know for sure.