Dealbreaker: He Held Me Back

I was a social butterfly with a wild streak; he could count his friends on one hand and spent most weekends in.

In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.

Late at night, barefoot at a pay phone in Cape Town, South Africa, I pressed my ear to the receiver and listened to my boyfriend break up with me from 10,000 miles away. I had seen it coming from just as far.
I met him in my first college newspaper staff meeting—I was the overexcited rookie sophomore, he the cute senior associate editor sitting in the corner. It took me a couple of months to drum up the courage to send him my number over Facebook. He took an entire semester to casually ask me out. On our first date, we shared our passion for hip-hop over Taco Bell chalupas. I made him a mix CD that started with Ginuwine and ended with J. Holiday. A few nights later, he picked me up from a party where I had been drinking. When I told him he could sleep over, he crawled close in my twin bed.
“Can I kiss you?” he whispered, as my roommate lay awkwardly, three feet away. “No,” I replied. “I like you. I want our first kiss to be special.” A week later, when he took me to San Diego’s Little Italy on a rainy Valentine’s Day and easily placed his hand on my knee, it was.
From there, being with him felt like slipping under a warm blanket. We spent our days running errands together, playing Crash Bandicoot, and laughing endlessly in bed. The domestic thing was new for me. I was a social butterfly with a wild streak; he could count his friends on one hand and spent most weekends in. I struggled to loosen my grip on my freedom while he pushed me to commit. But he made me feel irresistibly wanted for the first time, so I was happy to waste full days in a darkened room with him—and later, spend my weekends struggling to earn a spot in his close-knit family, tagging along for all the board games, bowling excursions, and bickering tennis matches. At first, I was a little jealous—my family spent much of its quality time in front of the television—but soon I began to wonder why a 22-year-old man wasn’t more eager to occasionally leave the nest.
That summer, I flew off to Guadalajara for six weeks to study art and religion. He and I weren’t officially together, but we still Skyped almost every day—when I wasn’t partying, setting off on mini-vacations, or sharing the occasional kiss with another man. Every night, I’d log back on to relay him the latest news from my host family or the brand-new local friends I’d made on a weekend trip. He talked about sports.
Before I returned to the states, I excitedly invited him on my family’s planned houseboat vacation to Lake Powell. He was less enthused: He had moved back home post-graduation and would be starting a new job a few weeks later. He told me he needed “time to get ready.” Really, he wanted to stay home, watch sports, and avoid my family. But I pushed, and he reluctantly agreed.
I could practically hear the violins serenading our reunion when I met him on the dock in Utah. It felt so satisfying to kiss him after weeks traipsing around Mexico, and I hoped the week in close quarters would help cement our relationship. He made a halfhearted effort to get along with my parents and group of best friends from home, who were also along for the trip, but something felt off. Five days in, we lay in bed talking when he broke into tears. “I miss my family,” he confessed.
My eyes rolled dramatically, but my body turned to comfort him. He was a young man experiencing a beautiful place with a girlfriend who loved him, and all he could think about was getting back into his childhood bedroom. And yet, because he finally expressed he was ready for us to be together more seriously, I held on. My dedication paid off months later when, after a dip in the ocean, I held him close and whispered “I love you” into his ear, and he whispered the words back to me.
But his actions spoke louder. The further my geographic location from his bedroom, the more he complained about making plans. When I stayed with my parents during the summer, he refused to make the hour-and-10-minute drive. When I moved back to school, he made even the half-hour distance between us seem like a hardship. He hated sleeping over at my rental house near the beach because he said it felt “temporary.” He ridiculed the themed sorority events I lived to attend, and resisted being my date. He would sometimes join me at house parties with my friends, but made sure I knew he wasn’t happy about it. College life was repellent to him, even when he was living it.
And when I discussed my intent to apply to out-of-state grad schools, he dismissed the idea. “Don’t go to grad school,” he groaned—it was pointless to get a higher education in journalism, and I would be too far away. We had reached an impasse: I would always want to move across the country, travel, meet new people, try new things. He would always want to be near his family, spend weekends at home, never miss a Broncos game, and spend the night in his own bed.
Then, one sunny fall day, we were sitting in his backyard chatting about my upcoming spring semester at sea when he crashed through the gridlock. “We won’t be together then anyway,” he dropped nonchalantly.
“Why are we together now, then?” I asked, angry that he had disappointed me once again. He quickly backtracked—he had been in a long-distance relationship with another girlfriend that left him wounded, he told me—and when it came time to have “the talk” a few nights before I left, he surprised me by telling me he still wanted to call me his girlfriend while I was gone. I ignored the voice screaming at me to end it. I agreed, and shipped off.
Only a month passed before I found myself standing barefoot in a black dress in Cape Town, gripping my high heels to my heart, listening to my boyfriend tell me he had met someone back home, that he wasn’t sure he would ever love me, and he didn’t want to spend any more time waiting to find out. The heartbreak was crippling, but I never let it keep me from a single day of exploring. I visited 12 different countries as our ship traveled around the world. I climbed the Great Wall of China, went skinny-dipping in three oceans, had an affair in Thailand, and met lifelong friends.
By the end of the semester, I felt a radiance that could only come from total independence. I’ve carried it with me to grad school in upstate New York, months spent interning in Los Angeles, and a new job in New York City. Three years later, he still lives at home.
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