I’ve discovered that I’m very good at stumbling into relationships. Not entirely unconsciously, of course – it’s hard not to notice you've got a partner when you’re waking up to the stench of another person’s morning breath a couple of times a week. But my speciality has always been allowing the late-night hook-ups, free and easy WhatsApping and unacknowledged attachment to rumble on until, oops, I’ve just been introduced as someone’s 'girlfriend'.
I have a self-deprecating perspective that easily lends itself to a weird kind of "Hello, I’m Jazmin and I’m a commitment-phobe" attitude. I had hoped it looked like I was one of those nonchalantly 'cool' girls when, it turns out, it was just a thinly veiled attempt to hide how shit it was to have felt so romantically undesirable for years.
The last time I was on course for accidental girlfriend status, my friends reminded me of this. They told me to stop being a knob, follow the course with some intention this time and tell the poor sod that I liked him. Begrudgingly, I followed orders.
We’re all familiar with the optics. TV, books, films, those frustratingly smug Facebook couples; they all tell us what a relationship is 'meant' to look and feel like. We muddle through our relationships under the assumption that the other person is just meant to 'get you', to 'complete you'. Of all the frustrating terminology, the phrase 'my other half' really drives home the pressure of this intrinsic understanding and dependence between two people. Obviously, a few labels aren't the be-all and end-all when it comes to the big L.O.V.E. But what about when you don’t have anything close to that? What if, when you finally find someone you’re attracted to, who you care about, who you really want to share all those intimate things with, you’re left feeling more alone than you did when you were single?
My relationship with this guy, let’s call him P, wasn’t my first. In fact, our fate definitely wasn’t helped by the fact that, retrospectively, my relationship with a previous boyfriend was the closest I’ve ever felt to having a 'soulmate'. After that nudge from my mates to jump on into things with Mr P, I suppose I expected a similar connection.
P was a friend of a friend who sometimes appeared on nights out. Our ritual quickly became drinks (together or with separate groups), end-of-night texts, Ubers to his place, very good sex and lazy afternoons together the following day. We had it nailed and I let myself believe he was starting to fill a gap that I’d tried for so long to pretend didn’t exist. But all the other stuff that I’d hoped would come along when I surrendered to the girlfriend label – an ability to hold conversations about the tricky stuff, a willingness to let him get involved with my life, his understanding of my perspective – wasn’t always there.
Don’t get me wrong, we had some really nice, mushy stuff together. We had nicknames for each other, secrets that our mutual friends didn’t know about and the type of sex life that, much to our enjoyment, really pissed off our respective housemates. I really thought I loved him. But that wasn’t enough for me. It wasn’t until about three or four months after we broke up that I realised it was loneliness I'd been feeling while we were together. I didn't hate him, I just didn't feel connected to him (or much else for that matter). The unresolved isolation I’d been feeling before P only felt more dramatic while we were together, and made it harder to deal with when I came out the other side a little under a year later.
I tried to talk to him candidly about my mental health once, but he couldn’t relate and didn’t really take what I was saying on board. There was a time he prompted a conversation about race. He, a white man, was far too quick to dismiss my personal perspective as a black woman and really didn’t understand why that would be upsetting. By no means did he have to agree with me, but his not wanting to accept my thoughts was a big blow to the happy new couple bubble.
There quickly became things, important things, that I knew I shouldn’t talk to P about. It was sad, and became increasingly frustrating. I had someone I really liked right here. I was following the relationship rules and yet this 'other half' I had really didn’t feel like he belonged to me at all. But every couple has their glitches, right? So I suppressed the feeling that I was doing the relationship wrong. I told myself I was lucky to have someone around, and that what we had was fine. But I also drank more when I knew I was seeing him to limit the need for heavy conversation. I retreated to the distant, standoffish approach that had served my 'nonchalant cool girl' vibe so well. I got on with it.
The guilt I felt when chatting to my friends about P was hard. Unable to put my finger on why I wasn’t happy grew beyond my management and their tolerance levels, so I’d push myself into seeing him more. But (shocker) physical proximity doesn’t always equal emotional closeness, does it?
Even when we finally had the break-up chat, I fumbled trying to explain why I didn’t feel like it was working out. Loneliness didn’t even cross my mind as a tangible issue within our relationship. At one point I told him that it felt like we were only together for the sex; a little later I tried to define the distance between us but couldn’t because I didn’t really know what it was. So we ended it.
I know it was for the best even though it didn't feel like it at the time, and I think one of the reasons I dealt with the split so well was because I was already sad when it happened. But bloody hell, the perspective I've gained since understanding this loneliness thing, since accepting that it does happen regardless of who you're dating, having sex with – even who you're friends with – has changed everything.
Granted, I'm a bit more apprehensive about who I'm romantically involved with, and why. However simply being able to say "I was really fucking lonely" makes me feel so much better about a relationship that, at the time, made me feel really, truly awful.