What does it really mean to let go? When we turned this question over to our editors and readers, their responses proved that grief, catharsis, and rebirth come in all forms—whether it’s finally moving on from a failed relationship, rebuilding oneself after a painful trauma, or quietly saying goodbye to the person you once were. Our Letting Go series highlights these compelling and complicated stories.
When I was 13, I made a checklist of traits I required of my future husband. It was a fairly short list, which isn’t surprising, considering the fact that the only semblance of romantic love I had ever experienced at that point was gauged mostly through listening to Avril Lavigne songs. Ten years and a few broken hearts later (I finally understood Avril’s anguish!), I met someone who embodied everything on that long-forgotten list. Handsome? Check. (I was a shallow 13-year-old.) Successful (whatever that meant as a teen)?
Check. Treats me like a queen, even in my least queenly moments (such as that one time I had too much tequila and yelled at him in front of all my friends to buy me chicken nuggets)? Check. Buys me chicken nuggets, no questions asked? Check, check, check. And yet.
Leo and I found each other unexpectedly, both freshly single from previous relationships. Neither of us was looking for anything serious, but like magnets, we’d try our best to pull apart, only to snap back into place, comfortably nestling into each other with a secret sigh of relief. It felt right in a way no other romantic relationship had before in my life. With my previous boyfriends, there was always an imbalance between who loved and who was loved. With Leo, it felt equal. We loved each other the exact same—which would be a lot, and passionately.
I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his small burnt-orange Honda Fit one particularly warm L.A. day, our hands clasped tightly over the center console like we were Jack and Rose promising each other we’d never let go—except instead of slowly freezing to death next to the Titanic, we were cruising down the I-10 with the windows down, aimlessly discussing a friend’s love life. It seemed she was going on strings of unsuccessful dates with guys who would either ghost her or treat her poorly.
I shook my head slightly, feeling for her plight while being simultaneously relieved I wasn’t in her shoes.
“I’m so lucky to have you,” I said, kissing Leo’s hand and blushing slightly since it was still early stages. “Don’t you feel lucky we found each other?” He flashed me a smile so quick and bright it might have seemed perfunctory to an outsider—but I felt it as distinctly on my skin as the sunlight streaming through my passenger window. I was always the talkative one in our relationship, able to rattle off and discuss my various state of emotions at any given time and wholly unafraid of dramatic declarations of devotion (if you asked, he’d probably chuckle and say I relished them).
Leo was more reserved, careful, and stoic, at least at first (he was half-British, after all)—but throughout our relationship, this flash of a smile, always accompanied by a crinkling of his blue eyes, would remind me that I was loved by him. I had never loved or been loved in this way before, the kind of love that sees all of your broken, unsightly parts and jagged edges and embraces you anyway, even if it tears itself a bit in the process. It felt like a grown-up type of love—the type of love that sustains the one major romance you have for the rest of your life.
For almost three years, I was in a blissful cloud. We were in a blissful cloud. Everything happening around us felt hazy, tinged in Millennial Pink, and warm. Nothing could really go wrong, because we had each other. Both of our careers were simultaneously taking off, and at the end of each day, we’d wrap our limbs around each other on his scratchy blue couch and marvel at how good life was, how lucky—there’s that word again—we were to have each other.
Never mind the nagging little voice in my head reminding me the reason I broke up with my previous boyfriend was to pursue my dream of moving to New York and learn how to be alone. Never mind that. When that voice crept up, I quashed it immediately. Didn’t it know how hard it was to find someone who complements you in every way and wants to be with you just as much as you want to be with them? Didn’t it see my single friends around me struggling to find what I had? It’s so rare to have a connection with someone like this, I’d scold the voice internally, firmly escorting it out of my head and slamming the door in its wake.
There was a distinct moment when everything changed, and it can best be described as being underwater for years, then bursting through the surface, sputtering and gasping. For no apparent reason whatsoever, my womb-like, comforting world was suddenly glaringly bright and loud. A tinny sound ran in my ears, and I felt a mixture of dizzy and disoriented. I look back on our relationship, and that moment feels like the point when everything started unraveling.
I felt suddenly hyper-aware of my surroundings for the first time, of his scratchy blue couch, of the fact that this man sitting next to me could possibly be the person I spend the rest of my life with. Could Leo be The One—the final One? Was I ready for what lay ahead if the answer was yes? And if the answer was yes, which I so badly wanted it to be, then why didn’t I feel as happy as I should? I had found my person, my ideal other half—so why was my heart aching like it was missing something?
It took me a long time to realize that this aching, in its purest form, was my desire to know myself before committing to someone else. I had been single for short bouts of time since turning 18 but never long enough to really know or woo myself, to experience life with no partner to catch me if I slipped up or fell. Growing up in a sheltered household, I always had this part of me that felt unfettered—a deep-rooted desire to go out into the world on my own to experience it, to be devastated by its highs and lows.
At first, I assumed this was a rebellion to my super-strict upbringing. It was probably my parents' overbearing nature that prompted this insatiable side of me, I thought—that urge to always do and experience more, more, more. Then I remembered that both of them left everyone they knew behind when they were just my age to come to an unfamiliar country where they didn’t know a single soul. So maybe it’s in my blood.
Being with Leo quieted this feeling for a while, to the point where I had almost forgotten it existed. His calming, loving presence was like a salve over the small part of my soul that ached for freedom—but now the cut had been exposed to air and was beginning to fester. Once I had allowed the thought in, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. And yet.
My relationship was precious. It was the purest romantic connection I’d ever experienced with another human. Was I just supposed to throw it away, setting it free into the wind with no guarantee it would ever return, just because I felt the itch to indulge this unbound part of my soul? I thought I wanted freedom and independence now—but what about years down the line when I had reaped all of the experiences I so desperately craved and was finally ready to commit… and no one was there? What then?
This childish fear held me back every time I even began to envision a life without Leo. That, and the fact I still loved him. He was my ideal life partner—it didn't make sense to me why I would feel so conflicted. It was unclear whether this feeling was because of our actual relationship—maybe we weren’t actually right for each other, regardless of how compatible we seemed in the beginning—or separate from that, tied solely to my desire to break free and consume and be consumed by the world. Either way, I was paralyzed with self-doubt.
Dear Polly told me that if my heart was telling me to go, I should go. But how could I? How could she know the intricacies of my special relationship? She’d never met Leo, never seen the small, selfless things he did for me every day. She didn’t know our love. Maybe if she did, she’d rethink her advice. And so I carried on, pleading for the voice to please, please go away. I had found my person, the one who saw and loved every part of me, even the ugly bits. My heart was safe with him. But the voice persisted.
I’d like to say that when I eventually ended things a few months after moving to New York, relief flooded through my body. It didn’t. I still felt unsure and terrified I had made the wrong decision. I cried for a week straight—on the subway (a New York rite of passage!), in cabs, in the bathroom at work, into my brand-new Brooklinen sheets. If I had made the right choice, why was I so damn sad?
I also quickly realized that independence wasn’t just something that you embodied the second you became single—it was something I had to learn, and the lesson wasn’t easy. My heart was used to beating in tandem with his, and I clung to him emotionally even though we weren’t together physically anymore (in other words, I drunk-dialed him—a lot). Even as I grew new friendships, explored the city, and cautiously embraced my newfound freedom, it still took almost an entire year for me to fully let go of him and the idea that we’d find our ways back to one another eventually.
Even then, I couldn’t have predicted the reason he called me that Friday night.
His voice serious, he confirmed what I thought was my worst fear: He was in a relationship with someone new—a girl he described as “different.” The word pricked at me like a bee sting, dug into me like talons. A year and a half after our breakup and he had moved on so swiftly. Meanwhile, all I had experienced romantically was a string of lackluster flings with men who didn’t hold a candle to him. I cried and waited for my heart to crumble, braced myself for a tsunami of grief and regret to drown me.
Instead, I looked outside my window, saw my friends waiting for me outside the bar, and felt the energy of New York City crackle through the air. I heard Madonna’s voice wafting through the car speakers, telling me to put my troubles down because it’s time to celebrate. I took a shot at the bar. Yes, I was hurt. But the regret never came.
Maybe some people enter your life simply to teach you how to love and be loved—Leo certainly did. What we shared was precious and rare and, at times, felt like a home I could have pictured myself in for the rest of my life. But other times, I yearned for something else entirely. I wanted to walk through the streets of Chinatown alone, feeling light as air with no one to text or check in with. I wanted to laugh until my stomach hurt with a group of newfound friends who loved and understood me (yes, even the ugly parts).
I wanted to cab home as the sun rose over the Manhattan bridge, wind whipping my hair, electricity on my skin, the skyline keeping my secrets. I wanted to know that I could be completely alone and feel distinctly, unmistakably happy with myself—because of myself—before committing to anyone else. And a year and a few months since ending things with the man I loved who loved me with a grown-up kind of love, I can finally say that I'm—well, not there completely. But getting there. Slowly but surely (and not without a slip-up every so often), I'm moving forward.
Every day I wake up and feel so lucky—yes, that word one last time—to not know what lies around the corner, to have life be messy and unpredictable and beautiful and full of learning, even in the hard parts—especially in the hard parts. But maybe luck has nothing to do with it. Maybe it’s a choice. Maybe it’s always been a choice.
I think back to that moment in Leo’s car when things were simple and the weather, like my life at the time, was sunny and predictable. The irony is that I’ve become that former friend I discussed with such concern—the single girl navigating life’s twists and turns without a roadmap, without a partner to catch her if she trips up. I wish I could tell my younger self, hands clasped with her loving boyfriend’s in the balmy L.A. heat, that this girl is doing just fine. That she’s happy and unbridled—that her life feels so full that at times her heart aches not from missing anything, but because it knows this season will eventually feel just as fleeting as ones before.
I think she knew, though, deep down. I’ll give her that.