Learning Not To Leave

On conflict, boundaries, and a dog named Hoagie

Before I was a good friend, I think I was kind of a bad friend. I, like many other people, was not raised to understand how to move through conflict with a friend and so when things got hard, I left.

It didn’t feel easy or good, necessarily, but it felt better than the alternative (staying and having someone be mad at me, defending myself against accusations I thought weren’t fair, creating boundaries and/or shifting the framework of some relationships so they looked different than they did when we started out). It’s easy to talk about how much I hate when other people are mad at me, how I work very hard to prevent it from ever happening (for better or for worse), but it’s more challenging to talk about how I have handled getting mad at other people, or getting frustrated, or, well, dealing with conflict.

The truth is, I’m good at leaving because it’s easy.

I used to joke that my friends called me when they wanted an excuse to break up with their partners.

It wasn’t really a joke — I spent most of my twenties proclaiming that everyone should break up. And listen… I don’t think I’m wrong, exactly. I do still think many people, particularly queer people, stay too long in their romantic relationships because we’re coming from a place of perceived scarcity and we don’t think we deserve more. I also still think that the idea of a “soulmate” is a little silly because there’s definitely more than one person on this planet who can make you laugh harder than you ever thought possible at 3am and who can make you come harder than you ever thought possible any time of the day. And, I am still very committed to the idea that people change and wanting to break up with someone for literally any reason is fine, and also that a break up will always be an okay and legitimate choice, almost always freeing up all parties involved to achieve more fulfilling relationships or solitude elsewhere.

But somewhere along the way, I learned that sometimes it’s worth it to stay.

When I moved to Portland and started seeing a therapist, I began to learn that maintaining a relationship with someone — a friend, a partner, a parent, etc. — takes work. My mom hated this concept when I first explained it to her.

A relationship isn’t work, she told me, and we argued about the semantics of that idea for many years, until it honestly became a joke, and now we tease each other about it. If you view the verb work with negative connotations, I can see why the idea of “working” on a relationship would be unappealing. A mother daughter relationship doesn’t take work, my mom would exclaim, clearly hurt by the idea that our connection required something from me (and her) that she viewed as bad. Of course it takes work, I’d argue, siting all the things I enjoyed about our relationship: phone calls, shared meals, gentle approaches to disagreements, birthday cards in the mail, intentional quality time… Finally we agreed to ditch the word work, except in jest, and settled on the word effort instead. It functions just fine: work, effort, maintenance… honestly, many words will do. I don’t care what we call it — I just care that we do it.

My boyfriend brought home a puppy in December, five days before my dad died. The puppy, Hoagie, belongs to my boyfriend, but I take care of him too. Sometimes we call him our son and sometimes we joke that we’re co-parenting and sometimes I feel serious about co-parenting and often we remind each other that we are not married, will never be married, have no plans to co-parent any future human child I may birth, believe in our independence within our relationship.

I love Hoagie like he is mine. I cared for Hoagie by myself for the first two days he spent at my boyfriend’s house after we brought him home, because she had to work back to back shifts. On the third day she joked, he probably thinks you’re his owner, and I could tell a tiny part of her was not kidding. I went home because it was important to me to give them space to bond.

Hoagie and my boyfriend are so bonded. It is clear to me Hoagie knows she is his Daddy, that he sleeps at her side every night, that she is the one who supplies his food, his yard, the majority of his walks, his everything. I sleep over a few nights a week; I have never met the vet. I am Hoagie’s Daddy’s Special Friend, I joke. Hoagie knows that.

But also: I go over to visit Hoagie on days when my boyfriend has to work long hours. We lie on the floor together and I rub his belly, I scratch behind his ears, I hold his head in my arms like I did when he was a tiny baby and I sing, Cloud Boy, Cloud Boy, you are a Cloud Boy, yes sir yes you are! On days when I’m not there, my boyfriend will text me pictures of the puppy in her bed and tell me, Hoagie misses you. Sometimes I hear her talking to Hoagie about his mommy and I know it’s me.

He loves you so much, she tells me.

I know, I say. He’s my baby.

I don’t stay in touch with my exes. Of the people I’ve dated seriously over the past ten years, I am on bad terms with two and mediocre terms with two. I don’t speak with any of them regularly. Only one reached out to offer condolences when my dad died.

I don’t really think this is a problem. I think lesbians are obsessed with remaining friends with their exes and frankly that’s weirder to me than falling out of contact or setting a hard boundary of no contact. But I do recognize it as a pattern. I’ve joked that I will never again get serious with someone who casually talks about how they believe it’s okay to go “totally crazy” during a breakup, but I have to face my own demons and acknowledge that apparently my breakup tactic is “no contact.” There must be a happy medium between completely ignoring your ex-partner’s boundaries and making them feel uncomfortable to be in the same room/city as you and blocking them on social media and never speaking to them again. Lots of my friends are able to live in this place. Why can’t I?

My boyfriend is loyal and good at staying close with people from her past. She asks me sometimes what will happen when we breakup, and sometimes I tell her not to worry because I don’t think we will breakup for a long time but sometimes I shrug and say, I don’t like staying in touch with partners. I’m not good at it. It doesn’t feel good. I like to take a lot of space. We will probably not be friends if we break up.

What about Hoagie? she asked recently.

I sighed. If we break up, I will miss Hoagie very, very much.

Last week my boyfriend, Hoagie, and I drove to the Coast and finally celebrated her birthday, which actually happened in January, four days after my dad’s death. She wouldn’t have demanded any celebration this year, but I felt strongly that I wanted to do something because birthdays are special to me and so is she, so we ate homemade chocolate cake, courtesy of me, and drank delicious mixed drinks, courtesy of a skilled home bartender pal, by the ocean.

After we’d had enough Bourbon Renewal to both be quite tipsy, our casual conversation wandered to the subject of us.

I actually don’t think we’ll breakup anytime soon, she told me, I think we have a really healthy relationship. I nodded, pleased and proud of us for actively growing together.

She looked down at Hoagie, sleeping at our feet after having a wild first time off-leash at the beach, arguably the best day of his short life so far.

But if we do breakup, I think you should still see Hoagie. He really loves you.

I wasn’t sure exactly what she was asking, though her words landed like a question. Some guesses: If we breakup, will you cut off contact with me? If we breakup, can we stay friends? If our relationship shifts and sex and romance are no longer a part of it, what will we be to each other? How will we treat each other for the rest of our lives?

I trust my boyfriend in a way I have not trusted any partner that came before her. Part of that is because of her, and part of that is because of me. I’m growing up. I’m learning that we all have baggage, and sometimes it’s important to challenge yourself to sit with someone else’s bags. Boundaries don’t have to be endings.

If we do breakup, I will find a way to keep seeing Hoagie, I said quietly. He’s my baby. She smiled. But I also don’t think we’ll breakup anytime soon.

Then I kissed her, and we didn’t talk about breaking up anymore.