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The pandemic has been my unlikeliest teacher about love

I spent years in an unhappy relationship, seeking anchor and comfort in familiarity—until the forced isolation of the pandemic opened my eyes

I was Zoom-fatigued, grappling with the lack of structure of working from home, and missing my loved ones increasingly.
I was Zoom-fatigued, grappling with the lack of structure of working from home, and missing my loved ones increasingly. (Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash)

The first time I realized my relationship with my ex-partner was a rebound was well into a year of having been with him. This should have been apparent to me right at the beginning. I met him at work, he seemed kind, and we found common ground as journalists. I was still grieving in the wake of a devastating breakup, and Manav (name changed), with his solid, stable presence, was the antithesis of the man who had broken my heart. It was a textbook case, really; and yet, I failed to see it. It took a heated discussion a year on, during which he stormed out, for me to realize that I no longer wanted to be with him. 

This isn’t particularly uncommon—people fall out of love all the time. As Leonard Cohen sang in Death of a Ladies’ Man, “So the great affair is over, but whoever would have guessed / it would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed?” Ours was by no means a “great affair”, but I did invest in the commitment seriously for over a year. That, perhaps, is also why I was taken aback by how vacant and unimpressed it left me. 

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This was as much on me as it was on him. In hindsight, I may have gravitated towards Manav because he was nothing like the man before him, but I was still unconsciously looking for that identical love in him—a terrible idea if there ever was one. For his part, Manav irked me with his passive-aggressive approach towards problem-solving, his judgment of my life choices and, crucially, his unwillingness to communicate. It was an implosion waiting to happen.

This is where the story should have ended. Instead, after a period of separation, I went right back to Manav. I remember the ‘reunion’ that should never have been—we met in the grubby little bakery next to my former office where we often grabbed a quick cup of coffee between assignments. I was an emotional wreck after a brief relationship gone horribly wrong—my confidence and self-worth were at an all-time low, and my crippling fear of being alone at a soaring high. It turned out he was having a tough time with his boss. “I’m in a bad place,” he said. “I have tried to be there for you in spite of everything. Now, I need you to do your part and be there for me.” 

I would learn much later in therapy that statements like those are considered manipulative. They tap into our deep-seated belief that belonging, or being part of a unit or a ‘tribe’—in this case, a romantic relationship—is tantamount to our survival; they are also designed to make us feel guilty for not holding up our end of some imaginary bargain. When I remember that exchange now, I recognize the ‘nice guy’ trope at play. I think of The Marriage Plot’s Mitchell—bearing an uncanny resemblance to the author, Jeffrey Eugenides – who is caring towards Madeleine not because he respects her or particularly wants to be her friend, but because he desires her. It also brings to mind Mr. Elton from Jane Austen’s Emma, who told the titular character, “Everything that I have said or done, for many weeks past, has been with the sole view of marking my adoration of yourself. You cannot really, seriously, doubt it…” and then spent the rest of the book acting frosty towards her for turning him down. 

I should have had the courage to take a leaf out of Emma’s book. At the time, however, Manav seemed like a warm, familiar refuge in a storm I wasn’t sure I could weather. The relief at the idea of having him back was really just relief at having an emotional anchor again. It was enough to overshadow the deep sense of disquiet in the pit of my stomach. 

I ended up spending almost seven more years with Manav. 

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With each passing year, it grew harder to leave him; and, with each passing year, the dissatisfaction, resentment and gnawing loneliness grew – the kind of loneliness that only manifests in dead-end relationships. We had run out of things to say to each other, and yet continued to do each other the greatest disservice by not leaving. It was not just the fear of the unknown, of the other side of a breakup; it was also the thought of losing a friend, a constant presence, an amorphous, shared history, and years of our lives. 

And then, the unimaginable happened. The pandemic struck, forcing us all indoors—and away from one other—for months on end. I had no idea how I would deal with the separation. Before long, I was Zoom-fatigued, grappling with the lack of structure of working from home, and missing my loved ones increasingly. In that haze of each day blending into the next, it took me weeks to realize I rarely thought of Manav. It was a picture posted by a celebrity that we both avidly followed on Instagram that reminded me we had not spoken in days, and I had not even noticed. 

In the summer of 1928, Virginia Woolf, then staying at her Sussex countryside cottage, wrote, “Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary… of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel.” I saw to the bottom; within days, I felt years’ worth of that terror slowly dissipate; and it took the unlikeliest of teachers, the solitude of a forced isolation, for it to happen. All around me were stories of young people craving connection and human touch; in that swirl of stories, I was learning an incredible lesson about the brain-scrambling effects of constant human proximity, and how it can have a disastrously life-altering impact on the decisions we make with regard to our relationships. The irony of this was not lost on me—I, a risk-averse millennial with a debilitating fear of being alone, was about to pull the plug on the longest relationship I had ever been in. 

It did not end well; but all that mattered was that it finally ended.

I sometimes wonder whether I would still be trudging along unhappily with Manav if the pandemic had not happened. Since we parted ways, the second wave has brought the country to its knees; lockdowns have eased and tightened again; I have changed jobs, dealt with close family getting covid, and learnt new lessons about love. None of this means I no longer feel apprehensive about change; I just know that I have it in me to weather it, maybe even welcome it. As I was packing 11 years’ worth of books and memories from my corner on my last day at my former workplace—the same office that I had shared with Manav—I realized I no longer associated it with him. All that was left to say goodbye to was my former self; the spectre of his presence was long gone. 

“I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far,” Cohen had said at the end of his song. I had, indeed, gone for nothing—I’m just glad I seem to have found my way back.

Nayantara Mazumder is a Kolkata-based journalist.

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