Part 2: What Heartbreak and Heartache Have Taught Me About Heart
The second time I fell in love was with a new friend I met during my last year in St. Louis. I’ll call him Brad. This time, I wanted to learn from my last experience and decided to dive head first into the feelings and try and embrace them as best I could. My friends and counselors had been showing me all the ways I had grown callous and dismissive toward my emotions, and they encouraged me to try a different approach than repressing them. I was threatened by my feelings, and so if they didn’t make sense, or if it seemed pointless to feel them, I would try and reject or repress them. As the wiser voices in my life knew, though, rejecting and ignoring them only made them fester. This time I decided that I was going to take these newly learned lessons in emotional congruence and let my feelings be rather than fighting them. I was moving away from St. Louis several months after meeting Brad, and so whatever happened, it would have a firm end when I moved to Chicago.
Part of expressing what I was feeling was finding language for it. Unlike my experience with Corey, I more readily admitted to a few close friends my attractions to Brad and would effusively share with those friends around me about the feelings. I was a man who had a crush on (and eventually fell in love with) another man—it seemed simple enough. I had no intent of pursuing anything with brad other than, perhaps, a lesson in increased emotional intelligence. Even after my experience of falling in love with Corey, I still felt that I’d never fully accepted the part of me that was romantically attracted to other men. My lust and sexual desires were all too familiar, but I still largely resisted and ignored the more complicated side of my attraction to other men. This side of myself longed for a deep, intimate connection with another person, which I had largely ignored or repressed. I knew that all of us long for love and connection and that self-sacrifice and deep love can exist in friendship as well as marriage. What I didn’t know was if there was some goodness in my romantic feelings for Brad that could be genuinely loving and selfless without having to be rejected altogether.
I believe that part of why I was so emotionally shut off to my own experiences was out of a fear of what those feelings might mean about me. They scared and threatened me because they weren’t as clearly rooted in sin as my lust was. My lust was selfish and grounded in my own pleasure, but my feelings for Brad felt more connected to what I believed was selflessness—the same feelings that lead someone to forsake father and mother and give over their life to the good of someone else’s. This self-giving and person-focused side of my attractions was what I wanted to begin opening myself up to in a way that I hadn’t with Corey. I wanted to try and be more open to the parts of these feelings that could be pleasing to God, like selflessness. My faith told me that I was called to resist lust for the same gender, but it wasn’t as clear to me if these other parts of my feelings for Brad could somehow be good.
Up to this point I had done my best to suppress romantic feelings or only acknowledge them when I couldn’t ignore them any longer. I decided that this time, from the very beginning I would try and remain open to the feelings that developed that weren’t lust but that also felt somewhat different than friendship. As someone who had previously held my emotions in excessive control, I decided to let them loose a bit more.
During the initial crush feelings I enjoyed listening to songs about crushes and heartache. I let myself feel the rush that comes from an initial crush rather than running away from it in fear. At the time, I saw these as naive attempts to accept what I was experiencing rather than fighting against it: a sort of crude emotional experiment, so to speak. Brad was openly flirtatious towards me, as he was with most people, and a small part of me hoped that maybe that meant he desired something more than friendship. Again, I had no real idea of what it would mean if he was attracted to me, apart from the simple acknowledgement that it felt good to believe someone I was attracted to might also feel that way about me. I knew I was committed to celibacy and to live my life in congruence with my faith, but I also knew that I couldn’t keep repressing these feelings. How exactly I could hold these two things in tension wasn’t clear to me then, and it still isn’t completely clear to me now.
A month before leaving St. Louis it became apparent that my grand plan of falling in love and then safely leaving wasn’t going to go smoothly. Brad had accepted a job taking him to Chicago and even briefly discussed living with me and my other Chicago roommate. Living together, I later came to realize, would have been a disaster that God in his mercy saved us from. After moving to the same neighborhood in Chicago, we both became close friends, spending at least four days a week together. Before Chicago, we’d almost only spent time together in groups of friends, so the intense one-on-one time was new to our friendship. It was too late for me to emotionally pull up by that point, so I hoped that closer contact would eventually help the romantic feelings to fade and the friendship to develop more securely. One night, a month after we had both moved, he shared with me that he had known, through a mutual friend, about my feelings since the early spring. He told me that he loved and cared for me and that my crush on him wouldn’t change our friendship. Later, he clarified for me that he his feelings for me were merely platonic and that my romantic attraction to him was not reciprocated.
During that season of our friendship, we did the routine of life together. Little things like going grocery shopping together and simply being each other’s default companion were a powerful new experience for me. We talked about someday getting a place together and about doing life together with maybe one or two other celibate gay friends. That hope of someday getting a place, forming a little family of friends, and settling into the routine of life was the kind of hope I didn’t realize I’d been looking for. It gave me a sense of cautious excitement for what had previously seemed like a lonely future by myself. At that time he was also planning to pursue celibacy, which meant that we both found comfort in the possibility of not always being alone.
Out of love and a good deal of foolishness, I endured many intensely painful days and experiences as Brad wrestled with personal demons during the first several months we lived in Chicago. Unfortunately things did not develop as I had once hoped, and instead I walked with Brad as he began a romantic relationship with a man who would eventually become his partner. This shift surprised me, and in a lot of ways it caught me off guard at the time. By winter, my romantic feelings had mostly faded, or to put it more accurately, they had been crushed to death by the circumstances of his new relationship. Some of that specific heartbreak I shared about when I wrote https://spiritualfriendship.org/2016/10/07/a-call-to-empathy/. I continued as a close friend to both Brad and his partner into the spring as they began discussing their life together as a couple. In the end, though, my continued presence was too much for them in light of my past feelings, and they both abruptly cut off all contact, ending our relationship shortly after they married in the spring.
It has been half a year since I last heard from Brad. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him and his husband. I wonder about how the various choices and decisions they were both struggling with have turned out, I wonder if they’ve made any new friends or what has happened with the old ones whose history and stories I knew so well. I still wrestle with the pain of rejection and grieve the loss of both my friendship with Brad as well as my friendship with his husband, whom I’d also grown to care for deeply. Some days I long for reconciliation, and other days I long for answers for the pain of how Brad ended things. We both used each other in different ways; I used him as an emotional test subject, and he used me for companionship. We both made mistakes in our friendship, but I still held out hope for its future. Sometimes I’m still mad at how God let the whole mess play out the way it did, and mad at myself that I let myself fall in love in the first place. I gained valuable knowledge about my heart but not without deep pain, as so often seems the case.
It’s hard for me to say that I regret making a conscious effort to not resist the initial feelings of romantic interest. I do regret the way things ended and would love to take back all of the emotional pain that my naive decision caused. In light of my decision to pursue celibacy, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about my decision to entertain romantic feelings more openly. I think there is a place for prudence when it comes to what feelings are indulged, but I’m also thankful that I’ve had this experience now, at least. I know I didn’t go about any of this perfectly, and like most difficult experiences, we may not want to do it again in the same way, but I’m thankful for the growth and the things I learned from my friendship with Brad as well as his husband.
I have seen too many people sublimate their romantic feelings by trying to call them by some other name. Often, though, the romantic feelings only intensify and spill out in unhelpful ways: Living in constant fear of what you are feeling, especially for another person, can cause your love to become warped and twisted into obsession and dependence. I will likely fall in love again, and when I do I will have a better idea of what to expect. These experiences have given me a better idea of what these feelings look like so I don’t need to fear them. I know that I will get through it and I’ll experience pain as well as growth. I will share what I experience with trusted friends, and hopefully be able to articulate to myself and to others what I’m feeling in ways I couldn’t before. I’ll be able to call a spade a spade rather than feeling like I have to call it something else because I thought I wasn’t supposed to feel that way to begin with.
Part 3 will be available tomorrow.