Breaking up sucks. It sucks so much that we’ve made this thing called hook-up culture that never really says goodbye. It’s easier to keep ends ambiguous, unspoken even to oneself because it’s a thousand times less uncomfortable than making the decision to look someone in the eye and say “I’m done.” Even if you have to reroute your walk to class for the rest of the semester, avoidance still seems optimal to confrontation. Simpler still is not dating anyone, or so I thought. In my mind, if there’s no romance there can be no break- ups. It seems pretty understandable, obvious even, but it’s not.
I’ve played water polo for roughly seven years now. I fell head over heels for it as my relationship with my former sport, swimming, began to fail. It took me forever to officially break up with swimming, and there were a few years when I was doing both — something neither of my coaches liked. Eventually, though, I transitioned out of swimming and into water polo, and I was smitten.
When I finally left swimming once and for all, it was a good riddance type situation. Water polo was everything swimming was not, and I wanted to rid my system of my past affiliation. Swimming was quiet, reserved and neurotic, whereas water polo was social, fast-paced and wild. People who played water polo embodied these things, and I wanted to be a water polo person — all the scrappiness, the goofiness, the confidence. And that worked for me for a while.
We had to take a couple breaks though, water polo and I. I couldn’t play while I was abroad, I couldn’t play when I got back because of how much I was working. This past semester was the first time I could practice in over a year, and I was serious about rekindling our connection. But something had changed. I no longer felt the itch to race my teammates, to work out outside of practice, to stay late, to come early. During our first tournament, I didn’t even feel the need to play — I was more than willing to sub out for one of my more eager teammates.
At the end of the tournament, our coach — one of my long time friends — told us she expected more. She said there was no excuse for missing practice, that we all needed to spend time in the gym, to swim outside of practice. I hung my head and listened, looking doleful but I knowing I wasn’t willing to commit any more than I was already.
The water polo situation was really no different from the “are we exclusive?” talk. The last time I had it, it came up mid hook-up, which will go down in my history as one of the most awkward romantic moments ever. He wanted more from me, he wanted a commitment, but I wasn’t willing to do it. I liked him a lot and I wasn’t seeing anyone else, but there’s a mental change in explicit monogamy that I wasn’t ready for — with him at least. I wanted him — and water polo — to be a fun distraction from my other responsibilities, not my main focus. But that’s not an option when you’ve been asked to commit and if my relationship-ing has taught me anything, it’s that nothing lasts long after you’ve established a limit to what you’re willing to give.
My partner took it well, much better than my last partner did. He didn’t throw a tantrum or anything, but he was visibly hurt. My coach, on the other hand said she understood completely, that she had just taken leave from her job for the same reason. Obviously, there’s a difference between ending a romance and an athletic involvement, but they’re both part of a larger category of commitment.
Moving into adulthood, I think it’s important to learn to really evaluate your obligations. Breaking up is an inevitable part of that, like pruning dead limbs off a plant. It doesn’t have to be a malicious gesture — most of the time, it’s not. I was very fond of the last guy, but I also fought more with him than anyone else I’ve dated. Water polo was great to me for a long time, but it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t feel the same satisfaction now as I used to. Better to say close but no cigar than to suffer through something not quite right simply because you’ve made a commitment. Breaking up, making the conscious decision to move in a different direction, is growing up, for better or for worse.
Rica Maestas is a senior majoring in cognitive science and narrative studies. Her column, “Cuffing Season,” runs on Wednesdays.