In 2022, I walked away from the greatest love of my life so far. This is why I did it | Moya Lothian-McLean


Rumours swirled last week that alternative pin-up couple Phoebe Bridgers and Paul Mescal had parted ways. The pairing of singer and actor over two-and-a-bit years was the stuff of internet legend: he was the sensitive hunk with a star-making turn in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. She was the sorrowful indie-crooner who, it turned out, was one of Mescal’s favourite musicians. They met over Zoom, in a public interview as the pandemic raged. Soon they were dating and seemed destined to live happily ever after, until suddenly gossipy reports suggested it was all over.

In my circle of friends, this story felt like a fitting culmination to a year marked by the end of long-term relationships. “Wow, the season finale of breakup season,” one tweeted in response to the maybe-news. It doesn’t really matter whether these two celebrities, entirely separate from my social milieu, are no longer together – we saw what we wanted to see: 2022, the year of big breakups, may have claimed yet more scalps.

In the pub the other day, my friend Stan and I started counting the long-term couples (which we defined as relationships of two years or more) in our immediate friend groups who had separated over the course of the year. Including ourselves, there were 12. This, said Stan, seemed a lot. Later I recounted the exercise to others, who offered more anecdotes about the recent dissolution of long-term partnerships. Suddenly it felt like everyone was breaking up around us.

Of these relationships, a majority were heterosexual but a significant number were queer. Ages of those involved ranged from late 20s to nearing 40. None seemed to have ended for a dramatic or acrimonious reason. They were “amicable” breakups – sure, there may have been hurt feelings and recriminations, but no one committed a major infraction that halted the relationship prematurely. These long-term couples simply decided, in 2022, they had run their course.

I am not under the illusion that our informal data collection would weather scientific scrutiny. Nor is it likely to apply beyond our social spheres, which skew heavily towards urban-dwelling, middle-class millennials. For others, I’m sure 2022 will be remembered as the year it seemed everyone was getting engaged, or setting up polycules on a Caribbean island. For my friends, though, the rate of big breakups became a running joke. “The curse got me,” one casualty texted me wryly, after they called time on their relationship of five years.

Such a phenomenon naturally gave rise to theorising about its cause. Perhaps it was simply age: it was suggested that the 27 to 30 range is a key stage in serious relationships; you either get out or dive into a mortgage. This held up for some of us, but it still didn’t feel like the whole story.

Bell Hooks
‘The omnipresence of titles such as bell hooks’s 1999 book All About Love on social media feeds this year suggests something is afoot.’ Photograph: Karjean Levine/Getty Images

The pandemic, of course, was cited repeatedly, with differing interpretations: was it psychological pressure from living under two years of Covid-19 restrictions that eventually pushed couples apart? Or perhaps problems thrown up during lockdown had been initially written off, but if issues persisted into 2022 splits then occurred?

Talking with some of the newly single – and examining my own feelings – I sensed a dramatic change of perspective. A cliche, perhaps, but lockdown, the scale of loss and the long tail of Covid-19 problems have left us with a more urgent understanding of how transient life really is. Wants and needs came into sharp focus. Priorities changed – including the importance placed on long-term romantic love.

In the past two decades there has been a glut of academic work and discussion in popular media that attempts to dismantle the cultural veneration of romantic love. Such thinking argues that we can attach the same importance to alternative forms of love, be it platonic or familial. The omnipresence of titles such as bell hooks’s 1999 book All About Love on social media this year suggests something is afoot. Meanwhile, a focus on community dominated the lockdown years. Is it any wonder the message that romantic love is not a cure-all may actually be getting some practical application?

I cannot speak for my former partner, but I believe objectively we had mileage left in our relationship. There were cracks, yes, but at other points in time, these may have been surmountable. Broadly, we were happy enough – but in 2022, that itself became a faultline for us.

As the months slipped by, I was gnawed by the sense that this “happy enough” relationship was actually shortchanging us. So much of our existence as young people feels decided by forces beyond our control, from the pandemic to the housing market and the government’s shredding of public services. Surely in this rare space where my partner and I had basic agency, we had to demand more than simply being “happy enough” for a while longer, and consider individually what would make us feel alive right now? Could romantic love alone bear the weight of those ambitions?

No, it was concluded. Dreams previously compromised, or shelved permanently in favour of preserving a serious relationship, could no longer be put off. With tenderness, we let each other go. I had walked away from the great romantic love of my life thus far, a man who looked like a movie star and read Angela Davis. He was everything I’d been told would complete me. Theoretically, I knew this wasn’t true, but realising it materially was truly emancipating.

Discussing long-term breakups on social media recently, one respondent suggested to me a host of negative reasons – including the possibility of Covid-19-induced “neurological damage” – that may have pushed relationships apart. Some were interpreting these splits as the departure of love from our lives, while I was viewing them as a rejection of the idea that romantic love alone is enough to fulfil us when a multitude of other desires go unmet.

Who is to say if I am right? All I know is I have never loved harder since my breakup, nor dreamed bigger. This is no reflection on my relationship, but rather the freedom engendered by busting open your horizons. Here’s to 2022, a year of big breakups. Losing love has never felt so liberating.

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