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Happy birthday, spring babies! I’ve just rounded the corner on a quarter century, and here’s a question from another Millennial, with a birthday problem…
Dear Bad Advice,
Three years ago, I had the best and worst birthday of my life. I was turning 21 and I had a spectacular party at a bar with a big group of friends the night before, and was showered with gifts and cards the next day (including a cake my mom sent me in the mail!). Sounds pretty good, right? Well, that day I also broke up with my boyfriend of three years, whom I’d been hoping to marry. It was the product of a long, painful wind-down that had taken place over the preceding months, but the final straw was when I opened up a box of flowers, and all my friends assumed it was from him…but it wasn’t. He was there when I opened it, and when one of my friends asked what he had done for my birthday, she found out he hadn’t planned anything special at all, not even a card or a nice dinner out. I know some people don’t make a big deal out of birthdays or holidays, but we had always been very thoughtful about celebrating special occasions, making each other hand-made gifts and cards and going out of our way to create a special evening for each other. So the fact that he hadn’t done anything at all had to have been a deliberate move on his part, to send me a message.
I still feel conflicted about that day, because I can’t seem to separate the great parts from the miserable ones. I had one of the most fun, memorable birthdays ever with a group of people who remain some of my closest friends — but I also ended a relationship with a man that I was utterly convinced I was going to spend the rest of my life with (how naive we are at 21). Ever since then, I sort of dread and look forward to every birthday, wondering if it’s going to be just as great, or just as bad. I’m turning 24 this year and I don’t know what to expect. How do I shake this foreboding feeling and just enjoy my day?
- Minerva K.
This sounds like bad advice, but you need a rebound.
First of all, I can understand why the break-up was traumatizing, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it happened on your birthday. When you split with someone you’d planned a future with, you’re not just saying goodbye to him — you’re saying goodbye to an entire imagined future. You lost him and the life you’d planned for. And your sense of who you were, if you’d built your identity (in part) around being his future wife.
Every relationship is unique and some people truly do know, that young, what they want. (Read this article and I’ll spare you a long digression on the topic.) But you started dating this guy when you were 18. At that age you’re still defining yourself, and if you define yourself and your goals and your future plans all by your relationship to another person, it can be devastating when that person leaves your life. The point is, at whatever age you choose to do it, know who you are before you start building a life with someone. You will grow and shape each other as you go along — but you’ll have an idea of what kind of person you want to become at his side. You won’t simply be an accessory to his dreams.
So the first step is to separate your grief over the end of that relationship (and the loss of that particular future) from your birthday. They had nothing to do with each other. You say you knew things were headed downhill and his birthday slip-up was just the final straw — so don’t view the break-up as “That awful thing that happened on my birthday,” but as “That awful thing I saw coming from miles away.” Think about it: the events that put a damper on your special day were the product of extremely specific circumstances. You will not have another birthday like that, ever. You’re not turning 21 again, you’re not dating that guy again, you’re not going to have that conversation with him again. So stop dwelling on it.
If that day is still haunting you, three years later (which is as long ago as you’d ever been together) it’s not just the day that’s haunting you, it’s the boy.
Jane Austen wrote that “friendship is the finest balm for the pangs of despised love.” Once you’ve got your girls rallied around you, though, nothing demolishes the last of your sorrow quite like moving on to a new guy.
You’re young and active and happy and prospering, so bounce back already. How much have you dated in the last three years? I mean really thrown yourself into it and given people a chance and sought out new connections and made yourself available to new guys? Why not start going on dates with anyone who asks? A date is not a marriage proposal, so don’t overthink it. And there are no bad first dates; just hilarious bad-first-date stories. Your last major relationship was in college, when most people our age didn’t really “date,” they just slid from friendship to cuddling to being totally inseparable. You need to practice dating as an adult. It’s awkward. You’ll get over it.
The second thing you need to get over is your birthday.
This sounds like bad advice, but you need to stop expecting your friends to do special things for you.
Birthdays are a huge deal when you’re a little kid. I mean, when you turn two, you just DOUBLED your lifespan since your last birthday! As a teenager, they’re a great social opportunity. As a college student, they’re a great drinking opportunity. As an adult, they’re a great opportunity to stress out.
Everybody’s different, and some people love big celebrations while others have a Ron Swanson attitude toward birthdays. I don’t begrudge adults who like to have a gathering on their special day. But I do get a bit judgey when they long for the blow-out celebrations of yesteryear. Twenty-four is not a milestone year, and we’re not in college. So the first step to fearing your birthday less is to expect less. You’re not going to go through the pain of ending an exhilarating, nonstop party with heartbreak because there will be no exhilarating, nonstop party.
Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean you lower your self-respect. It doesn’t mean you stop believing that you’re worth the love and attention of your friends. What it means, if you do it right, is that you stop taking their efforts for granted, or demanding them as a natural result of you surviving another year in this fierce world. Instead of expecting a celebration, gifts, and cards from your friends, don’t expect anything specific — and appreciate what they do give you. Because when you don’t build up specific expectations, you’re better able to appreciate everything they do on your birthday for what it is: a special act they went out of their way to complete just to make you feel loved
Doesn’t that sound better than worrying that they won’t do enough?
As an adult, you don’t expect or demand special things from your friends. You earn them, by being the sort of person that people love and appreciate and want to do nice things for. If you’re friends with the sort of people who show their affection in ways besides big birthday gestures, accept them the way they are and appreciate the language they do use to express their love. (I’m the sort of person who only remembers to put a Christmas gift in the mail sometime after Easter. That doesn’t mean I love the recipient less. And it definitely means I flip out less when the same is done to me.) And if you’re friends with people who don’t show their love at all, move on to friends who appreciate you.
If birthdays are important to you and none of your friends steps up to be party planner, make your own arrangements: book a table and send out your own invites. If you let your friends know it would make you smile to have a nice dinner out with them, they will come if they can make it. Not because they owe it to you, but because they love you.
Don’t forget: Submit your questions to PJMBadAdvice@gmail.com or leave a question in the comments section.