Why I Don’t Say Happy Birthday: A Romantic’s Guide to Forgiving, Forgetting, and Letting Go

Upon reading the title of this piece, I’m inquisitive as to where most minds wander. Personally, upon contriving this name, Why I Don’t Say Happy Birthday, my thoughts immediately jumped to the daily appearance a red notification signaling Facebook birthdays, which celebrate the life of individuals with whom I haven’t spoken in years (or my entire life). While I make a daily effort to wish any of these individuals a happy birthday nonetheless, it’s ironic to me that if I were to run into any of them at my local Walgreens, I would likely speedily sprint to another aisle. What an incredibly weird virtual age it is that we exist in. However, despite these initial thoughts, this specific piece does not encompass the reluctance to waste precious time and energy wishing our virtual friends (aka utter strangers) a happy birthday. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. This piece involves wishing those we used to be quite intimate with, dare I say, in love with, a happy birthday.

Some might think that this is the most random, insignificant topic to delve into. Others, however, definitely have confronted this weird predicament at least once in their lives. As an emblematic anecdote, shall my friends and I discuss our exes, one of the key indicators of the animosity or goodwill in any past relationship surrounds: “Did he / she wish you a happy birthday?” The answer to this question is often dipped and drizzled in emotion, regardless of the answer, notwithstanding how recently or distantly into the past the relationship came to an end. In some cases, the couple separated a few weeks prior to the significant other’s ultimate lap around the sun, or countless years had passed, yet nonetheless the day for some was as painful as banging your funny-bone on a granite countertop, while for others, as seamless as breathing. In some cases, a heart leaps when it sees a number appear on the screen of their cellphone years later. Others fall asleep disheartened at the fact that the one partner upon whom they had been waiting to wish them a happy birthday, had said nothing.

The idea behind this piece is not random as you might think. A colleague of mine had been “on and off” (romantically) with a guy for some time, shortly after he moved to Europe. On his birthday, she asked me and another colleague in a troubled and exasperated voice, if she should send this man a message for his birthday. My eyes automatically lit up, because I’ve had this topic on my Google Doc of blog topics ever since I had found myself in the same conundrum. My latest boyfriend and I broke up a few days after I had lost my grandfather, a few days before I sat for the LSAT, and while I was struggling with the worst batch of depression I had ever experienced in my life. (He had a gift for timing). This ex’s birthday was nearly one week following my LSAT, and I had been planning a pretty awesome surprise party, if I dare say so myself.

As we were breaking up, I revealed the surprise party I had been planning, which was my way of iterating that I would not be turning back. A few days passed, and I went through the up’s and down’s of a post-breakup routine, including some Gilmore Girls with a box of tissues, a wine night with close girlfriends, and a new breakup journal. Despite this oddly comforting routine, I still dreaded his upcoming birthday. The fact that this impending day mentally taxed me to such an extent was not logical by any means, but that’s precisely why it merits discussion (even if you’re not a “birthday person,” which, many are not, I’ve come to find). It could be any holiday, anniversary, or day you’ve coined a special one. These annual events are peculiar given the connection with this person, who was once so close that you would have been clinking champagne glasses or throwing a kickass surprise party with them by your side, but now they’re solely a memory, and the strangeness and tenderness that such a day brings is an emblem of just that. Instead of an anniversary of their death, this person is still alive (hence the celebration of their life, aka, birthday), and such a day is a reminder that they are out there somewhere, still alive, but in so many ways, dead to you. And this, my friend, epitomizes the difficulty in losing someone who lives: You still wonder if you should wish them a happy birthday.

My answer, as you could have probably guessed by the intonation of my writing thus far and the sheer title of the piece, is short and simple: No. Don’t do it. You can spend a million years convincing yourself that you don’t care if they respond, or that you’ve done the “right thing” by sending a cordial message. Only you truly know deep down whether or not you care, but I can promise you this: If you wish an ex “Happy birthday,” there’s a high probability that you are not doing the right thing for you. Instead, you are doing the right thing for them; to be likeable and polite or to prove that you’re doing “just fine.” Otherwise, in the effort of self-destruction, you deeply yearn to know of them. Unless you are 105% okay with (deep down, not what you want to feel or what you want others to think you feel) your ex not responding; replying a mere “thanks”; lashing out on you; shoving in your face how happy they are without you; or opening the floodgates to how much they’ve missed you; don’t.

I was “on a break” with my first boyfriend of five years for some time, which slowly transformed into being just friends. We never really broke up, and contacted each other quite regularly, but remaining friends was the perfect way to keep him in my life, no matter how much it might have hurt. “Friends” always say happy birthday, right? Right. With every passing year, I yearned to rekindle some sort of flame with a happy birthday, despite the fact that we then lived in different countries, yet I faced disappointment as every meaningful exchange spiraled into utter nothingness. After three birthdays had passed with empty “Happy birthday” exchanges, I cried myself to sleep the night he told me that he had started seeing someone new. Three. Years. Later. Case A: He was happy without me, and I discovered that heart-wrenching reality all from a simple, kind, societally-expected “Happy Birthday!”

When it came to my second boyfriend, I had bought a plane ticket to celebrate his March birthday in South America far in advance, but we ultimately broke up prior to this trip. From the November of our breakup to the March of my departure date, this looming visit hung in the back of my mind. When I landed in Ecuador, I had two of my best Ecuadorian girlfriends who I had met abroad pick me up at the airport. Together, we had a giant slumber party and I earnestly attempted to forget that my ex was so close by. I decided to write a birthday card on my last night in the country, as I didn’t know when I would be back, and figured that given I had a chance to send a physical card, I should. (Sounds like I was looking for an excuse to chat, right? I was.) A “simple” or “generic” birthday card for someone you once loved (and maybe still do) is non-existent. I bawled my eyes out as I wrote a long-winded letter enclosing the void he had left in my life. I had one of my loyal Ecuadorian girlfriends drive me to his apartment, where I left this sentimal birthday card (with the 6-page, tear-soaked letter enclosed), hoping that if nothing else, it would provide me closure. Of course, the security guard at his apartment in Quito remembered me, and looked deeply into my glassy eyes, not asking, but telling me, “Todavía le amas” (You still love him). This very boyfriend’s double-email response was utterly tear-jerking, as he told me how much he missed me and had hoped to reach out sooner. He proceeded to re-follow my Instagram, which I would unhealthily monitor for weeks following, wondering if he still cared or alternatively, had moved on. Case B: Floodgates are open.

I’d finally grown a bit more mature and sophisticated having learned my lesson from these first two relationships. When it came to my third boyfriend, I did not wish him happy birthday, even though we had broken up a week prior. Upon seeing the date light up on the home-screen of my phone that day, my heart definitely lurched. I thought of how I would have been setting up his apartment for a surprise party. Singing happy birthday. Showering him in celebration. It definitely stung, and I certainly drafted a happy birthday message, but not sending it was the best thing I had ever done, romantically speaking. Why? When I was wasting my time contemplating whether or not to say happy birthday, he was living his life. Moving on. Definitely not waiting around for my emotion-filled, or deceivingly disinterested birthday message. So, why should I waste time pondering whether or not to send a simple, yet simultaneously all-too complicated message?

While I admire the emotional maturity of those who are able to amicably leave a relationship and remain friends, I believe that in most cases, at least directly following a break-up, the last thing either party needs is communication, let alone friendship. Studies show that when we fall in love, our brain emits a high level of endorphins, which in many ways, mimic the effects of drugs; emanating highs of sheer elation and bliss. Similarly, when we go through a break-up, our brain displays activity mimicking that of a withdrawal. As smokers attempt to quit their deadly habit, they typically leverage patches to ween their way off such an addictively satisfying practice, and in opposition to previous fulfilling highs, they struggle through the deepest of lows, and battle to let go. Oftentimes, they fail. However, it is the “cold-turkey” route to quitting drugs that is the most painful, yet also the most effective, and the same logic applies to dating. When you cut someone off completely, you will likely wake up to the physical feeling of your tearing from your body. I definitely felt this way through a few of my breakups, screaming at the writhing, agonizing fire in my chest. Similarly, while this withdrawal eats away at the strength and willpower that we’ve relied on to stay away from that person’s contact in our cellphone, we must lean into that burn. No shortcuts. No cheating. No happy birthday.

As a summation to this post, I have taken the responsibility to move beyond the relation between ex’s, birthdays, and drugs. Ha. Here’s the real message, and take it as you will. Life is short, especially when you waste a few years waiting for a single, dreadful birthday (or whatever day it may be for you) to come and go. When I once asked one of my best Ecuadorian friends why she was so reluctant to fall in love, she responded, “Tan corto el amor, tan largo el olvido” (Love is short, forgetting is long). While I believe this message to be both profound and true, my hope for the readers of this piece, is not to not fall in love. Instead, I implore you to fall in love, with as many people as possible, romantically, in your familial relationships, and in your friendships. This will aid you in life, dating as many people, and determining both what you like and don’t like in a partner; finding what you want and need in a friend; and, well, family is tough, because it’s all you’ve got, but more often than not, they are the first to show you love in this world, and they are typically the ones to keep loving, even through your greatest mistakes. However, you must also recognize when it’s time to move on and let go. Find the power within yourself both to forgive your own oversights, alongside the pain your partner caused you, even after promising they never would. While life is short, most love is often shorter, but no pain should last as long as either. Cut it off, forgive both them and yourself, and let go. Live on. And stop saying happy birthday.

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