Let’s have an honest conversation: Who among us hasn’t had a short-term relationship that shattered us more than it should have when it ended? (I know I have. Oof, apologies to my therapist who had to listen to me carp about a guy I dated for all of four months for the entirety of a year.)
Taylor Swift has been there, too, a few times. (Sorry, couldn’t pass up that “Style” reference.) Way back in 2010, Swift reportedly dated actor and notable scarf thief Jake Gyllenhaal for about three months, when she was 20 and he was 29. (The age difference has spurred another conversation about when an age gap is inappropriate, but that’s an entirely different article.)
Gyllenhaal and Swift’s short-lived affair reportedly inspired much of the material for her 2012 album “Red,” most notably “All Too Well.” The song is Swift’s sad-girl opus and the track that defined her, for better or worse, as a songwriter who wasn’t afraid to make sport of skewering her exes.
On her recent re-release of that album ― part of her ongoing effort to reclaim ownership of her music catalog ― Swift includes a 10-minute rendition of the song.
“All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” reads like a deep dive of the relationship whereas the 2012 version just gave us cursory notes. “Taylor’s Version” is like when you buy a movie with director’s commentary and they don’t skimp on the gossipy, behind-the-scenes details: Now we know The Ex Who’s Probably Jake Gyllenhaal stood her up on her 21st birthday (the gall!), won her dad over with “self-effacing jokes” and apparently still dates women half his age ― an allusion that tracks with Gyllenhaal’s dating record post-Swift. (She sings, “And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punchline goes: ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.’”)
Swift has received critical praise for the extended cut as well as an accompanying short film for the song she directed herself ― both are lovely, detailed and relatably lovelorn. But she’s gotten quite a bit of flak online, too: for bringing Gyllenhaal back into her narrative almost a decade later, and for writing a 10-minute song about a relationship that lasted the extent of a seasonal drink’s run at Starbucks. It’s a bit overwrought, they say.
OK, fine, Twitter. But if feeling crappy about the end of a whirlwind but promising three-month relationship is “weird,” I am absolutely a weirdo. I’ve been in a relationship that lasted almost a decade. I’ve also been in one that lasted a few months. The one of a few months plays out in my memory with the same potency of the long-term one.
There’s no “time’s up!” for when something is allowed to matter or not matter. The nature of grief is weird and unwieldy, and how we ruminate on our own personal romantic histories is deeply complicated.
Of course all breakups are rough but there’s something uniquely difficult about the end of a short-term relationship, therapist Liz Higgins told me. Those early days of a relationship is “love without knowledge,” she said, and ignorance (and blind faith, in the spirit of Swift) is bliss, baby.
“We experience infatuation, so much possibility, and a wide range of the unknown with this person,” Higgins explained. “That short time span is full of opportunities for play, exploration and connection.”
As Higgins noted, even in long-term relationships, we often grieve the loss of that initial all-consuming love, quixotic stage of a relationship. It’s legitimately heady and euphoric to be with someone new, and monogamous (or monogamous-ish) couples are forever trying to capture it.
Plus, as Higgins added, “some people define as impactful interactions with others they have only met once. So it would be silly for us to disregard this due to the length of time alone.”
Ehren Minkema, a 30-year-old podcaster from Minneapolis, experienced something like that almost a decade ago: The summer before his senior year of college, Minkema spent 72 hours with a guy he’d been chatting with on a dating app. They got breakfast, read on campus, watched movies, and even cooked together. You’d think there’d be weirdness or lots of awkward moments of silence, but it all felt so natural and right, Minkema was sure he’d stumbled on something lasting.
Then the guy completely ghosted him. Later, he spotted his fling (but categorically not a fling) around town and he recalls feeling almost paralyzed, even from afar.
“I think the reason why it stung so hard and for so long was that this was the first time in my life I had truly felt swept off of my feet so quickly and the first time in my life that I had to cope with the realization that no matter how much I may want answers and closure, a lot of times, I may never get it,” he said.
Minkema thinks Swift does a masterful job of bottling up that feeling in “All Too Well.”
“She captures that trauma of running through a forced playback of all the memories of a past relationship, when you’re desperately trying to make sense of what went wrong,” he said. “That line, ‘And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now, he’s gonna say it’s love. You never called it what it was’ hits me in all the places.”
Jasmine Melody, a 25-year-old who tweeted in defense of Swift, told me that all of her biggest heartbreaks were the shorter relationships that never fully came to fruition. She thinks that’s ultimately why they were so difficult to move on from.
“When you have a long, healthy relationship that just simply runs its course, you’re not left wondering what could’ve happened in the future, whereas if you have a short but very passionate relationship, you are always left wondering what could’ve been,” she said.
As emo boy John Keats famously put it, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard, are sweeter.”
Or as Jenn, a 27-year-old from Los Angeles, said on Twitter, “It’s the potential ― we don’t see flaws, so it hurts the most.”
When I reached out to Jenn ― who didn’t share her full name for privacy reasons ― about this story, she told me her most painful breakup was over a relationship that lasted three months, just like Swift’s.
“He spent two months telling me I was his soulmate and the love of his life and then his dad died and he wouldn’t let me support him,” she recalled, describing what sounds a whole lot like love bombing. “I went to see him and when he picked me up from the airport, he broke up with me.”
“I was blindsided because he spent the last two days saying any problems we would work through together,” she said. “It sucks. It hurts.”
Jenn thinks that people who are being hypercritical of Swift don’t understand what it’s like to fall in love with someone without the benefit of seeing the more complicated, messy side of them — or the burgeoning issues that would inevitably destroy the relationship anyway.
“Incompatibility doesn’t show up for six to eight months typically, in my opinion,” she said.
With these quickie relationships, in the end, you’re mourning your ex, the future they may have sold you on, and the fantasy you projected onto them.
This is your brain on lack of closure (and ghosting)
If Swift’s lyrics in “All Too Well” are any indication, she didn’t get much of an ending with her ex.
A lack of closure after any length of time can leave a person struggling to get over a relationship for longer than they would be if there had been a clear and satisfying end, said Sarah Spencer Northey, a Washington, D.C.-based relationship therapist. (Well, as satisfying an end as a breakup can be.)
“Our culture seems to equate time spent together with the level of explanation and closure you deserve with a breakup,” she said. “But our brains don’t necessarily work like that.”
Our brains, she explained, are wired to seek closure, even for the shortest of connections or love affairs.
Spencer Northey pointed to the Zeigarnik effect. First studied in the 1920s by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the psychological phenomenon is the tendency to remember unfinished business better or more through rose-colored glasses than something we’ve put to bed nicely and relatively patly.
“When we don’t get closure, we feel a bit crazy because our brains are kind of short-circuiting, desperate for a conclusion,” Spencer Northey said. “It’s why stories with cliffhangers and ambiguous endings stick with us longer. Our brain is desperate to complete the narrative.”
The deep psychological need for closure is also why ghosting is so damn awful.
“Any time you share a deep experience, a day, or three months, the brain jazzes up to start wondering what happens next,” she said. “If the brain doesn’t get to know what happens next, it’s harder to stop thinking about it.”
Other Taylor-following therapists I spoke with said her relative youth when she wrote the song is important to consider: That’s because relationships in our teens and early 20s get stored in our still-developing, extremely neuroplastic brain differently and much more vividly than those from later in life.
There’s actually a term in psychology for why we dwell on and have such intense recollections of our teen and 20-something years, said Alexis Bleich, the clinical director of Kip Therapy, a New York City therapy group. It’s called the reminiscence bump.
“Some of it is because the brain pays special attention to novel or new memories and some of that is because the brain also focuses on memories that help us understand who we are ― both of which are frequent experiences during this time of life,” Bleich said.
Reminiscence bump is why it feels so emotionally evocative when you remember, even decades later, driving around in your new-to-you used car, listening to your favorite song in high school. Reminiscence bump makes people part of your personal narrative, regardless of whether you like it ― intrinsic, bold-named characters you would 100% bring up if prompted to write an autobiography. Reminiscence bump is why you can’t forget your ex. (Truly sorry about that!)
“The idea of Taylor being this open about a three-month relationship is scary to a lot of people ― we’ve been trained to hide any sliver of vulnerability because it’s ‘undesirable’ to show that level of sensitivity and emotion.”
– Ashe, a 27-year-old Taylor Swift fan from Redondo Beach, California
Reminiscence bump is probably why Ashe ― a 27-year-old from Redondo Beach, California, who didn’t share her full name for privacy reasons ― has such deep recall of a short relationship she had when she was 19, with a guy who was older than her, like Swift’s ― ahem ― mystery man. A decade later, there’s still part of her memory bank reserved for that ex and the “intense, almost primal” connection she had with him.
Though her friends have never made her feel like the duration of the relationship made it insignificant, Ashe shies away from bringing up her ex with them.
“I have my own hesitancy to talk about how deep the love was because it was so short-lived,” she said over email. “It’s interesting because though the actual relationship was short, the love wasn’t. I still feel the love. Not in a ‘I wish we were still together’ way, but in a ‘our love was real and it’s present and I feel lucky to carry it with me’ type of way.”
As for why Swift is getting dragged for putting such a common experience out there, Ashe thinks it speaks to our current dating culture: We’re forever in the “talking stage” or “just hanging out stage” of things, and it’s deeply uncool to care so much and be earnest about someone we like.
“The idea of Taylor being this open about a three-month relationship is scary to a lot of people ― we’ve been trained to hide any sliver of vulnerability because it’s ‘undesirable’ to show that level of sensitivity and emotion,” she said.
Minkema, the man who had a surprisingly impactful 72-hour relationship, chocks up the criticism to a now-older millennial audience struggling to remember what it was like to be young, in love and a little bit dumb.
“I think the dismissiveness comes with age,” he said. “As we get older and those intense feelings and experiences are the size of ants in the rearview mirror, it’s really hard to go back to those feelings and relate to those emotions.”
There’s also a bit of misogyny baked in to the criticism of Swift: No one ever rolled their eyes and told Bob Dylan to get over it when he wrote a whole album about his divorce. (A furiously emotional album, I might add! “Idiot Wind,” anyone?) Or when Marvin Gaye did it. Or when Nas did it and he even posed with his ex-wife Kelis’ green wedding gown on the album cover. Draaa-matic.
No one criticized Leonard Cohen for having the audacity to kiss and tell about his alleged one-night stand with Janis Joplin in “Chelsea Hotel.” But when Swift writes about her famous exes, she reliably gets the “crazy ex-girlfriend” treatment.
It would be much cooler of us if we could just let Swift write about her lived experiences and curb our cynicism. After all, most of us have a Swift-like experience in our relationship back catalog, regardless of whether we claim it. I say, luxuriate in those vivid memories as much as you damn well please. (Or just for 10 minutes and 13 seconds ― “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” is a great accompaniment, obviously.)