In the Cards is a monthly advice column by Carly Boyce, a queer and genderqueer femme witch based in Toronto. With a background in community-based sexual health, grief work, and suicide intervention, in addition to several years of tarot reading, she brings gentle advice and the wisdom of the cards to your questions about life, love, and feelings of all sorts. To submit a question, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Ask a Feelings-Witch. Questions will remain anonymous, and may be edited for length.
If you date someone for a short amount of time and you realize that you’re not that into them, what’s the best way to tell them? To what extent is it your responsibility to care for them if they feel hurt? Is it ok to ask for some time away and to expect them to gracefully respect that boundary?
Gentle reader, I want to start by thanking you for asking this question. I have done a lot of thinking and reading and talking with folks about getting dumped, but it can be hard to find information about breaking up with people in ways that are in line with our values and in support of our thriving communities. Breaking up is hard to do, or at least it can be, on any side of the equation. I mostly think Dan Savage is full of shit, but he introduced me to a few ideas that I think about a lot, and one of those is that most relationships end, and that it doesn’t serve us to think about longevity as the only marker of the success of a relationship. If you are a person who engages in romantic relationships, you will experience the endings of some of those! Like anything else, breaking up is a skillset, and sometimes our feelings of being stuck about it are really informed by a lack of practice!
I think we consent to the possibility of rejection, the possibility of heartbreak, when we embark on building intimate relationships with each other. You already know that more than likely, dating will end with someone—maybe everyone—getting hurt. It’s a beautiful quirk of the human condition that we keep doing this anyways, despite a near-guarantee that someday, someway, our hearts will get smashed (or at least bruised). I don’t think you need to spend a lot of energy protecting someone you have dated a little bit from rejection; to a certain extent, they signed up for it (and so did you). That’s not an open call to be callous, but rather an invitation to think about your own integrity and your own boundaries as things that get to be a driving force in how you build *and* how you end romantic entanglements.
Let me preface this with the fact that context and nuance are obviously super important factors in what dating looks like. It’s hard to approach this as a general question, but me and the cards will do our best! I’ll be focusing on relationships like you, dear questioner, wrote about; those that are not especially long or especially immersive, and also we will pay particular attention to the dynamics of dating in small communities that can be insular and overlapping (queer dating life!). We are also not talking here about relationships that are abusive or coercive; those are endings of a different flavour and that require different considerations.
Heart of the matter: Three of Swords
The Three of Swords is a heartbreak card, to be sure; but it lives in the realm of air, which guides intellect, communication, and relationship with the self. It centers on miscommunication and misrepresentation.
As the card at the heart of the matter, the Three of Swords references speaking your truth, even if you aren’t sure it will be well received. It sounds like you have a desire to be honest about your feelings, and not give too much to a relationship that you know isn’t going to work for you. These are great impulses, and ones that honour your integrity and desires to have relationships that you *actually want*. Sometimes, at the root of a feeling that we explain to ourselves as “I don’t want to hurt their feelings” is actually a feeling closer to “I don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation.” This card is a recognition that these conversations likely *will* be hard and uncomfortable and may also confer misunderstandings; and that none of these truths are good reasons not to have those conversations anyways. This card is a call to be as truthful as you can, not just with the other person, but with yourself. Don’t say that you want to be friends instead of lovers, unless you really mean it. Don’t say what you think they might want to hear. Say what you feel, and trust the other person to hear you.
Questions about communication and miscommunication also make me think about the ways we communicate in relationships. I wonder if part of what you’re asking, dear reader, is whether or not it’s ok to break up with someone via text, or facebook message, or other less personal or intimate methods than a face-to-face conversation.
The Three of Feathers grants you permission to be imperfect, so long as you’re doing your best to speak your truth, so I think some questions to think about when deciding some of the *how* of a breakup are these: what are the ways you have communicated best during the relationship? Are you worried that in person, you might back down from the decision you reached that feels best for you? Has this person indicated what communication methods and strategies work best for them? What works best for you? Do you want to have a plan; a time, place, method, etc, or do you want to have this conversation in a way that is more organic? What will you need right after? With whom will you debrief? Do you need an escape plan?
You can’t control the other person’s emotional experience of getting dumped, but you can make choices about how and when you do it that align with your values.
I think the Three of Swords is also asking about the differences between hurt and harm: getting dumped hurts, but someone continuing to date you even though they don’t want to… there is more potential there for harm. Some of the messages we send with that choice could be: I don’t think you’re strong enough to manage rejection; I feel sorry for you; I see you as less powerful and resilient than me; I don’t think you have other people more stoked on you that you’d rather be dating. Are those things you believe? What does having those thoughts about the person you’re dating do for you? How might you be misrepresenting the relationship to yourself? What is the story you are telling yourself about the relationship and why you are staying in it?
Another thought that might be coming up is something like this: “I told you I liked you and now I’m telling you I don’t and that feels like lying or giving up.” It’s actually totally reasonable for your feelings about someone to change as you spend more time together. Feeling something, or the possibility of something, doesn’t commit you to feeling it (or trying to) forever. Changing your mind (or acknowledging that your feelings have changed) is super legit.
What do to: Nine of Cups
The Nine of Cups is a wish card. It talks about feelings of bliss and contentment, feeling like you are and have enough, like the things you dream of and hope for are actually possible. This card wants you to have a full heart and relationships you feel jazzed about. It wants you to pursue that kind of joy and fullness, which you probably won’t have the time and energy for if you drag on dating folks you don’t have big feels for (if/when you are looking for big feels).
This connection, at this time, isn’t bringing you the joy you hoped for. It’s ok to hope for joy. It’s ok to have an idea of what a relationship will be like. Be careful of developing too specific of a picture, though, or you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, and also not letting someone surprise you with ways of being or ways of connecting that you didn’t know you would be excited about or hot for. As an advice card, the Nine is also telling you something about the how of the breakup. You were initially interested in this person for a reason—there are things about them that are wonderful and exciting, and you can talk about your appreciation of those qualities even while ending your romantic connection.
The Nine of Cups is also about diversifying the sources of joy you have access to, and in relation to the question you’re asking, this gives me two ideas. The first is that it wants you to ponder the role that romance and relationships play in your overall joyfulness. Do you put a lot of pressure on dates to make you happy? Are you ok when your relationships are not ok? What role do your expectations from relationships play in which ones you pursue and which ones you don’t?
What to think: The Star
The Star is a hopeful nudge from the universe to use your gifts and skills to make the world better, and also to draw on your community and your support systems to keep you accountable and magical. Listen, some breakups are the end of a relationship, and others are a kind of transition into a different kind of relationship. Some lovers are better suited as friends, or friends with benefits, or friendly acquaintances, or people who totally dig each other, but only at a safe distance. I think the Star is asking you to get clear with yourself about what you bring to romance and relationships, and if there are ways you can be using those gifts and talents in the process of ending or transforming relationships.
You can also think about skills and tools you have used in other kinds of endings and transitions—how have you left jobs, volunteer roles, classes, friendships, homes, bands, therapists, sports teams, choirs, book clubs, etc? How have those experiences of leaving felt? How have other people left you, and what did you learn in those experiences about what makes them feel ok or not ok? I also think that context matters. Does there feel like there is an imbalance of power between you and the person you are breaking up with? Is that power personal or interpersonal? Is it structural? Do you have social capital or structural power (ie access to whiteness, class, cis identity, non-disabled privilege) that the person you are breaking up with doesn’t have?
I have a hopeful story to share. I went on a few (pretty lovely) dates with someone I had previously been friends with, and on our fourth date, she came over to my house, and over cups of steaming tea, we decided to stop dating. Nervously, and kindly, she told me that she didn’t think this way of connecting was really working for her, and I felt a little hurt, but I also felt relieved, because even though this person is an awesome babe that I was excited to be spending time with, I also could feel the ways we were mismatched. We’ve gone back to being friends with some flirtation between us, and it feels really good. Having this experience in my memory reminds me that it is possible to have relationships shift and change, that hurt and conflict aren’t the only possible outcomes of sharing hard feelings, and that a romantic relationship can end without me feeling devalued, unloveable, or mistreated. This hope makes me braver about communicating my wants and needs and fears in my relationships. It is possible that this conversation won’t be fraught and difficult and give you all sorts of bad feels; it might feel like relief, agreement, possibility, and lightness. I think in the place of what to think about, The Star is asking you to think less about the worst case scenario, and more about the hopes and possibilities that breaking up might bring! Be open to being surprised.
What to be careful of: Eight of Wands
The Eight of Wands is a fast-moving card. It’s the tiny moment between “ready, set” and “go.” It’s a reminder that readiness is a decision more than a feeling, and encourages some forward motion even if you’re not feeling 100% prepared. In the position of a caution in this spread, I think the Eight is asking some questions about pace and direction.
One decision you have to make, as the breaker-upper, is about timing, and the Eight is asking you to exercise some caution here. Once, I broke up with someone in bed, right after having sex. Let me have made that mistake for you. Other times that aren’t ideal: when you’re very hungry, when you’re very underslept, when you’re intoxicated, other moments when you know you won’t be at your best.
It sounds from your question like you want to put some distance between you and the person you’ve been dating; this card doesn’t say “don’t,” but I think it wants you to get clear with yourself about why you need this space, how much, and for how long. What do you get from taking space after a breakup? How do you do it? Do you share friends and community with the person you’re splitting from? How do you negotiate that kind of sharing in the immediate and intermediate aftermath? Sometimes in asking for space, we end up pushing people out of their networks of support, or making their access to community and coping much more complicated. If you need space, how can you collaborate to make that space possible?
Taking space after a breakup can be a super smart and caring move for all parties involved. A little space for reflection and healing can work wonders. The tricky bit can be not avoiding the work that reflection and healing require of you during that time. What are the feelings that you think might come up if you saw that person at a cafe, or a dance party, or a queer burlesque show? What are plans you can make with yourself and your folks to witness and care for those feelings when they happen? Especially in small communities and insular dating scenes, it’s kind of not an option to avoid your exes forever, and it might be tricky to avoid them at all. And while that can feel tricky and inconvenient, I also think it helps us build skills and tools around not disposing of people.
It used to really freak me out that all the queers I knew were somehow connected. It’s never hard to connect the dots between who has dated and lived with and been friends with and worked with and organized alongside everyone else. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’m finding it kind of charming? I really like being able to get multiple references for someone I might date, and be able to know some things about someone’s patterns and histories before getting involved. And the knowledge that my behaviour too, is being paid attention to, and reported to folks I might date, makes me more accountable to my own values. I want to own the mistakes I’ve made, and build lasting connections with people I have chosen to connect with, even if it turns out that we aren’t suited as dates or lovers.
You asked if it’s ok to expect that someone respects your boundaries “gracefully” and I want to dig into this a little! You absolutely have the right to set boundaries and take space if that’s what is best for you, and I do think you should be able to expect other people to respect those. I don’t feel certain that you can additionally expect grace. People are allowed to have reactions to and feelings about your boundaries (which is different than breaking them). It’s also not kind to offer more support and care than you actually intend to (or are able to) give, post break-up, because care that you’re offering out of a sense of obligation is care you’ll resent, do not a great job of, or maybe even bail on. The kindest and most ethical thing to do is be as honest with yourself and with others about what kind of support you can *and are willing to* offer, and then follow through. Ghosting on care you offered post-breakup is just adding insult to injury.
It strikes me that in a spread about breakups, something we generally see as unpleasant, difficult, and hurtful, half of the cards are explicitly hopeful; the Star and the Nine of Cups. I think that’s an overarching message to think about the hopes and possibilities of relationships, even as they are transforming or ending. These endings are opportunities to flex your communication skills, dig into your needs around space, get clear on your boundaries, and have hope about the communities we build with friends and lovers and folks we have ongoing, shifting, changing relationships with. Be slow, be caring, and be honest. You’re going to do great.