The first time I heard that line I think I audibly gasped. It’s kinda unimportant in the scheme of the contemporary pop anthem it’s snuggled into, but it’s possibly my favorite line of the album (keyword possibly, choosing a favorite 1989 lyric is much worse, I assume, than choosing a favorite child). Much like the sick beat of Shake It Off, this line has snuck into my mind and set up camp. I don’t know why exactly, it’s often overlooked as another overused insult against Taylor Swift that she magically molded into a number one hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 21 consecutive weeks (girl knows how to make some dang good lemonade, am I right?)
Maybe it’s echoed in my head simply because it seems like such a subtle way to put someone down for something completely out of their control. That if anyone walks out of your life it must be because you aren’t powerful enough of a force to make them stick around, that the blame is on you if you are sitting on your bed stunned, paralyzed with heartbreak yet again. That it’s your lack of charisma, or lack of appeal, or lack of some other undefinable and untraceable quality that explains why you’re left in the cold without answers, rather than circumstances outside of your relationship or problems they are personally battling. If you, by some miraculous feat, escape the wreckage of a ruined friendship without being worn down by the lie that you aren’t fill-in-the-blank enough, it’s some outsiders place to say: “you couldn’t make them stay.”
That infuriates me.
It’s insane to me that people would blame you for not being enough when it’s never been your purpose to fulfill someone else to the point where they couldn’t exist without you. PSA to all the other misled romantics out there: it’s never been your purpose on this earth to be someone’s sun & moon. But that’s what rom-coms have led us to believe: that if they can live without you, they don’t deserve you. That real love, real romance is nothing but mutual interdependence, glorified desperation. That to really be in love, you need to be irreplaceable to each other, and that leaving could never be an option, because you are all they need. But don’t we all want that? Don’t we all want someone who can’t breathe, let alone find purpose, without our presence? At our core, in our selfishness we scream to be desired beyond explanation. We need to be needed, and it drives us to unhealthy relationships with unhealthy people.
Hear me out: this interdependence is different than commitment. This is different than, day in and day out, choosing to stay regardless of your shifting feelings or your growing differences. This “making them stay” to me feels more like the cage of worthiness rather than the freedom of commitment. Commitment is scary and daunting because it’s permanent and binding, but at the same time it’s calming and freeing because it’s permanent and binding. You can be your fragile and shaking self in the freedom of commitment, but in the cage of worthiness you can only be what the person wants or needs you to be. This cage confines you to be only what would make that person stick around. This freedom releases you to be all parts of you fully since you know that person will stick around. That someone cares for you and won’t leave you based on your performance.
The “but I can’t make ‘em stay” mentality breeds a desire for unattainable perfection. It whispers in my ear that to deserve love, I need to be at all times flawless and breathtaking, charming and alluring, hilarious and ingenious. I can never be moody or disheveled or sensitive or boring, or that’s license for those around me to take quiet steps back until they disappear before my very eyes.
Even in friendships, I see a destructive kind of apathy towards sustaining them. That if your once luminescent friend becomes duller in depression and another person who is brighter and bubblier dances into your life, that gives you the permission, nay the right, to move forward without the former. You conveniently forget your promise to be on their team, as another offers you less stressful nights and more carefree days. But silly you in your ignorance, don’t you remember how its ALWAYS easy in the beginning of a budding friendship? You haven’t seen their cobwebs, and laughter comes easy. You get all the fun with none of the frustration. There’s the excitement of newness, much like the allure of the car in the showroom. But once you get the car out on the streets, you complain of the gas milage, and the black leather seats treat you terribly on sunny days, and you find yourself once again unsatisfied. Isn’t that human nature? We crave new, because new is carefree, however unsustainably. We will never experience the fierce goodness that’s settled in the depths of lasting friendships if we are always running to new and (not actually) improved.
Those friends that have stayed in my life do so, not because I make them with my infallible cheeriness or constant calmness, but because they find worth in my weaknesses. They see my faults as the avenue by which I receive grace, knowing that I will therefore give them grace in their own dark spots. The fault that a foe would spit in my face as my worst quality is, to those staying friends, the number one reason that they love me. These friends never expect me to operate in ways I am incapable of: they know me and free me to live in the place I find myself in. My cloudy days don’t scare them off, and they are still holding my hand when the sun comes back out. They are in my corner: celebrating with me in my victories, and wiping my forehead and whispering the sincerest of pep talks when I’ve been beaten to a pulp.
I see this “but I can’t make ‘em stay” phrase as a reminder to have open hands to relationships & remember that in reality I can’t make anyone stay, nor do I even have the desire to force anyone to stay if they sincerely feel they can’t anymore. They have free will to leave whenever, or even worse they could be taken from me without a moment’s notice. So carrying that burden of being fill-in-the-blank(-space) enough to make people stay isn’t an option anymore.
We can’t take the blame for others walking away. We can only keep fighting to find the kind of people who want to stay on our team.