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Your first breakup won't break you
Lessons from Britney & JT
Today’s essay is by Sarah Levy, a writer and author based in Los Angeles. Sarah writes the weekly newsletter Seltzer Rocks and is the author of Drinking Games, an essay collection about the role alcohol has in our formative years, and what it means to opt out of a culture completely enmeshed in drinking. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, Glamour, TIME, Vogue, and Elle.
Full disclosure: I’ve always been a Justin Timberlake apologist.
A loyal fan since middle school, I defended Justin through bad hairstyles, rumored infidelities, and an unfortunate beatboxing era. I never questioned my allegiance. Until now.
You’ve already seen the headlines. In her explosive new memoir, The Woman In Me, Britney Spears dropped major bombshells about her romance with Justin from 1999-2002. I cringed as I read about the infidelities Britney ignored throughout their relationship and the secret abortion she got after Justin told her he wasn’t ready to become a father at 19. “Justin definitely wasn’t happy about the pregnancy,” Britney wrote. “He said we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives, that we were way too young.”
Sometime after the abortion, Justin abruptly ended their relationship in a text message, leaving a distraught Britney behind.
“I was head over heels in love with him — so in love with him it was pathetic,” Britney shared in the book. “(...) When he left me, I was devastated. When I say devastated, I mean I could barely speak for months. Whenever anyone asked me about him, all I could do was cry. I don’t know if I was clinically in shock, but it felt that way.”
Her words reminded me of my own first love. And eventual heartbreak. It was an all-consuming fever, one that left me hanging on my ex’s every move even after our relationship was on life support. Like Britney, I was so sure that we were going to end up together. “I would marry you right now,” my ex whispered to me one night when we were 20, sending a bolt of electricity down my spine. It all felt so right. And yet, in retrospect, it was so wrong.
I ignored red flags in our relationship because I felt like I had so much to lose. My ex criticized my body, my clothes, and my friends. We had intense, fiery fights that I thought signaled passion. We broke up. We got back together. I couldn’t remember who I was – and I didn’t want to know who I might become – without him. When we eventually broke up for good, I knew, deep down, that it was for the best. And yet, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
In the wake of our breakup, I began to struggle with depression and anxiety. I turned to partying and binge drinking as a means of escape and isolated from friends. Similarly, Britney describes floundering after her breakup with Justin and feeling “comatose,” paralyzed by grief.
Eventually, thanks to therapy, I worked through the past traumas that my breakup triggered. I eventually realized that my intense reaction to the relationship ending was a direct response to being alone for the first in my adult life; I was confronting old fears of abandonment and rebuilding my self-esteem in the process. In time, I was able to rest my identity, not as someone’s girlfriend, but as my own woman.
In many ways, my ex set me free. We were never meant to end up together, but I likely would have married him anyway. Once upon a time, I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Now, it’s impossible to visualize who I would be had we stayed together. That’s the thing about first loves: they are an awakening, but they are only the beginning of much longer stories.
As excerpts of Britney’s memoir began to circulate online, fans called for Justin’s cancellation. I couldn’t defend Justin this time; he handled their breakup horribly, both privately and publicly (the Cry Me a River music video has not aged well). He was careless with Britney’s heart. But also, he was not the villain in Britney’s story.
Britney lacked the privacy and space to heal from her breakup with Justin; her team threw her back on stage and in front of cameras before she could process her loss and her mental health suffered. If anyone should be getting called out publicly, it’s the friends and family who failed to support Britney at that moment in time. In canceling Justin, the internet is losing sight of what Britney’s story is really about, which is her journey of repairing dysfunctional family bonds and intergenerational trauma.
“I don’t like the headlines I am reading,” Britney recently posted to Instagram, seemingly in response to the media coverage surrounding Justin’s role in her book. “Most of the book is from 20 years ago … I have moved on and it’s a beautiful clean slate from here !!!”
Losing my first love was devastating, but my subsequent struggles were not my ex’s responsibility. They pushed me to uncover the person I wanted to become and the qualities I wanted in my next partner. Justin may have broken Britney’s heart two decades ago, but I doubt he is the same person he was then. I know I’m not. And for that, I owe my ex a thank you.
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