When a Breakup Leads to the Love of Your Life

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For our reader series on memorable breakups, Michael has the most positive take yet:

Well, how about this angle: The best break-up ever.

During my senior year of college, I started dating a freshman. It was probably doomed at the outset, but we had fun. We dated steadily for most of the year, and visited each other (her home was about 300 miles from mine) over the summer after I graduated. I went off to graduate school in the fall, but she made a couple of visits during September, and I made the six-hour drive back to see her for my first homecoming weekend.

It didn’t go well.

She seemed distracted. We bickered about what I was doing in graduate schools. (She was a management major whose dream in life was to be a midlevel HR manager at Hallmark. I was pursuing a Ph.D. in literature. You probably see the issue.)

Anyway, we ended up at a bar on Saturday night hanging out with a group of her friends. She was ignoring me, and I just got sick of it—said I was leaving. She asked if she could have $5. This was the early ‘80s, when $5 bought ten beers in a small-town Iowa bar, and when five bucks was a big deal to a starving grad student. I hesitated, but then said “Yes, if you promise you’ll never talk to me again,” and walked out.

Up the street I went to a different bar, where the first person I ran into was a casual friend (we had grown up in neighboring towns but didn’t know each other until college) who greeted me with her brilliant smile and a huge hug. We talked in the bar, found a bench down the street where we talked some more, went for a long walk, and talked some more.

I mustered the courage to ask her if she would like to see a movie or something when we were both home on our breaks in December. She agreed. We went out for the first time two days before Christmas, had our first kiss just after New Year's, got engaged in August, and married the following September. We now have three children, each of whom bears her grace, intelligence, and kindness. She is my best friend—the best friend I’ve ever had—and has brought joy to every single day of my life since that night of 33 years ago.

Let’s just say I doubt anyone has ever spent $5 more wisely.