First person

Taylor Swift nails the specific grief of breakups for women in their thirties

It’s not just the heartbreak of losing someone but the heartbreak of losing crucial time during your ‘baby years’, writes Helen Coffey

Monday 22 April 2024 17:14 BST
Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn were together for six years until they broke up in 2023
Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn were together for six years until they broke up in 2023 (Blitz Pictures/Shutterstock)

Whatever you think of Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department – and every single person on the planet seems to have an extremely strong opinion about it, if social media is anything to go by – there are undeniably lines that slice through like a surgeon’s blade if you’re a single woman in her thirties.

It’s always been a fundamental part of what propelled Swift from just a girl with a guitar to the world’s most successful musical artist – that despite all that fame, acclaim and money, she still seemed to experience the dizzying highs and excruciating lows of relationships, managing to distil those technicolour feelings into three to five minutes of catchy hooks and searing lyrics.

This time around it is no different. But what hits closer to home is that deeper loss of – and deeper hunger for – a life defined by marriage and kids that Swift, like most of us, assumed she’d have by now. Lyric after lyric expresses the particular double-mourning that comes with a big breakup at a certain age. As a woman, you don’t just feel you’ve been robbed of your “person”, but of the crucial years in which you’d expected to settle down. Robbed of, to put it bluntly, your “baby years”.

“I’m p***ed off you let me give you all that youth for free,” Swift sings to devastating effect on “So Long, London” – a song that’s very clearly about her longest-term ex, British actor Joe Alwyn. There’s a reason that line makes me ache in a very specific point of my solar plexus: Swift’s relationship arc in terms of timings eerily mirrors my own. She and Alwyn were together for six years and broke up when she was 33. I had just turned 34, but otherwise my story’s the same.

Taylor Swift teases 'timetable' for The Tortured Poets Department album in new video

When you’re with someone at that age, for that long, the assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that you’ll get married and start a family. Everyone around you seems to be doing it – or else they’ve opted out of adult life altogether, having embraced perpetual Peter Pan syndrome (as Swift puts it in “Florida!!!”: “My friends all smell like weed or little babies”).

My ex and I talked about this assumed future fairly often, though always vaguely, never concretely – it often felt more fantasy than reality. “You s***-talked me under the table, talking rings and talking cradles/I wish I could un-recall how we almost had it all,” is the lyric that jumped out most poignantly on my favourite track, “loml” – epitomising as it does the unfulfilled yearning for a potential life that never came to fruition. To me, this imagery is the emotional source code underpinning the entire album, embedded into so many of the tracks, it’s like a heartbeat thrumming with the visceral grief of that almost-had future.

“At dinner you take my ring off my middle finger and put it on the one people put wedding rings on,” Swift opines on the title track; “At the park where we used to sit on children’s swings, wearing imaginary rings,” she sings on “Fresh Out The Slammer”. Back on “So Long, London”, she puts the broken promise of an anticipated wedding day even more plainly: “You swore that you loved me but where were the clues?/I died on the altar waiting for proof”.

Taylor Swift’s new album speaks of the grief that comes with losing a fantasy future
Taylor Swift’s new album speaks of the grief that comes with losing a fantasy future (AFP via Getty Images)

As unsexy as it may be, as a woman, you start to wake up to the fact that you’re not just “having a relationship” in your thirties – you’re investing time from the limited resource that is your fertility window. If you want children, or even the possibility of children, that resource is a precious commodity; staying in something where the other person can never quite commit drains it until it’s dry. Of course Swift is “p***ed off” that she was allowed to give away “all that youth for free”. There’s so much more at stake for women. Between the turbulent times and various near breakups, I remember having numerous ultimatum-type conversations that were far less poetic than Swift’s lyrics but boiled down to the same thing: the gist being, s*** or get off the pot. If you can’t ever feel sure about our future, let me go – before it’s too late for me to have that future with anyone.

As a woman, you don’t just feel you’ve been robbed of your ‘person’, but of the crucial years in which you’d expected to settle down

It’s not the other person’s fault necessarily, but the unjust yet undeniable biological truth of the matter is that a man’s clock is not being “run down” in the same way. That imagined family life is usually still just as available to him as it was before a mid-thirties – or later – relationship breakdown.

But however painful it can be when something that initially felt like forever comes to an end, Swift also manages to nail the more exquisite torture of being in a relationship when you don’t feel secure or safe. The words “How much sad did you think I had?” reminded me of so many nights lying next to someone while feeling lonelier than I’d ever been; “I cry a lot but I’m productive, it’s an art” (from “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart”) conjured up the memory of saving my tears for weepy morning commutes cycling on the bike, only to slap on a happy face and work as hard as humanly possible once I got to the office.

And then there’s this stanza from “So Long, London”, which cuts to the heart of the unabating, low-level anxiety that haunts a relationship with someone who perpetually has one foot out the door: “And my friends said it isn’t right to be scared/Every day of a love affair/Every breath feels like rarest air/When you’re not sure if he wants to be there.”

The one thing Swift, and all the women who’ve been burned by the mid-thirties breakup, can take away is the fact that it’s better to be alone than lonely with the wrong person. It’s better to be left than to live in constant fear of being left. And it’s better to begin a new chapter – with all the bright and shining possibilities that brings – than get stuck in a story you’ve outgrown.

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