Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” Helped Me See The Full Story of My Relationship
The new 10-minute version is an angrier, more honest breakup story
When my partner of four years blindsided me with a breakup over the phone, I couldn’t help but turn to my favorite singer, the serially-burned-by-men-via-too-brief-phone calls Taylor Swift. My boyfriend was no Jake Gyllenhaal-esque male manipulator, but when Swift’s re-recording of her classic breakup album, Red (Taylor’s Version), came out three weeks later, it felt like a fated lifeline.
Fans of Swift know the album’s “All Too Well,” purportedly about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, is frequently lauded as her best song. The infamous ten-minute version, something of a legend within the fan base, would finally see the light of day with Swift re-recording her old work. When the album dropped, I had just arrived in LA for the weekend, a ridiculous amount of time for a cross-country trip. I needed my two best friends; I couldn’t bear to be alone. Two weekends earlier I’d been in Manhattan and two weekends after I would fly to England. I wanted to be anywhere but home. I wanted to be anywhere other than my own body. That night, in my best friend’s twin-sized bed, I listened to the new version of the song for the first time.
I found myself surprised by the new lyrics, by the bite to the lines. This new version was more scathing, more honest, more angry than the ballad’s original ache. Swift was mad here, furious that her partner put her in a new hell, that his remarks made her want to die, that the patriarchy allowed for their dynamic, one in which her youth translated into neediness and his resulting cruelties went unchecked. In some ways the first version had protected Gyllenhaal, and, more importantly, protected the romance of their story. It allowed the end of their relationship to be sorrowful. But this original version, before it was made palatable for both radio playtimes and social discourse, contained all of Taylor’s hurt. It let her lay the blame in the open and present a fuller story, one that’s more complicated than a singular disappointment or the sting of goodbye.
My ex-boyfriend and I loved to tell the story of how we met: how teenage backpackers staying in the same hostel in Budapest for three nights could turn into a sustained long-distance relationship. We told it to friends while visiting one another on fall breaks at our respective campuses, mine in Upstate New York and his in the mountains in Tennessee. We told it differently, his version messier and funnier, mine offering a romantic haze to an evening between strangers that could only be applied in hindsight. We told it to each other, no one more surprised than us that we turned into something real and lasting, that we became each other’s family.
Peripheral family involvement in Swift and Gyllenhaal’s relationship is a through line in the original “All Too Well.” The opening verse places her infamously unreturned scarf at “his sister’s house.” The way his mom welcomed Swift into Gyllenhaal’s past portrays a kind of collective intimacy, an endorsement for the arc of their relationship by those who knew them best.
“Photo album on the counter, your cheeks were turnin’ red
And your mother’s tellin’ stories ’bout you on the tee-ball team
You taught me ’bout your past, thinkin’ your future was me.”
The new version amplifies this theme, emphasizing her father’s affinity to feel both charmed by and frustrated with her partner. In some ways, these repeated ties to her partner’s family allow Swift to convey the seriousness of the relationship in brushstrokes, suggesting that she and Gyllenhaal weren’t isolated in their mutual affection.
On one of the last trips my ex and I took together, we were visiting his parents in Tennessee. In a house of glass and wood overlooking a summer-soaked forest, I watched him sort through the childhood belongings he was storing there. The embroidered baby clothes and beloved construction-themed picture books filled an afternoon with his mom. Her stories and laughter were something tangible, something I could hold onto. In this house, we had gotten ready for his sister’s wedding, and babysat his nephew. We escaped a nearby summer camp job that drove us half crazy, and hosted a dinner party for friends. In this house, I had shared countless conversations with his family and pictured our own kids in the room designed for grandbabies.
Despite my ex moving to Florida for the last year of our relationship, we never had a shared space of our own—but we had all the right ingredients to tell a good story, about who we were to one another and what it would mean for the future. Dating him was a larger-than-life experience. It was tearful goodbyes, surprise visits, and meals that showed up on my doorstep when I’d had a rough day. It was a romance that wrote itself because the ache was ever-present. It was a constant reassurance that the trials of distance were what you endured for your family. I got used to my relationship feeling somewhat bad all the time because I missed my person, and when it began to feel bad because of my person, it was easy to miss the differentiation.
On the final call, I was expecting to plan how I was going to move in with my partner in the coming months. He had asked me to, and my initial hesitation was presented as a threat to our longevity. But after I had spent a month thinking everything through, sorting out the logistics, making peace with the difficulties, it seemed the problem had somehow shifted; it was no longer my absence, but my presence that proved burdensome for him. He didn’t believe we would get married, and that newly realized truth meant he couldn’t bring himself to be a good partner to me.
The thing about long-distance relationships is that they fundamentally rely on a shared story. The story of your relationship is, in some ways, more important than the reality. From day one, there has to be an end goal, a way out of the distance that makes the difficulties of the present tense worthwhile. And for us, that was a life we had imagined together: fiercely debated kids’ names, furniture configurations for a tiny apartment in France, careers that fulfilled us both. It was a vision of life together that had felt promised to me.
Swift sings, “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” She perfectly captures how the truth sometimes feels like a betrayal, if for nothing other than its delivery. My partner saying he didn’t think we would end in marriage might not sound cruel when talking about a 22-year-old’s relationship. But it was the harshest way our relationship could’ve ended—he attacked the future we had been shaping for years. It was a truthful remark, perhaps, but it was casually cruel, too.
And with that cruelness came a kind of unwanted reckoning. I thought back to how I had felt in those prior months, the space between his performed normalcy and my increasing anxiety. How I packed all of the things he left behind in Florida and trekked them up to him on what would become our final trip together. How he landed his dream job in his dream location while I struggled with a post-graduation malaise, living in a hometown devoid of hometown friends, watching the support I’d offered him for years go quietly unreturned. A break-up that blindsides a years-long relationship erodes the narrative of that relationship: that it was good and special and safe. That it was worth fighting for, even when the fight had been so hard for so long.
A few weeks after that phone call, I heard Melissa Febos talk at the Miami Book Fair about her new book Girlhood, and how she approached the project. She sought to interrogate the stories she told herself about her childhood in order to survive. For instance, she had long maintained a narrative that she had never been bullied, and proceeded to read from an essay in which a boy terrorized and spat on her day after day. Febos was after the truth, after living for so long with a comforting lie.
The reality of how my relationship came to an end feels, even now, like that wad of spit hitting my face. It will dry clear. I may act as if that is the same as if it had never been there, but I know the difference. A memory cannot be erased when the body has lived it. A body remembers hurt all too well.
On the last night of the trip to LA, we stayed up chatting with my best friend’s parents. Their balcony looks out over the hills, the glitter of the city peeking through the valleys, and the conversation grew increasingly honest with each glass of wine. Her mom turned and asked me whether I respected myself, having stayed with someone capable of ending things how he did, someone who, it seemed to her, had never respected me at all. In the months spent grieving this relationship, I’ve felt incredible rage toward my ex. I have also not stopped loving him. It is a terrible thing to sit in that space, to wonder whether loving someone in spite of their cruelties is to lose respect for oneself. Who is responsible for maintaining the level of respect they deserve in a relationship?
I often think back to his final comment, about how losing his faith in our longevity meant that he could no longer bring himself to treat me well. I don’t buy this logic—to make someone feel small is a choice. Looking back, the signs were there. His increasing inattention, unwillingness to prioritize me, the infinitesimal betrayals. And it is easy to blame myself for feeling so blindsided when it was all right in front of me; someone doesn’t fall out of love overnight. I chose to look away, day after day.
But in listening to “All Too Well” on repeat, one of the most important layers to the new version is that even in acknowledging all of the big and small ways she was repeatedly hurt by Gyllenhaal, Swift places the blame squarely on his shoulders. The extended lyrics reveal new details about him missing her 21st birthday party, and the mismatched levels of their affection. He kept her “like a secret, while she kept [him] like an oath.” And yet, he was the one who purportedly ended things. She stayed, and even had the audacity to grieve him when he left. Remarkably, there’s no narrative about her being young and naive, even in retrospect. Ten years later, she’s holding him accountable, now more than ever.
I was 22 for my breakup, the same age as Swift when the album first came out. I feel so young, so foolish to have stayed, to have looked away, to have had the audacity to be shocked by his departure. For Swift to re-record this song, setting the record straight, is to stand up for her 22-year-old self. To say, at 31, the way Gyllenhaal made her feel still matters. To be disrespected in a relationship is not a trapping of youth, it’s a question of how we treat the people we claim to care about. The repercussions matter as much now as they ever will. Swift gives permission to remember the full story, and not blame oneself for not seeing it clearly in the moment.
The last time I told the story of how we met was also the last time I saw my ex. He had accepted a job at his old university, and I made the familiar journey up to the mountains to visit him. We headed to a local watering hole one evening, a dock that stretched out into the cool of a lake. Students he vaguely knew lounged around us, a few years younger than him. They were still in school, and they asked about us.
I told the story, and he chimed in. It was charming. But it was more of a myth, by then. That weekend, he had wanted to spend time with his friends up there instead of me. I was left out of conversations, sitting on the sidelines, sitting in my silence. All weekend I wanted to disappear, to be anywhere else. I listened to the way he talked about me, like he admired me more than he loved me. Like he had already said goodbye.
Swift sings: “I reached for you / But all I felt was shame,” and in the aftermath of my breakup, I have been forced to confront my endless reaching. There is so much shame hiding in my hurt. That I clung to so little, that I didn’t demand more for myself, that I mourn the loss of this relationship in spite of it all. That even now, this isn’t how I wanted the story to end.
I think he mishandled our breakup without malicious intent. He grew out of the promises he made at 19 and I didn’t, and for him closure came in the form of a conversation where six months of bottled-up truths spilled out and he could choose to hang up, put it all down, and look away. My friends will tell you I have a problem with forgiveness, in that, I don’t. But how do you forgive something like that without erasing yourself completely? Can it not be an act of self-love to recognize that you were let down in unforgivable ways? Is it not an assertion of self-worth to decide that being passively lied to for months is unacceptable? Forgiving someone supposedly makes you the bigger person, but forgiving him would make me feel small.
Some folks have come to Gyllenhaal’s defense in the wake of “All Too Well,” especially given the fanfare over an accompanying short film Swift directed and it becoming the longest song in history to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. They have asked why she dragged his reputation back into the trenches, so many years later. Why won’t she let it go? But if Swift has taught us anything, it is that our stories are our own. She is not writing about Jake’s motives, but of her own feelings—something no one can dispute.
On our last anniversary, I wrote a card about how in the weeks after graduating I hadn’t known how to create a home for myself, but that I considered him my home. When you make a person your home, a breakup feels like homelessness. I was terrified to write this essay, not wanting my anger to produce something ugly, or unnecessary. Not wanting to hurt my ex or tear something down I had constructed with so much love. But I have realized that I am not writing to or about him. I’m writing to let go of the story of us. I’m writing to start living in my own body for the first time in a long time.
The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is an anthem to memory and perception. This song allowed me to revisit a familiar story, and ask myself how much of it was an act of self-delusion. It was a belted nudge to look more closely at the details, to stop editing out the ones that made me feel small, to rewrite something closer to the truth. In retelling her story, Swift gave me something my partner couldn’t. And when my breakup was anything but generous or communicative or honest, her words were.