an attempt at an honest and unsentimental discussion of breaking up

Last weekend I came across a quotation I’d scribbled in my journal a few months ago:

We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily, we do not need to learn it.

Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend” is about grieving the loss of a friend, not romantic love, but I’m pretty sure romantic love was what I’d had in mind.

When I wrote it down, my own on-again-off-again relationship was in a precarious position: back on. Being on after being off is scary. Mostly because you know what off is like. Off is terrible. It’s that raw state of constant low-level self pity that, in certain desperate moments, you would do anything to escape.

I’d spent the entire preceding month listening to Harry Potter audiobooks and tearing up–on the bus, or on my bike, or in Whole Foods–each time a character died or, on particularly hard days, whenever someone told Harry he had his mother’s eyes. I downloaded Adele’s latest album. And I spent one entire afternoon searching youtube for covers of “Someone Like You.”

But after some self-pep-talking, I went on a few dates with smart, funny guys who had good taste in beer. I was making progress with off. Did I really want to risk returning to the old relationship? If it still didn’t work, I’d be starting all over, back at The Philosopher’s Stone. I couldn’t return to being the girl who wandered around the pastry counter with her bike helmet on and her earbuds in, desperately clutching a soft pretzel while dabbing recycled-paper napkins at the corners of her eyes. That’s why I wrote down the Rilke quotation. If I was going to go back to on, I needed to prepare for the risks involved.

Most of us expect love to make us happy, and neuro-chemically speaking, it does, at least initially. (Radiolab has a pretty entertaining podcast on this very topic.) And we Americans love happiness. The pursuit of it, after all, is not only an unalienable right guaranteed by our Declaration of Independence, but it is also the promise of our fairy tales.

When my parents split up a few years ago, they offered little more explanation than to say, “We’re not happy.” It was a hard argument to counter. Didn’t I want them to be happy? But, for the first few days at least, I was furious. Their separation had come as such a shock to me; I’d sensed no unhappiness from my life three-thousand miles away. I was sure the real problem was that they weren’t trying hard enough. They’d given up. And if my parents had taught me anything, it was that quitters never win.

So I am good, naturally, at holding on. Too good, probably, because just a couple of weeks ago I heard myself saying to my partner, “I feel like you’re giving up.” It was an accusation. Why couldn’t he be more aggressively committed to making things work? Why couldn’t he be like me?

Rilke says we should practice letting each other go. But isn’t that like practicing poking yourself in the eye with a needle? Who would volunteer? And when it comes to heartbreak, my experience suggests that practice hasn’t made it easier.*

There is a pleasant daily-ness to a relationship. A routine, a vocabulary, a preference for the same brand of toothpaste. It’s so small you hardly notice it when you’re together, but its loss is acute. When J (what I’ve decided to call the other member of the on-again off-again relationship) lived in Ecuador and I lived in Florida, I’d have visceral dreams of us going grocery shopping. We’d be at a giant Tallahassee Publix in a sprawling Tallahassee strip mall, just meandering with our cart, nosing the tomatoes, squeezing the peaches. These dreams were the most blissful moments of pre-dawn sleep, skimming on the surface of awake. But with waking came the realization that we could not possibly shop for tomatoes together and that I was stuck in Tallahassee, alone amongst the strip malls.

When I was a teenager, I wondered–as one does in Sunday School class–why the biblical verb for having sex with someone was “to know.” I thought it was probably Bible double-speak, a way of hiding when righteous people do things the rest of us aren’t allowed. (Of course Abram knew Hagar, she was his wife’s maid!) It was not until I moved out of the place I shared with J that I understood: the knowledge you have of another person’s body, that another person has of yours, of how it moves and bends, the shifts of sleep, the arches of feet, the scent of the skin at the back of the neck—there is a sweet intimacy in the acquisition of this particular brand of knowledge that is certainly divinely-sanctioned. That this person could become a stranger, that his life could—no, will—keep going right along without you in it, that you will one day not know him, that he will not know you, that you may in fact become un-known, these are difficult propositions.

My own adventures in breaking up have got me thinking about my parents again. What I understand now, now that I find myself back at off in the on-again-off-again relationship, is that giving up is not easy. And, regardless of how I felt about the end of their relationship, I failed to recognize that after nearly three decades of marriage, giving up, or what Rilke might call letting go, is choosing, rather bravely, to step into the void.

*What makes it easier, incidentally, is Harry Potter. So, if you’ve navigated to this page because you’re in the throes of a break up and you want to find some strategies for managing it, I have a suggestion: Start with the first book. Harry’s problems are always bigger than yours. And he makes the right choice even when it’s difficult. And he has his mother’s green eyes. These facts, as they accumulate, are incredibly comforting.

7 thoughts on “an attempt at an honest and unsentimental discussion of breaking up

  1. What if happiness is actually about letting the things that are (almost) lost already go instead of trying to save them at any means and staying in a unhappy comforting routine?

  2. It can feel so much safer to stay within the comfort of routine and familiarity. Stepping out into that void, which can ultimately be so very rewarding, is often a terrifying prospect. It means relying on yourself again, and no longer being half of one entity. It also leads to unexpected moments, where you walk down the aisles in the grocery store and realize that you no longer have to omit corn from your cooking, because your partner didn’t like it. These little moments of welcome change make that void seem less like a chasm waiting to consume you whole, and more like a vast expanse to grow and flourish in. Thanks for the thought-evoking post 🙂

  3. Thanks for the comments, all. Flavien and Corinne, I think you’re both right. Letting go is really an act of faith in some unseeable future. You know it’s going to be total crap for a while, but you carry on motivated by some flickering belief that life with corn again (or cilantro, in my case) has its pleasures.

  4. Pingback: the power of a deadline | the love story project

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