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. Continue reading

breaking up or breaking down

The belief that love is a force beyond our control—that it can be as capricious and devastating as the weather—is so common that it’s built into our language. Love sick. Love struck. We can’t speak about romantic love without using the vocabulary of illness and aggression. Sure, it’s occasionally like a summer’s day, but more often love burns or conquers; it sweeps us off our feet. Lovers collide or are torn apart. Hearts ache and then break. Even smitten comes from smite, a blow from an angry god. And Cupid may be chubby and rosy but he still assaults us with arrows.

“Love is smoke raised with the fume of sighs,” says Romeo, the archetypal Western lover. It is “a madness most discreet/ A choking gall and a preserving sweet.” Whether we are seized, crushed, or captured, falling or afflicted, love happens to us. We are practically powerless, weak-kneed and nauseous, drooling at love’s mercy—or this is what the metaphors we’ve created for love imply.

But before we blame metaphors, it’s worth noting that recent research shows that love causes real pain. Ethan Kross’s fMRI scans showed that the same parts of the brain were activated during social rejection (thinking about a recent break up) and during physical pain. In other words, a broken heart feels a lot like a broken arm. Kross argues that we ought to be a little more sensitive to the pains of those suffering from heartache. (Ahem, college dorm-mates: my “Sarah McLachlan phase” now has scientific backing.)

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