how to fall out of love

I think I was ten or eleven when my cousin Eric broke up with his long-term girlfriend Dana. I loved Dana. She was willowy thin with poofy permed hair and a thick Tennessee accent. When we visited, she talked to my sister and me like we were her friends, though I must’ve been, at most, half her age at the time.

I remember standing in my parents’ bathroom while my mom was doing her makeup one morning, trying to understand why Eric and Dana were splitting up. “Sometimes,” my mom said, “people just fall out of love.”

I was familiar with the fickle politics of elementary school romance (when Colby dumped me because I wouldn’t kiss him behind the lockers, I’d ripped his school photo into tiny pieces and deposited them into a friend’s open palm to give back to him) but I’d never imagined an adult could love someone one day and then not love her a week or a month later. I’d had friends whose parents had gotten divorced, but I assumed it was because someone had done something wrong. Someone had had an affair, or started drinking too much, or fallen in love with his wife’s sister. Divorce, I thought, was  directly linked to depravity. Obviously I watched too much television.

“You and Dad wouldn’t fall out of love, though,” I’d said to my mom. It was something in between a declaration and a question.

“We could,” she’d said. “You never know.”

At the time, I was pretty uncomfortable with this idea, which is probably indicative of how sheltered and easy my childhood was. I struggled to imagine ever not loving any of the people I loved.

As an adult looking back on this moment, and as someone who thinks often of what it means to love or not love someone (and of those gray areas in between), I’m really interested in the metaphor: falling out of love. It has the same kind of helpless passivity as its progenitor (falling in love), but I’m not quite convinced that these are opposite processes.  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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