There’s no way around it: The end of a romantic relationship can simply be one of the most emotionally painful, horrific, sad experiences there is. Even when you can rationally tell yourself that this isn’t the worst thing in the world — even if you called it off and had good reasons for getting out of the relationship — breakups just feel awful. Inconsolable. Devastating.
My most awful, horrible breakup, which happened in my early 20s, left me genuinely feeling that life was pointless. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, I was just sure that life would have no meaning or joy, ever again.
I actually wrote an ode about Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross — the point being that my sufferings were similar. Looking back, I cringe at my melodrama (and hope that the ode didn’t contain any actual heresies). At the same time, I suspect that Jesus was looking down on me benignly from heaven, thinking something like, “Actually, My sufferings were significantly more intense than your breakup, but you’re sort of on the right track — I am the God of compassion, the God who knows what your suffering is because I have, indeed, suffered.”
Do you want to know what the salt in my breakup wound was? About six weeks after the actual breakup (which, believe it or not, happened over the phone!), I turned 24. I was pretty marriage-obsessed in my single years, so part of the devastation of this breakup was the loss of a man I loved, and part of it was the loss of my marriage fantasy.
But my 24th birthday was really the salt in the wound: I spent my birthday evening, which was a Friday, at a restaurant with my father and stepmother, and was home asleep by about 9:30. If that wasn’t enough to make me feel like a total failure who had no life, two days later I got the news that my stepsister — my younger stepsister — had gotten engaged that same weekend.
Did I say salt? I meant to say glass. That birthday celebration was more like sharp, serrated glass in my breakup wound.
Does Working Out Really Help?
So: Is there anything to do about these breakup blues?
Well, yes and no.
One can, of course, do certain things to mitigate the misery. Hang out with friends. Pray imprecatory psalms, with your ex in mind. And, though it’s trite, exercise. Exercise not only helps you feel good about yourself, it also actually stimulates chemicals in your brain that help ward off depression. You could combine all three: go the gym with a friend, and pray the imprecatory psalms while Stairmastering.
After the aforementioned breakup, which really laid me low for months, I even invented a little prayer ritual. I had an 8×10 reproduction of Ben Long’s fresco of Jesus on the Cross* hanging on my wall in a cheap black frame. Some nights, when I was really at the end of my rope, I took the frame apart and slipped a picture of my ex, or a letter he’d written me, behind the picture of the Cross. And I would try to let go — to leave this particular sorrow and burden at Jesus’ feet.
Around the same time, I stumbled across a bookmark that quoted Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (NIV). I put that in my picture frame too, though in front, where I could see it. My little ritual sounds a little hokey, but the physical act of opening my hands before this image of the Cross and letting my photographs and love letters slip through my fingers helped. This was prayer with my mouth and my heart, but also with my body. And the frame — which now holds sort of a collage: the Ben Long fresco and the bookmark, but also a poem about prayer by Luci Shaw, and a copy of St, Francis’ famous prayer for peace is, today, right near my desk.
Those Interminable Breakup Blues
But even with prayer — and even with the gym — breakups are miserable, and the misery seems to last forever. Like an annoying and interminable winter cold, the breakup blues take time to wind their way through your system.
Sometimes it can be helpful to bracket thoughts of “The Long Meaningless Future Without Your Beau” and focus on getting though the next 15 minutes. This tactic applies to a whole range of sorrows, not just breakup blues. Some days, when I’ve been really ground down with sorrow, I’ve said to myself, “For the next 15 minutes, I will not sit here steeping in my misery. For the next 15 minutes, I will do something else, or think about something else, or go somewhere else, and try to feel something else. For the next 15 minutes I will not obsess.”
The person who’s actually sustained the breakup is not the only person affected by it. Many of us have had the experience of walking close friends through breakups, and that role comes with its own set of challenges — namely, how can you be a patient, loving and supportive friend, even when you’re completely and totally sick of hearing your friend sob and moan?
Chances are, if you’re sick of hearing her moan, she’s sick of moaning. And if part of friendship is lending a listening ear, another part is giving the occasional, gentle kick in the seat — which may look as simple as saying, “Today, we’re not talking about this anymore. Today we’re going to a movie.” (Just try to pick something other than a weepy, breakup chick flick.)
Things Not to Do
Since I’m shelling out the advice, let me suggest two things not to do in the midst of a breakup.
First, don’t rush into a rebound relationship (oh, how I wish I had taken this advice myself). The temptation to leap into another relationship is completely understandable. After all, in a breakup, you feel like you failed. Even if you initiated the breakup, you may still feel rejected. You feel unworthy, unlovable … and, if you’re like me, panicked — panicked that you will never be happy again, never feel alive again, never love again.
What’s the quick fix? Find someone new who makes you feel loveable and beautiful. Get into a new relationship, one where the intensity of new infatuation overshadows the misery of your recently-broken heart.
But (you knew the “but” was coming) there are good reasons not to get into a rebound relationship. For starters, it’s not fair to the new object of your affections. Rebound relationships almost always involve an element of using another person — using your new sweetie to make you feel better. Just apply the Golden Rule: You wouldn’t want to be someone’s rebound.
Another reason to avoid the rebound is this: though pain is, well, painful, it won’t kill you. In fact, experiencing genuine pain is part of what helps us become people who are more compassionate in the face of other people’s pain. And pain can be a place where we meet God in a particularly intense way.
As a wise older woman once said to me: The feelings won’t kill you; it’s what you’ll do to avoid feeling the feelings that will kill you.
And what’s the second thing to avoid?
Swearing off love and vulnerability forever and ever, amen.
If some people succor their breakup misery by rushing headlong into another relationship, other folks say, “Well, that was awful. I’m never opening myself up to that again!”
But as C.S. Lewis once wrote, people who become obsessed with never getting their heart broken eventually become people with unbreakable hearts.
And Christians are not called to be people with unbreakable hearts. We are called to be people whose hearts are broken for the sorrows of a sinful world. We are called to be people whose hearts break in order that they might be reformed, in a more perfect communion with the One who loved us first, the One for whom our love is never unrequited.
Copyright © 2007 Lauren Winner. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.