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Heartbreak Therapy

The pain of breaking up kind of makes you long for something better.

You were doing just fine until someone broke out the kiwi-flavored seltzer water. Then suddenly you were transported back to that time when the two of you were in the grocery store pretending the kiwis on the shelf were baby mice making squeaky-voiced professions of love to one another, all the while passersby surreptitiously giving you disapproving looks. The memory transformed the innocent beverage into an instrument of cardiac torture, and finding yourself on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown in the middle of The Simpsons, you excuse yourself for the safety of your own room, where you can indulge in a salty tearfest without any witnesses, except maybe for your roommate, who has learned by now to ignore you when you get like this anyway.

At first your friends were helpful. They listened. They were outraged on your behalf. They declared your utter innocence. They gave helpful suggestions. They commiserated on the incomprehensibility of the opposite sex. By now, though, they’ve moved on past the slight tingle of disappointment they felt at the breakup. It’s easy enough for them to stop thinking of the two of you in couple terms anymore, but you’re not there yet. You don’t feel like yourself without your — ugh — “ex” there anymore, but no one else is suffering from the same state of cognitive dissonance. You know it because they’ve given up plotting how to get your recalcitrant ex back. Gone are the schemes for the ultimate passionate reconciliation with your beloved, gone the blueprints of a deathtrap for the suspicious third party who might be the cause of all this woe. Now they’re saying things like, “I never did like the way your ex…” and “You can do so much better.” But you loved the way your ex did it, or you are not even remotely convinced that you can do better, or what “better” in this case would even look like. You defend your ex and your friends can’t imagine why, so sooner or later you shut up. Your grief has gone from communal to isolated, and even though you no longer cry every day, you sort of wish you still could.

In the stable moments it embarrasses you. You catch a glimpse of yourself looking good one morning and remember there’s more to you than that other person. You laugh with old pals over a silly escapade that doesn’t involve your ex at all. You find yourself enjoying the nice weather in a plain and simple way, and momentarily you’re actually enchanted with the prospect of going it alone. You start to recognize your own strength again. You think you’re getting somewhere at last. And then, as soon as you know what your worth is, you recall to mind the baffling fact that your ex doesn’t love you in all your strength and uniqueness and wit and stories and memories. And what good are all the things that make up you, if you are unloved by this one particular person?

Then you descend into the sap again. You write poetry and oh, it is so bad you can’t even believe you let yourself mark up a piece of innocent paper with such drivel. You start listening to Carole King songs and marvel at her profundity. You reread every single email your beloved ever sent you, even the one asking if you had an extra one-cent stamp handy — you couldn’t bear to delete it. You play “your song” over and over again, licking the tears off your face as the melody steamrolls through your heart and flattens it. You walk past the coffee shop where you had your first real conversation together, linger by the window, and dream up the imminent rainy night surprise rendezvous when you’ll reunite. A happy couple comes out giggling; you reel back, as though physically assaulted, and then push on through the sunny day that seems to mock your misery.

Then comes the big challenge. You have to face this person again, this person that you used to address by a whole dictionary of pet names and now is relegated to the bleak and empty category of EX. Just ex, the former, the past, the no longer, the never again. Ex marks the spot where your heart used to be. It’s been long enough now that you can keep yourself together. Your chin doesn’t wobble and your eyes don’t well up. Then a little voice inside you whispers conspiratorily, Death to dignity! Impale your pride! Throw yourself on the ground and beg for reconciliation! Offer anything you’ve got, nothing is too valuable, give it all away for free, the more melodramatic the sacrifice the better your chances! But you’re armed, thankfully, with that tiny bit of leftover self-respect that won’t impale your pride for anyone but God, and you hold out. You act carefree, lighthearted, cheerful, busy, ambitious. Your ex doesn’t suspect a thing. You leave, having had the better of the situation, and immediately you convince yourself that your ex is as wounded as you inside and your strength has only made matters worse. You think you should’ve gone crawling back after all, but instead you really ruined your chances. Your friends see that look of doubt on your face and come to your rescue. It was a narrow escape.

A few weeks slip by because you’re so buried in work to ease the pain that you don’t even notice the time passing. You think you should be recovered by now but you’re not. Someone offers the helpful calculus that half the length of the relationship is the amount of time it takes to recover. That discourages you, because it means you’re nowhere near through the grieving process yet. You try to deny your ongoing pain. You hide it well. You cry only in secret, only occasionally. You start burning the love letters, commenting on fresh possibilities, joking about your ex’s character flaws the way your friends did at the outset. It feels kind of OK. You can put on a tough front to soften the knots in your heart.

And then one day it happens. You crack. It hits you with the force of a revelation — all the things this person did wrong to you, all the lies, all the half-truths, all the leadings-on, all the hopes with no promises, all the promises with no fulfillment. You suddenly see that you have no vested interest in defending your ex’s character and so you snap to the other extreme: You take that heartless spawn of the devil apart scale by scale, analyzing every error, scrutinizing every fault, until you have mastered the situation. You explode into rage, well-controlled and well-concealed rage. You almost laugh at the calm you exhibit in that person’s presence, because all you want to do is reach for that tender throat and rip it out. You want to shout over the loudspeaker your catalog of every injustice committed in your whole relationship and the extraordinary cruelty of the breakup. Your ex can do no right, and after awhile your friends are the ones defending the helpless victim of your wrath, not you, and you get enraged at them too, even if you admit silently to yourself that they have a point.

The rage flames hotly, brightly, and briefly. It can’t sustain itself for very long. You exhaust yourself with the intensity of your hatred. Then all you have left is pity. You can’t hate all those flaws and unkindnesses anymore; your ex is just too pathetic for that. You don’t have the energy to despise. You wonder, with the slightest itch of condescension, how this miserable creature is going to make it through life and love in that state. In a rare moment of altruism, you wish you could help. Then you realize you can’t. You don’t really care.

Just as suddenly as you found yourself dumped, just as suddenly as you became angry, just as suddenly as you started to pity, now suddenly you find yourself indifferent. All right, there are those pangs of jealousy whenever you see someone else moving in on your former territory. The kiwi still makes you a little depressed. But your ex — you’re OK with saying that now — has lost the claim to your heart. It’s your own again. You can see your ex walk by without the desire to breathe poison in that direction; you can flirt with someone else without feeling guilty. Despite the occasional regressions, you know you’ve moved on.

More time passes. You can rationalize the hurt a little better now. You summon up all your faith to your aid and teach yourself all over again that this is in the Almighty’s hands. God’s will be done, and if in the long run that means someone else for you, so be it. You marvel a little at a world where love is rejected and goes to waste. You wonder if it’ll ever be redeemed. You remember all that business about taking up the cross, how glorious and courageous it sounds on paper and in church, and then you realize that you’re doing it now and it’s not glorious and it doesn’t require courage because you don’t actually have a choice about it.

To make the best of it, you reflect on all the lessons you’ve learned. You know something new about communication, something new about the opposite sex, and something new about yourself. You don’t regret it, you say again and again. You’d do the same thing all over again, it was totally worth it, no remorse. But you know in the secret depths of your heart that no one could pay you enough to go through it again, and you won’t do it again, and you’ll keep your heart safe this time. And you wonder how much longer things have to go on like this.

Copyright 2001 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sarah E. Hinlicky

Sarah E. Hinlicky was born in St. Louis, but has spent most of her life in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. She graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne College with a B.A. and departmental honors in Theology and Philosophy in 1998. When she wrote for Boundless, she was a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the monthly journal First Things.

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