Whether it is your first love from high school, a formative relationship in college, or a brave foray into completely self-chaperoned dating as an adult, it will happen: you will experience a breakup.
Breakups are so inevitable that Hollywood knows how to capitalize on the tornado of emotions we go through when a relationship ends. The empathy we feel for the jilted characters of Bridgerton, for example, in all of their empire-wasted ways and utterly ridiculous rules, exists because their heartbreak mirrors our own.
Whether you be the dump-er or the dump-ee, a breakup is hard, and the business of righting the ship of your heart is tedious, painful, and above all, lonely.
I’ve collected a veritable cornucopia of also-rans in my own dating life, and the one constant through all of those connections is that my romantic affiliation with each of them ended. Whether it was a one-and-done first date, a multi-month situationship, or a brilliant conversation that lasted a few years, most men I’ve dated have, for one reason or another, fallen into my private personal history. (I say most, not all, because a few also-rans have converted into teammates, dear friends whose opinion I value and for whom I cheer.)
Through all of those breakups (or mutual farewells in the best cases), a few principles have kept my head up. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The first rule of breaking up is that there is no one, prescribed way you are supposed to feel. In the words of a friend, don’t “should” yourself through this experience. Relief, distress, anger, grief, yearning, regret, doubt, and shock can all swirl around without any apparent purpose and in any possible combination.
And the worst thing you can do is demand feelings “be proportional.” A three-week relationship can cut hard and deep and leave you wondering about what went wrong for months. Taylor Swift mined a “short” relationship for an entire album and a 10-minute epic tribute to disproportional feelings. What I mean to say is, if you feel nothing when a long relationship ends, or can barely function after a short relationship ends, that is valid.
In the days immediately after a breakup, when feelings are flicking through your body like a slide deck on speed or you’re paralyzed in anger and pain, keep one thing in mind: this is grief. You are grieving the loss of someone. A relationship in your life has significantly changed.
Beyond losing a relationship with the person, there are a series of mundane habits that will also be lost. You have to think of someone else to text about your day. You must finish that Netflix series alone. You no longer have a reliable partner to call for last-minute take-out or to join you at that party.
A breakup also destroys plans. Whether you go through a divorce or call off a fling, there were plans in motion. Now you have to not only reckon with rebuilding the scaffolding of your self-confidence, but also your calendar.
I have dumped and been dumped a fair share of times. The ones that hit hard require crying in my bed and in the shower, and screaming in my car. (Showers are a great place to cry, by the way.) I somehow always manage to feel simultaneously angry at the man on the other end of the breakup, the patriarchy, my own need to be desired, religion, God, America, humanity, purity culture, porn, Disney, societal expectations, feelings, my body, and myself. I am doomed. I am unlovable. I got what I deserved. I will die alone. The world is a sad, sad place. Men are idiots. I was an idiot for liking him. I missed all the signs. I worked too hard. I didn’t work hard enough. It’s all my fault.
This is illogical, but few things about a breakup are logical besides the fact that one party no longer wants to be with the other. The only logic that exists in a breakup is that one person is leaving the partnership, so the partnership dissolves. At the end of most relationships there is no contractual period of transition, no two-week notice.
There is one cure, and one cure only. The only thing that fixes a broken heart is time. This means that the only way to weather a broken heart is to move through time, and to do what it takes to keep the various puppet strings of your life moving. Go to work. Seek out friends. Eat bread. Stay home. Cry in the shower. Tell the story to everyone, over and over, and let the reality of it settle into your bones. Tell no one, and carry it like a hidden tattoo, for it is no one’s business but your own. Take a day off from work. Take a week off from work. Throw yourself into your work.
The truth is that everyone deals with grief differently. I am an external processor in nearly everything, but not in love. I hold my heartbreak close, and share it only with my journal, and possibly with the men who have the courage to tread through my heart’s stories in the future. I have to sit with my hurt until it folds itself into a story I can tell without getting a papercut. I am always one step removed from this storytelling.
The reflex when writing a column like this is to provide concrete, actionable advice. Go on a run. Eat ice cream. Pick something else to focus on, like a professional goal. Prioritize your family. Lean on friends. Do something you’ve always wanted to try. Go on a bunch of dates. Don’t feel pressured to date. But honestly, the only good advice is to let yourself be in your body, with your feelings, moving forward. There is no timeline attached to heartbreak.
There are rooms in my heart where men have squatted for years. But hearts, they are large. They grow bigger. If one person seems to hold all the rooms in your heart right now, I assure you that you will find a way to build another wing, and grow large enough to hold what you carry and more.
All in good time.