Divorces and break-ups are so common that people’s reaction to the recently separated and newly single is that while it hurts, and sucks, and takes a long time to heal from, it will get better, and the pain is temporary.
This reaction is not wrong. But it severely shortchanges the trauma of separation, and worse, fails to wholly consider just how sad losing love is.
It’s not a tragedy, someone recently told me in hopes of cheering me up. It could always be worse.
But knowing something could be worse has never made me feel better while experiencing pain, sadness and depression.
I can acknowledge the factual accuracy of that statement, that it could have been worse.
My ex-wife and I could have had kids. If we did, our divorce would have been worse. Me and my ex-girlfriend never lived together. Had we, our break-up would have been worse.
Break-ups happen all the time, I’m told. Doesn’t make it any easier, but at least it’s not something more serious, like a health issue, or losing your home, or something more…tragic.
To which I say, with all due respect, fuck off.
And that’s not just because I’m recently broken up and going through the excruciating process of spending more time alone, of picking up the pieces of more broken dreams, of feeling the piercing pain of heartbreak each time I wake up and each time I lay down at night to rest, alone.
I am not arguing that people in unhappy relationships stay in those relationships indefinitely. Relationships do end for a reason.
What I am arguing is that, while some things, sure, “could be worse,” there are in fact few things as tragic as losing love.
The human experience is predicated on the need and desire to love and to be loved. Our existence, our reason of being, is tied to this need. Writes Dr. Clay Routledge:
How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? There are many paths, but the psychological literature suggests that close relationships with other people are our greatest existential resource. Regardless of social class, age, gender, religion or nationality, people report that the life experiences they find most personally meaningful typically involve loved ones.
So consider the above quote. After my divorce, and now again after my most recent break-up, I have lost the loved one closest to me, both in my life and the city where I live. My family is in other states. My closest friends are spread throughout the country. We text, we chat, we see each other from time to time. But they are not here. While I have friends here, those with whom I have the closest bonds are elsewhere.
So losing this relationship creates a big void for me. Perhaps it’s my own damn fault that I have not cultivated the community I need around me. I have chosen to not live in New York City anymore because I don’t want to, and I have friends that have chosen to leave Austin for the same reason. Life happens, things change.
But then I think of all the dreams I had for my life with ex-girlfriend. I picture her face, her smile. Driving around town, I recall the time we went to that place, or did this. I recall so many memories, so many trips, so many meals, so many times at her place, at night, in the morning, during thunderstorms, long, hot days of summer with the air conditioning on, cold, short days with the fireplace blazing.
It’s close to 100 degrees every day here now yet I dread the upcoming winter and going through it without her.
I don’t care how normal it is to go through a break-up. And I don’t care to hear that perhaps one day when I heal I might find love again. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.
But it’s not the loneliness I’m now experiencing (though that is far more difficult to endure than I care to admit, either to myself or others) or the frailty of my social network that makes my break-up tragic. In fact, it’s not break-ups that are necessarily tragic; some, as I mention, are for the better.
It’s the loss of love.
Shortly after this recent break-up, I was managing the hundreds of digital photos I’d taken of and with her over the years. It was an excruciating exercise, but I needed to remove photos from my phone so I would cease to endlessly look at them, and wanted to make sure I had back-ups, etc.
In the process I found photos of my ex-wife. In the past when I stumbled upon images of her, I would feel pangs of anxiety, nervousness, that sudden jolt of emotion that triggers long-dormant feelings. This time? Nothing. They were just a bunch of photos of earlier times of someone I used to love.
I cried so hard at the thought of feeling that way about my latest ex. I didn’t, and, really, to be honest, as I’m still in that phase, don’t want to let go of that love. Yeah, yeah, I can still love these women, and who they are, and they can still be meaningful to me and we can still be friends…just in different ways. I don’t want the different way, new way. I don’t want love to whither and die.
Life can be so difficult at times. We all need someone to love and to love us. We will spend endless days and nights pursuing this love, treasuring it when we have it, craving it when we don’t.
Love is a double-sided inspiration. It can drive us to do wild things, it can make us feel a presence and appreciation for all that surrounds us. When we love just a single being, it opens up avenues for love to other things. Love, like no other…emotion? feeling? drive?…can motivate us to our best selves.
Loving someone else makes us see the world as it is, specifically, bigger than us. Now, alone, depressed, my world feels suffocatingly small. When in love, the world is expansive, full of opportunity, besotted with other creatures, humans and animals, that also need and want to be loved.
To be able to share my innermost thoughts, fears and insecurities, to expose my vulnerability in a way that is complete, to experience the same from someone else by looking into their eyes and exposing and sharing each other’s bodies and truths…that is love. It is immensely powerful and gripping. And it’s why losing it feels so tragic.
But this is just the temporary pain talking, right? The break-up pain everyone has been through, the pain that spawns thousands of articles (like this one) and books with suggestions for self-care and self-exploration? Sure, I’m eating right, exercising, getting out…I know how to take care of myself.
To me, the loss of love equates to a personal tragedy. Short of anything representing a threat to your physical condition and the death of a loved one, it is the worst thing a person can experience. The fact we can heal from it is irrelevant.
There is truth behind every cliché, and that is why people say it is better to have lost at love than to have never loved at all. (Although, in my current emotional state, the thought of trying and risking love again scares the daylights out of me).
I find it difficult to articulate the difference between experiencing and walking through the world while in love, and not in love. But we all know the former is better, and that the world would be better off if more people were actively experiencing love. The world, not to spout my own cliché, would be a better place.
“Deep within us — no matter who we are — there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.” — Mr. Rogers
If the greatest thing we can do is let people know they are loved and capable of loving, isn’t one of the worst things to experience a loss of that love…and being left with the feeling that we are not loved, or capable of loving?
No, the dissolution of a relationship does not equate to someone not being capable of loving or being loved.
The presence of a deep, bonding, even fully shared love does not mean a relationship or marriage will work, sadly. Love, it turns out, is not enough.
But we underestimate and undervalue the power of love when we so easily dismiss it.
I think we’ve conditioned ourselves to not look at break-ups as tragic precisely because they are so common. A tragedy, we like to think (or hope), is an infrequent occurrence. We know the risks in relationships: that they carry the risk of loss. To guard against that risk, we minimize the severity of losing love.
I think this is a mistake. I think there can be no better force within us than love: of ourselves, of others, of the natural world. The greatest challenge after a break-up or separation is not self-care: it’s not that hard to go to the gym or eat vegetables.
No, the greatest challenge is finding a way to love when the object of your greatest love is no longer present. The greatest challenge is to somehow feel loved, when the person who made you feel that way is no longer there.
Because of what love is and our inherent need for it, losing it is toxic to our souls and well-being, in an incalculable way.
My break-up is not a war or the spread of a contagious disease, it is not thousands of children being separated from their parents on the border. It’s a personal tragedy, and maybe that takes the sting out of using such a weighted word.
But I’m not afraid to use that word. It’s the one that best conveys the severity of what I feel, it’s weightiness is exactly the proportion of pain and loss and misery I feel. This is not just sad. It’s more than just a bummer. It’s not something I can shrug my shoulders and say, “oh, well,” I’ll wait a few months and then feel better.
When I do eventually heal and move on, will it then feel less tragic? Perhaps, and maybe that’s what makes break-ups seem less than a tragedy: the very fact that you can move on.
But because love is so difficult to find, because it so difficult to hold onto, losing it feels as bad as it does. I feel lost, wandering, unmoored, questioning of my place and value in the world, a world that now seems so much smaller than it did. Experiencing the pain of losing love makes me think of how closed off I currently am, and of all the other people experiencing a similar kind of pain.
There are multitudes of us out here, wandering like I am, questioning ourselves, wondering if we’re worthy of receiving and giving a lasting, meaningful, significant love, if not to the world, then at least to one person.
And how tragic is that?
Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.
A version of this post was previously published on PSILoveyou and is republished here with permission from the author.
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