Dear Yours Truly,
Let us say that you were in a relationship that you were pretty happy with but nevertheless ended in a dramatic and emo fashion. How much time must elapse before you leave “normal healthy grieving process” territory and move into “crazy depressive person who needs to stop dwelling” territory? What if, hypothetically, after eight months you were still pining over some asshole who, say, dumped you at your brother’s wedding? Just as a for instance? I am pretty sure Ann Landers would say something about These Things Taking Time and Respecting Your Process or whatever, but that is why I am asking you instead, because between you and me, I am pretty sure there’s a statute of limitations on this shit. Thank you in advance, and also, please feel free to cite Berlioz & Harriet Smithson in your response.
PS: If, during this grieving process, you acquire an additional dog, will you start sliding down a slippery slope that winds up with you on ‘Hoarders’? Because I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it.
I’m glad you brought up Hector and Harriet, actually, because they provide a pretty good cautionary tale when it comes to love affairs. Hector’s love for Harriet was based totally on fantasy–he’d only seen her on the stage one time, and didn’t even understand the language she’d been speaking! But he decided she was the girl for him, and so he relentlessly pursued her in what I think we can all agree was a phenomenally creepy fashion (he wrote a symphony about murdering her). Then they got married (!?) and realized it was really hard to be married to someone you couldn’t actually talk to. The fantasy was not reality. Reality is way harder and you have to actually be good together instead of just daydreaming about how good you’d probably be together if ever you actually met in person. And they were miserable, and ended up breaking up, and it was awful, and then their son died of yellow fever in the Navy.
I think this is a good analogy in general, for certain relationship trauma. The deal is, if you broke up–even if it was totally the other party’s idea–it pretty much means that the relationship wasn’t working, wasn’t right. Your true life partner, by definition, would not break up with you. And thus your grieving, while totally valid and understandable, is at least partially based on fantasy. You are at least partially grieving your FANTASY about what the relationship was (or could have been, if only! etc.). Confronting the reality of why you broke up is a good thing to do, I think, instead of just being sad THAT you broke up. Also look just at the wording of your letter to me–you were “pretty happy.” Not even in your letter do you say “he was my soulmate” or “I was blissfully happy.” You were just “pretty” happy. That’s not good! That’s not ideal. That’s pretty fucking tepid, actually. What are you, my grand parents in the 50s? On the one hand I agree with Freud that life isn’t just about being happy all the time, but on the other hand it’s also not automatically about settling for something with a shrug. You’re a modern-ass woman, you should aim higher than “pretty happy.” Really think about it, on paper (see below), identify what made it just “pretty” good, instead of “rad.” You’re young, your whole life is ahead of you, why can’t you shoot for rad? There are all kinds of rad dudes out there, for one thing, but also simply being alone in a rad way is way radder than being “pretty happy” with someone else. I fucking believe that shit!
I think a part of you is clinging to your pain because maybe you feel like it’s the only way you can continue to have the relationship, even though he’s no longer in it. The pain is all you have left of him, so you don’t want to let it go. This is understandable and everyone does it, but it is also crazy and you should stop doing it, as you realize. I think you should respect your grieving only up to a certain point, and after that point it becomes sort of self-indulgent and, more insidiously, a HABIT. Like you habituate yourself to feeling that grief and then you forget how to not feel it. That’s a bad scene. You need to give your unconscious opportunities to forget to feel grief. Do you know what I mean? You need to create spaces of possibility for your mind to get so engaged in other stuff that it forgets for awhile to agonize. the more spaces you create for forgetting to agonize, the fewer and farther-between the agonizing will become, until one day you’ll forget to agonize and that forgetting will last forever and then you will be free. There are types of grief that probably never cease and maybe SHOULDN’T HAVE to ever cease, even (your child being murdered; a plague killing 3/4 of humanity) but this is not one of those types.
In my experience, the only thing that creates these forgetful spaces is jostling. You have to jostle yourself in all kinds of ways. Go have a Lost Weekend somewhere with a fun friend. Move into a new apartment. Start taking some weird class like Latin or Soil Health. Volunteer at the humane society, walking dogs! The goal should be real-world jostling–getting yourself out into the big messy colorful stinky world and shaking things up. Maybe do some things that push your comfort zone a bit. Bungee jump! Just kidding (OR AM I)! Go to a weird hippie hot spring retreat. Projects, projects, projects. And of course, you don’t want to do these things. You want to sit at home and cry. But you make yourself get up and do these things. Imagine yourself like you are your own friend–what would you do, if your friend were feeling the way you are currently feeling? You need to be Sarah Jessica Parker’s slightly less attractive friend to your current Sarah Jessica Parker self, and pull yourself out of bed, and buy yourself a great new pair of Louboutins or whatever. Is that a real thing? Imagine yourself in a musical montage. It’s dumb! But so is grieving a break-up forever! Life’s way too short, man.
As for the grief itself, I have some annoyingly pragmatic suggestions for homework assignments. But like, what else can anyone tell you? There’s no magic bullet–all you can do is small pragmatic baby steps, and here are some ideas. Take them as you will:
1. Make some lists. This is the single greatest task a person can do for themselves in almost any situation. Lists have literally saved my life (not literally) on more than one occasion. They can force you to really actually SEE stuff, and confront it, and deal with it. Instead of just your ooky feelings that blob out all over the place, you write down specifics and then think about them. Honestly this helps me so much, please don’t scoff until you have tried it: Here are some suggestions:
- what don’t you miss about him? Be honest! What don’t you miss about his physical person, his behaviors, his beliefs, his life attitudes, the way he made you feel, conversational tics, awkward smells, whatever. Go deep! Nothing is too small to include on this list.
- what kinds of things would you like to have in a partner, that he did not provide for you? For example, would your ideal partner break up with you at your brother’s wedding? Probably not, right?
- this may be my own personal perversion but I have always found it helpful to write down the things that are humorous about my current trauma. Write down the things that you can tell, logically, will become humorous anecdotes later. Funny places you have cried; improper revelations to strangers on the bus; safely and responsibly operating your car while simultaneously hysterically sobbing; crying at a really stupid AT&T commercial about family; etc. It helps you get perspective, and helps jostle you out of your secret belief that you’re just gonna feel this way forever until you die, which is just not true. One day certain things you are feeling now will be funny to you. This is true! Try to anticipate them.
- What are all the things you are secretly relieved you don’t have to do anymore / can start doing again now that you are broken up? There have to be some things. Write them all down and study them and then do/think regularly about all those things. Maybe you had a recurring argument that actually it is incredibly awesome that you never have to have again, EVER!! Maybe you always felt weird about watching Spartacus on Netflix instant in your underwear, even though that is obviously awesome of you. Maybe there’s some weird sex issue you can be relieved you don’t have to deal with anymore. e.g. I know someone who found it hard to change his eating habits because he was living with a super junk food girl. When they broke up, he really threw himself into dramatically changing his diet in all these ways he’d always been wanting to but could never hold himself to because she was always ordering delicious pizza. This new life made him incredibly happy and he is still happy to this day, and he looks and feels great and eats shitloads of kale all day long.
- what are all the things you like, in the world. Make a vast list of all the things you like. Dogs. Chocolate. Rain. Michelle Obama. Coffee in a special mug. I mean, this is my list, yours may be different. Just list and list and list and list, and notice how many millions of things you are listing, and how great it is to be alive on the earth eating chocolate, and what an incredible privilege to have access to so many delights both large and small, and isn’t that a joy and a comfort, and maybe you shouldn’t sweat the other stuff so much, or at least not all the time.
2. Something Like Yoga: I know people get annoyed when someone in their life tells them to do yoga no matter what their problem is, but honestly. The thing about yoga is that you spend a lot of time just sitting and breathing, which at first is intensely annoying and you sit there thinking about bullshit cultural appropriation and how much you hate the instructor, but after awhile you almost start wondering if the sitting/breathing part is the part that makes you feel so loose and light and gentle afterward. I have cried spontaneously just while lying in “corpse pose”. It’s like you create an emptiness where feelings can come out, be acknowledged, then dissipate. You do have to find a good teacher–one who doesn’t make you chant in phony sanskrit or whatever. But it’s worth it to get a monthlong membership at a yoga place and just go to classes until you find one that suits you. Just get a huge punch card for like $400, which really isn’t that much money considering you have a marginally grown-up job, and commit to that punch card. Go twice a week at least, for at least a month, before you make any judgment call whatsoever. I would be legitimately shocked if by the end of the month you did not feel better in your soul. Plus committing to something outside of your dogs and your grieving process will be a good step in the right direction. You have to actually commit–you can’t buy the membership and then never go. This will make you feel much worse about yourself, which is the opposite of the goal here.
(really any kind of physical exercise can stand in for yoga if you just hate yoga. But I do think getting those endorphins pumping (?) and that sweat pouring out automatically puts you in a better mindset. Plus being physically tired means sleeping better, which you need! Get a gym membership at a gym with a sauna!!! Nothing like laying in a sauna for letting feelings bubble up and get dismissed–it’s too damn hot to cry in there for long)
3. Stop Getting Dogs: You don’t need any more dogs. You are trying to distract yourself from inner pain by creating a vast herd of animals you need to constantly care for. This is a textbook example of some sort of psychologically fraught situation, I’m sure. Focus on the dogs at hand, and not on additional dogs. You might think an additional dog would be a good example of the “jostling” mentioned above, but I personally don’t think so, in this case. My two cents!!!! I think if someone had zero dogs, then getting one dog could be a great example of jostling. But this does not describe your situation. Maybe volunteer at the dog pound instead, walking dogs. Dogs galore, but not owning any more of them.
4. Go to a coffee shop to do your work instead of doing it at home: Go be in the world of humans. Even if you’re just grading papers and feeling bad, it’s better to do that in the world of other people. Overhear a hilarious couple-fight and be relieved you don’t have to fight with your ex anymore! Have a funny interaction with a barista and remember that you are funny! Walk home in the delightful springtime and make yourself notice at least 3 things that are awesome. A funny toddler, a beautiful flower, a hilarious “Nixon: Now More Than Ever” bumper sticker.
5. No Contact: Don’t call him or text him or email him or IM him or sex-blog him or whatever else. You need to unfriend him on Facebook. If you were the first person to ever actually successfully take and implement this advice then you would be a great genius and your grieving process would get way better in a hurry. Will power!
I don’t know if any of this is helpful or un-Ann-Landersy enough. Ultimately breaking up with someone is awful and nobody really knows how to do it exactly right, we all are just fumbling around doing our best. And obviously it is easier to give than to take advice–if my old man broke up with me I would be an absolute fucking wreck of a human, and all this advice I just gave you would seem flaccid and insulting to me, for truly no one on the earth has ever known such anguish, etc. And I would get ten dogs. That’s just how you feel when you’re in this position, it’s just reality. It feels horrible. The only thing I know for sure though is that you have to focus on realities and specifics, and on jostling yourself, or nothing will change. Sitting around grieving just perpetuates the grief. Whatever it was, the relationship, it’s over now, and it’s not coming back, and that’s OKAY. It’s going to be okay. People don’t actually die of broken hearts like this. You heal, and you have to give yourself opportunities to access that healing grace of time and inner strength and etc. etc. And you can’t wait until you feel better to start doing things again, like yoga or carpentry–because it’s the doing of the things that makes you start feeling better. It takes will power and self respect to walk out the door to some fucking spinning class you have no desire to go to. Take control of that power and respect! Harness it for good! You are smart and a nice person and you can totally do it.