The Excruciating Pain of Heartbreak
I nearly forgot the gut-wrench of loss. We call it heartbreak, but a close second to the hot ache in my chest is the writhing pain just below my solar plexus. It’s shocking how much physical pain can be caused by emotional suffering.
It might be easier to endure a broken arm or a concussive smack on the head. Simpler, at least.
It’d been nearly eight years since I opened myself up to the risk of heartbreak. When a ten year relationship to my son’s father ended abruptly, existential disorientation resulted in a deep dive into spirituality that included a tantra immersion, daily yoga, and a commitment to remain uncommitted to a relationship.
After seven years of “solitude,” I resurfaced with a whole new set of skills and a whole lot of stories to tell. I became masterful at the art of non-attachment, even in the most physically intimate relationships. I was able to appreciate the moments of vulnerability and connection, experience them fully in the moment, and then let them go without succumbing to the urge to project into the future, look for meaning, shape the outcome. Freeing myself of the constraints of the logistical negotiation of a partnership (boundaries, emotional needs, etc.) allowed me to experience another as whole and complete, and largely without expectation.
And then, finally, I felt a longing to go deeper, to take my new tools back to the sandbox and see how they altered the play. The universe immediately complied with a magical man who swept me off my feet. My attempts to stay somewhat sober in the drunken love fest were unsuccessful, and we fell deeply in love. What was good about the relationship was great, but there were parts of the relationship that were equally not so great, and after seven months, it became clear that it needed to end. The specific details of the issues are irrelevant for the purposes of this article, I’ll simply say that although we had a great deal of love for each other, the logistics of our lives were not aligned.
If that sounds pat and easy, it was not. Words were said, things were done—it hurt. The pain was agonizing.
Pema Chödrön says, “There comes a time when the bubble of ego is popped and you can’t get the ground back for an extended period of time. Those times, when you absolutely cannot get it back together, are the most rich and powerful times in our lives.”
Here are some of the things I discovered during this rich and powerful time:
THE VALUE OF SOBRIETY
In the few weeks immediately following the breakup, I made the decision to stay sober throughout the initial grieving. We often turn to our addictive or indulgent behaviors (drinking, eating, obsessive cleaning, etc.) for relief from the discomfort. By staying in the experience and not numbing out, I exposed myself the power of the emotions as they unfolded. I was able to discern were sadness gave way to loneliness and anger boiled down to fear. Had I bathed these feelings in a Martini, I would have blurred the experience, thereby sacrificing the clarity I gained and the insights into the nuance of thought and emotion.
THE CLEARING OF DEBRIS
The mental drama after a breakup is intense as the mind tries to make sense of the chaos of emotion. The cycle begins immediately in which we feel, analyze, dissect, project, accept, and release. Part of the letting go of a relationship involves this kind of mental eviction. I was surprised by how persistently my mind wanted to fill up the space.
As soon as I found some peace, emptied my internal psycho-energetic bowl, the whole process would begin again. Resistance was futile. Thank God for my darling BFFs who are willing to have these conversations over and over and over again! We cannot stop our minds from filling the clearing, it is our human nature. We can only allow the continued arrival of debris, and vigilantly clear it. Eventually, the great momentum slows, and then finally stops. In these times of great dissolution, and annihilation of ego, the cultivation of an empty bowl is not only crucial to our healing, but our biggest opportunity for healing.
THE POST-GAME ANALYSIS
In the anatomy of a breakup, there is a funny phenomenon. As we approach the decision to end the relationship, we begin to see and feel what is wrong, what is not working, what doesn’t feel good, with increasing intensity. Suddenly, as soon as it’s over, we are only able to see and feel the good stuff, the blissful moments, which intensifies the sting of loss. At one point, in an effort to counterbalance this rose-colored myopia, I literally made a list of all the things I was grateful not to have to deal with anymore. Going through the history of the relationship and realistically remembering the good, the bad, and the ugly, restores a more balanced perspective and can release the grip of grief.
THE ESSENCE OF THE LOSS
Over a period of several weeks, I returned to the feeling of loss over and over, asking myself, “What exactly am I grieving?” If every relationship is a mirror, then there is an aspect to the loss that has nothing to do with the other person.
As I sat with this inquiry, I had to spend some time drilling it down. My answers began with things like, “romantic dinners in his beautiful backyard” and “gallery-hopping on Friday nights”. With a little more digging, I started to realize I was grieving possibility—that this man would be my partner for many years, that I would grow old with a companion.
And then finally I got to the root of what I was losing. Physical intimacy with this man was a wildly transformative experience for me. He opened me up in ways I didn’t even know possible. I was able to step into another way of being—in my own body, and with another, as I move through the world. I was suffering greatly over the idea that I was losing the woman I had become through this physical relationship. This realization allowed me to look at the grief differently. Identifying specifically what I am missing gives me the information I need to look at what I’ve gained from the experience and also what is possible for the future.
Working with the layers of grief, loss, and sadness takes time. We cannot see everything at once. The peeling back of each layer gives us valuable insights into our own mental and emotional landscape.
THE RETURN TO SELF
If the aftermath of a breakup feels like swimming in a stormy sea, eventually we find the shore. In the process of grieving, finding ways to remind us who we are (outside of the relationship), helps us find solid ground sooner than later. Calling my high school friend, leaning into my yoga community, taking a trip with my daughter, were all ways of strengthening my sense of self in the world. And there is nothing quite so healing as a good couple of hours blasting Led Zeppelin and singing at the top of my lungs while cleaning the house.