I used to think it was impossible, until it happened. I used to surround myself with the magazines and movies and books that taught me only women could be heartbroken, and only men could do the breaking. There was a narrative I got used to, one that always placed me comfortably in the role of the transgressed, one that allowed me to imagine that the mistakes I made in relationship were always mistakes, and never out of malice.
Playing with my dolls on the floor, Barbie would always be hopelessly in love with Ken, who often forgot to help out with the housework or came home late after a long night hanging out with the teddy bears. The stories I saw, the Princesses chasing after the distant Princes, played themselves out neatly on my bedroom floor. Even though my parents were a very happy, balanced example, I couldn’t break away from the idea that men were just supposed to act a certain way. For a long time, I thought that a man crying was a rare and ugly thing, certainly nothing that I would encounter in my romantic life.
And then a man cried in front of me.
We were sitting in my car, parked in the lot of a strip mall, next to an inexplicable gazebo built by the movie theater. I was 18, and breaking up with him for another guy. At the time, I hardly thought of it as “for anyone,” I had simply fallen in love with someone else and this was the next logical step. The person I was leaving was a charming amalgam of every high school movie jock, someone who would breeze effortlessly into a new relationship and forget me just as quickly (as I imagined all men did).
There was nothing delicate or compassionate about the way I broke up with him. I had simply become more and more distant, assuming that he would do the heavy lifting of leaving me, until it became clear that he wouldn’t. Then I dropped the news on him in the parking lot, and he cried. I felt embarrassed for him, like this was something I should not have been seeing. The idea of a man sobbing so openly over a girl leaving him didn’t fit in with any of the narratives I’d gotten used to. There was nothing stoic or dignified about it.
It took me a long time to realize that I had been cruel, and that his crying was the only response a human could have been expected to give. While I fluttered away into a new relationship and uninterrupted happiness, he was left picking up the pieces of what he thought we had together. I avoided his gaze, the mention of his name, the prospect of his presence at a house party. Initially I told myself that it was because he still loved me, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.
But when the self-righteous fog of a breakup lifts, we always know when we were wrong. I knew that I had hurt him deeply — possibly eroded his ability to trust the women he brought into his life after me, at least for a time. Despite it not being a storyline that any of my beloved romantic heroines would recognize, I had broken a man’s heart, and turned away from him when he cried. I still don’t know what the proper response is to someone crying at your hand, but I know that looking at them with confused revulsion is not it.
You can break a man’s heart in many ways. It happens every day, in varying degrees, and there’s always a chance I might do it again. But we destroy men in a very specific way, in denying the idea that they ever had a heart in the first place. We silently give value to the crippling social constraints they are put in, the ones which tell them that to feel anything at all is dangerous and harmful to their masculinity. Sometimes I think of all the men who have pretended not to care because they worried they were doing something wrong, when they were only being human. I wish I could tell them all, one by one, that they have nothing to be embarrassed about.