There’s a reason we talk about dating so much — there’s a reason the undercurrent of lost love runs through so much of writing. It’s hard. It’s hard because it matters. But it’s harder when we put expectation on things that already mean a lot. We inflate them and when they fall flat, so do we.
We spend billions of dollars a year on romance: on dating and love and weddings, let alone the online dating and matchmaking portals that are everywhere you turn now. We’re progressive about relationships not being the end all of happiness, but that doesn’t take away the want, the need, for that kind of human desire.
It sometimes feels like we’re conditioned to want someone in our lives, like if we don’t have that person, there might be something wrong with us. That we’re defective somehow, that we must have done something to drive love away. And so if we’re not, at the very least, looking for love, we must have a screw loose in our hearts. After all, humans are social. We crave attention and companionship and touch and affection from the time we’re babies. We can’t survive without it, no matter how much we begin to regulate how much we think we need.
There’s other love, of course: between friends, and family, and there’s also the kind of fulfillment that comes from a job you enjoy, and hobbies you can lose yourself in. You may not be able to curl up with these things at night, but still, they serve their purpose. At different stages of our lives, when things grow particularly crazy with each one, they can be enough. And sometimes, when we’re fixated enough on what we think we should want, we lose sight of these other sources of joy.
A few months ago, I went through a breakup that was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Not that any breakup is ever particularly easy, but some are easier than others. We hardly saw each other, our jobs were continually pulling us even further apart, and by all accounts, it was my choice to end something before we combusted. He understood — he agreed, actually, which I didn’t find all that surprising — and we promised to stay in touch, as friends. It was a relief, really, to finally reclaim the single status we all but had. For the last few weeks, it had been a relationship in name only.
Still, the breakup blues hit me harder than I expected. I missed him, but selfishly, I also missed the idea of him — of having someone to run to for every little thing, because no matter how much we might have said that we’d remain friends, there is a disconnect that occurs when you try to go back to just being friends. It’s hard to do, and even harder in the first few weeks. What you can say, when you can run to them and about what, and watching as you each move on and navigate your own sense of self again. Me without you is hard when, most of all, I miss the way you made me feel.
I had been serious about this guy, and I was upset that it fell through. I’m a perfectionist. I’m not used to how it feels when the things I take seriously go wrong.
The holidays, especially, are always difficult. You’re surrounded by friends and family, and that’s lovely, but they’re surrounded by their lovers, and that’s hard. You watch as your friends remain coupled up — not that you’re not happy for them; really, you are — and are more often than not left spiraling further and further in that kind of post-breakup funk that takes a while to set in. You know the one. You think you’re fine — that you’re going to beat this thing and you’re untouchable and look at how well you’re doing!, when suddenly it hits you, and you’ve never felt so alone. Like all the pain you tried so hard to ignore only compounded until you felt it, and when it finally caught up to you, it hit double. Heartbreak always hurts enough for both sides.
Slowly, you’ll start to admit the fact that you feel heartbroken — and especially, the depth to that pain. You begin to explore that murky pain, and understand that even if you think you shouldn’t be so hurt, a feeling is a feeling is a feeling. This is important. Just because you see the split coming doesn’t always mean you want it to happen. You can try to make things work, but after enough time forcing yourself back together, you have to wonder if all of that extra effort is worth it.
Talking about heartbreak with the people who care about you helps. Not in the way where they bash your newly-minted ex and say you can do so much better, but in the way they listen to how you feel. That’s all this is. Feelings. Passing feelings that first need to be sifted through. Sometimes it’s a slow process, sometimes it feels impossible. But you can unpackage all of those emotions. This is the sifting.
This is me sifting.
What I realized from doing so, and continuing to do so, was that the scramble to stitch yourself together as quickly as possible so as to stop feeling the hurt is fruitless. If the person you said good bye to mattered, your breakup will matter, and your heart will hurt. I learned to stop actively trying to close the hole where my relationship had once been, and start healing the wound from the inside out.
I stopped seeing pain as something so awful that it couldn’t be present in my day. I threw myself into my work. I binged on TV show marathons. I let my friends set me up. I saw friends of friends and browsed suggested dating sites. I let myself hurt through it all. I swiped and flirted and chatted and went on dates and went home to cry if I needed to. I didn’t swipe over the hurt, I didn’t flirt through what was missing, I couldn’t chat myself out of being heartbroken and I couldn’t escape what was. So I found reasons to laugh and enjoy life anyway. Out of happiness and laughter and having a good time, you can make a small light in the core of what is inherently dark. This is how you can begin to stitch yourself back together genuinely.
I began to feel better because I wasn’t taking dating so seriously, because I wasn’t letting myself seriously dwell on my heartbreak and on my sudden lack of having anyone. Because I wasn’t so fixated on the end result of not being single, I didn’t feel any pressure to find someone to spend the rest of my life with, and that was freeing. Suddenly, being single again was less about that scary concept of being alone, and more about remembering who I was on my own, and having fun with new people.
We take dating so seriously — and we should a lot of the time, especially if we’re serious about the people we’re seeing — but sometimes, the part of dating that comes before things get serious is just a date here and there. If you click with someone, that’s great, but the person sitting across from you at dinner doesn’t necessarily have to be the person you’ll wind up with 50 years from now. And if you’re looking for a chance of that happening, it’s going to be because you sat back and enjoyed yourself anyway.
There shouldn’t be all that pressure to mend our broken hearts — they will stitch back together in their own time. Laughter helps. And the other things we have going for us do, too. Throw yourself into your work if that’s how you cope. Refuse to change out of your sweats and sob to all the cheesy Hollywood endings you can. But also, try to laugh, especially with the friends and family who love you and care about you. You can be sad and still laugh. They’re not exclusive. And sometimes, all you need is a laugh to remind you that of all the wonderful things in this world, love is the one that maybe, we’re not supposed to take all that seriously all the time, after all. Let heartbreak heal on its own, but remember to live your life in the meanwhile.