How To Mend A Broken Heart
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
'As anyone knows who's been through heartbreak - you need to find your way back to your self' - Armistead Maupin - Tales of the City
A broken heart - few of us ever escape that one - but why is it that some people bounce back and move on, whilst others are left wounded, believing they will never find love again?
It is no understatement to say a broken heart is akin to a bereavement. Grief is longing for what can never be again. But perhaps the hardest thing is knowing that the other person is still out there - getting on with their life - maybe even enjoying themselves! Meanwhile for you, the world has stopped, everything meaningless.
We all want to be loved for all our parts, including the parts we keep hidden, that we don't even know well ourselves. Once glimpsed we fear the other person will run away, sometimes they do, and that is being broken-hearted.
A part of any relationship breakdown is accepting that you may never truly know why the other person made the decision to end the relationship. There will always be unknowns and that can be unsettling.
And as with grief - there is no blueprint nor time frame for recovery.
Knowing that I was writing this blog, a friend who had been through debilitating heartbreak asked me to share their experience:
'The first year I thought I was fine, the second year was worse and by the third year I thought I was going mad'.
Author Howard Jacobson captures the pain of heartbreak in his novel The Finkler Question, ‘Just when you think you've overcome the grief you are left with the loneliness’.
As well as the grief, a break-up can be a serious dent to the 'ego' – our sense of who we are. Caught up in a cycle of anger, self-blame and forensic questioning of what went wrong, it is not unreasonable to ask, 'why has this happened to me?' At a deeper level you may be left with a nagging sense of not being good enough … of being incapable of love … or dare I say it ... of being unlovable.
Whilst this might sound extreme, the fact is, 40% of people who are going through heartbreak experience clinically recognisable depression.
In situations like this, it is understandable that you would search out a quick fix to try and move on.
The Psychotherapist Guy Winch has done a Ted Talk - How To Heal A Broken Heart - on this very subject. His opening battle cry: ‘getting out of heartbreak is not a journey … it is a fight.’
He makes a particularly valid point: from today, you need to accept the relationship is over. It is finished. Your ex has decided, for whatever reason, to walk away. Do not hold out for hope. As he says, ‘Hope can be incredibly destructive when your heart is broken’.
Whilst this might sound like tough love, what Guy means is that holding out for hope may feel like you are connecting directly with your heart, but in fact you are connecting directly with your damage, which undoubtedly will have developmental roots.
It is important to find the compassion here, for yourself and your ex. Ultimately, your ex has to go on their own journey of healing, you cannot control that and in the meantime you need to get on with your own life and find your way back to your 'self'.
The positive attributes that we project onto our ex, the narrative of 'but I love them, they were all I ever wanted in a partner', are exactly what we need to develop in ourselves.
It is hard, and there is no quick fix. This is where counselling and psychotherapy can be of benefit, to allow you to explore your grief and those projections and to give you space to lick your wounds and to help you explore your relationship style from its developmental roots so that you can move on.
Some of us have an anxious way of being in relationships, others are more avoidant of intimacy and connection; it is complex and nuanced. And if that wasn't enough, anxious and avoidant people are drawn to each other! Your unique relationship style is not something to change per se - and I am not even sure that is possible. And then there is the relationship you have with yourself, those beliefs you have about yourself, what you think you deserve and what you are worthy off. Having a greater understanding about how you are in relationships - with yourself and others - and what part developmental factors may play in that, can help you accept your feelings and behaviour and this can lead to self-compassion and more effective communication.
As part of this, we all have a propensity to project in relationships, and sometimes the hardest part about a break-up is finding out that your partner did not share, or was unable to share your hopes and dreams.
After a particularly difficult break-up, a friend of mine printed out all the photographs he'd taken of his ex and him together and then sent them to their ex. The intention was to remind his ex about what had been lost. But the response from his ex was not what he expected. He had hoped for some acknowledgement of the good times, but instead his ex said, 'that was not my dream, that was yours.' Harsh as that might sound, there is something to reflect on here. What my friend believed was co-created was not always. No one was to blame, afterall, it is a human quality to have needs and fantasies. On one hand, this story shows my friend's ability to love.
As the activist Najwa Zebian reminds us:
'Sometimes we give love to the wrong person, and we sit there and wonder, 'how could I have given love to that person? They don't even deserve it, or 'what a waste of time.' But the thing is, you shouldn't think about it that way. You should think of the fact that you were able to give love, because if you are able to give, that means you have it inside you.'
But a shadow side of being able to give love and to project hopes and dreams is that the other may feel 'missed', or they may feel overwhelmed by the fantasy, all of which may have consequences for the relationship. Both my friend and his ex now have a greater understanding of what part they played in the relationship and why ultimately it did not work.
Taking time to explore why you respond the way you do in relationships, to rediscover what brings you joy, to find compassion where there has been self-blame are all important steps to healing a broken heart. This is how you 'find your way back to your self'.
Remember: working through a broken heart is not about trying to control how you feel - it has to be endured and explored. At some point you will have to lean into that pain and see where it takes you.