What is Love in the Face of Break Up?

There is but one truly serious fact of the matter, and that is heartbreak.

And while a relationship is (hopefully) experienced together, its saddest moment, by which I mean its breakup, is lived alone

But does this have to be the case?

In the following blog post, I will talk about 1) being broken up with, 2) a realization that might help alleviate the grieving process and finally, 3) my aspiration for how I wish people left each other, all for the purpose of reconciling love with break up.

To guide my train of thought on this, I’d like to stop the car for a second, and let poet, David Whyte step onboard.

Having found out about him recently, I cannot say that I have read his work. But captivated by his rustic voice in his interview with Sam Harris (Ep. #184, Making Sense), I have learned a few things about him.

He believes in what he terms the “conversational nature” of reality; for him, life is made up of many relationships – friendships, vocations, family, etc. – that we should not attempt to single out, as we often do. Instead, as I’ve understood it, we should ‘keep the conversation going’ between these facets of our lives, with the conversation serving as the concrete that binds everything together. Thus, life is not about setting aside time for work that is separate from your family-time, which is exactly what leads to the quotidian suffering and dissociation that we are all so acquainted with. Instead, life is about presence and harmony.

This is probably more clear to us right now than ever before considering how COVID has forcefully enmeshed all these elements in one place, turning our homes into offices, playgrounds, nightclubs, and all the other settings we used to inhabit (or escape into).

To keep these relationships sane, Whyte says, one must “keep an eye on the horizon” – you can already see his proclivity for unity in the way his appreciation for landscapes informs his philosophy on life – and not on the day-to-day grind that is often so demoralizing and unrepresentative of one’s actual progress.

Well, a horizon emerges at the intersection of land and sky. Similarly, in romantic relationships, your horizon is a collaborative artwork. But well, one day, your partner might just turn away from that horizon, and the colors will fade.

Whyte speaks of the star that ironically disappears in the daylight hours when the going gets tough. Your partner might lose sight of that star, and when that happens you will desperately wish for the vulnerability of night to fall so that the star can shine again. You know the light is there. You’ve seen it. In the fearful moments, in the late hours of the night, in the first morning-breath kisses of the day. It’s there, yearning for comfort with outstretched hands…


‘Love’ by Alexander Milov. Photo by Lung Liu. 

…but your partner makes sure to pack their bags before dusk, and that conversation will be over even if you still have so much left to say.

On top of that, if the facets that constitute your life are not just mere relationships but interconnected ‘marriages’ – between you and a romantic partner, you and your work, and you and your self – as Whyte is said to explain in his book The Three Marriages, then not only are there many types of break ups you can experience, but also many people or ‘things’ you can break up with.

It is therefore very true that “there is not one sincere path in which your heart won’t be broken”, as Whyte explains to Harris. 

But what happens when a person leaves you inadvertently against your own wishes because they’ve quite simply fallen out of love or, if they do still love you, because they would rather stop?

And what happens if maybe you even have reason to believe that the break up was a good idea in the end but those reasons are not enough to convince your heart of letting go?

You love them and you would also prefer it if they continued to love you back, but you have no control over that. That’s when the desperation begins to surface…

“Where do you go when love it just ain’t enough?” sings Lewis Capaldi in Rush.

I don’t mean to imply that they hate you and you also don’t hate them – you might as well have settled as friends – but they’ve cut you off, and you pull and pull when really you’re pulling on nothing. That constant promise of intimacy that made you wake up feeling so safe and so real is gone. 

But what does it mean to say that it made you feel ‘so real’? Were you not real before? A quick digression:

David Whyte calls vulnerability the “natural state of human beings”, and relationships give you a safe space to be vulnerable in ways that you weren’t allowed to be or capable of being before. Why? Because your vulnerable self, while it doesn’t need anyone else to be validated, can only be fully expressed in the presence of someone else. That is why you feel so real, so fully you in a relationship. Let me explain.

Your vulnerable self is not just another identity. It is not a weakness. Your vulnerable self is your pure identity stripped of any façades or expectations. I’m talking about that side of you that emerges on the brink of your bed covers when the rest of the world is asleep. Your private fantasies and reflections, your fears and insecurities, they all begin to stir. But unless you yourself are also unaccepting of these vulnerabilities, then this side of you is only “vulnerable” with respect to the external world. When you’re by yourself, all those truths either stay locked inside with nowhere to go (apart from maybe a diary or a self-written song) or they stay hidden even from your own view.

That changes when you enter into a profound and committed relationship. Friendships can do the work, but romantic connections go the further step of transcending “your physical frontier”, says Whyte. In a relationship, your vulnerabilities can crawl into the arms of your partner or into their soft words of comfort. Not only that, but they have to. Our vulnerabilities, like most of our everyday thoughts, are incomplete or ill-formed unless we go the extra mile of translating them into words, and a relationship teaches us to do just that. A relationship forces us to articulate our vulnerabilities, thus revealing them in their totality not only to our partners but also to ourselves. That is why you feel truly ‘seen’ at last, not just looked at. It’s because you are finally seen even by your own self, with your partner right there side-by-side with you in front of the mirror loving, and helping you to love, what you both see. 

This can still be the case if your partner doesn’t really ‘see’ you, know you or accept you. You can still feel the above nonetheless. In fact, I do think that often times we are much closer, more honest and much safer with our friends than we are with our partners for reasons grounded partly in the physical aspect of love  – a kiss can easily make you neglect the importance of words – but I do think that romance at least gives you the illusion of being safe, and that illusion goes very far. With your partner, you expect to be safer than with anyone else, even if you aren’t.

I am also not saying that you didn’t have any self-love before the relationship, not at all, or that you need relationships to be authentic. It’s simply a matter of action-reaction, and action-reaction always comes in pairs. Self-love cannot kiss you. Self-love cannot dance with you. Self-love cannot look at you in the eyes and wipe your tears. The phrase, “It’s going to be okay” only really has any bearing when somebody else says it to you. This is because there is an element of that truth that can be realized solely in the external world. Your partner may not be land ahoy, but they definitely represent an anchor.

Thus, when that relationship ends, your vulnerable self is left stranded at sea.

You ventured out bravely but now that your partner is gone, you realize that you’re so much farther from home than you originally thought. One second you’re together and then the next, you’re lonelier than you were before you ever met.

“How does missing you just feel unhealthy now?” sings Sam Tompkins in You Broke My Heart So Gently.

Your bed suddenly feels so big – even if you didn’t sleep in the same house – but the space around you is crushingly small. When once you had all these memories and promises to share with your partner, tending to them together, you are now left to your own devices as they pull at the rims of your clothes, famished. You now have to find a way to raise them all by yourself.  If not, you know all too well from life experience, those memories will be no more.

In all honesty, your partner might also be stranded in their own way, suffering in their own right. You can’t ever really know for sure. But you do know one thing, and that is that if being stranded was inevitable, they could have at least stayed stranded with you, but they chose not to. 

It’s so crazy how much cleaning up is left for yourself when the storm of love has passed over. But my question now becomes: how much of that tending, of that cleaning up, can you really be expected to do on your own?

When you’re broken up with, the pervading unintelligibility of love consumes you. You realize how absurd it all is, how impermanent; one day you’re saying “I love you” and the next day you’re calling each other by first name. Maybe you’re at each other’s throats, or maybe you’re not so lucky to have such a verbalized transition. A gentle break up is a break up nonetheless, and sometimes it hurts even more precisely because of everything that it omits.

As Harris says in his conversation with Whyte, “The cash value of our wealth is not what we do with our time but with our attention,” and your attention is everywhere except in the present moment. And oh, how that speaks to your love:

“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” – Lady Bird

But although you feel like you have so much to think through, you don’t reap the benefits that you expect from it. The more you think, the less sense it all makes. You feel just like a panda: a panda eats so that it has more energy to eat, and you think just so that you have evermore faculty to think some more…and it drives you mad.

Contrary to Kant it seems, at least in love, the more rational or intelligent you are, the less moral you become, at least towards yourself. 

But what are the limits of all that lonely thinking?

After all, your ex is not going to hear your thoughts. And even if you express them, no matter what emotion or memory you eventually appeal to, at one point your beloved won’t listen anymore or want to hear it. In the end, all lovey-dovey history aside, you really are just another ex to them. As such, a declaration that in a romantic movie would make the entire audience stir and the love reignite does not hold the same grip in real life.

Albert Camus on drama and theatre said:

“If it were essential on the stage to love as people really love…our speech would be in code. But [on stage] silences must make themselves heard. Love speaks up louder, and immobility itself becomes spectacular. Half a man’s life is spent in implying, in turning away, and in keeping silent. Here the actor…breaks the spell chaining that soul, and at last the passions can rush onto their stage” (p. 78, The Myth of Sisyphus). 

And so you leave no silences. You speak up in the name of love. You live the moment ‘theatrically’ to let the passion rush forth and hope for a fairy tale’s happy turn around. As I just did, you repeat the same thing in three different ways to get your point across, which is the same approach that David Whyte recommends we should adopt when reading poetry to each other. You shed and shed and shed, but all you get in return is a silent and callous audience. You realize this is not a monologue but a soliloquy. Maybe they love you, in which case they’re speaking in code like Camus points out, but it’s all silence nonetheless. 

And so your discussions with you ex have reached a standstill, yet the discussions within you are still going stronger than ever. You’re trying to unpack your sense of self that included them and hold love accountable even if it isn’t love to blame.

This period of solitary, ruminating grief can be very important:

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” – Sweet Darkness by David Whyte

But you can only go so far with your painful musings. 

How much of your relationship and its dissolution can you really be expected to understand on your own while your partner is removed from the picture?

Why is it always on the heartbroken to find peace and reconciliation on their own? 

“Fight off the system that makes me the victim,” sings Sam Tompkins in You Broke My Heart So Gently. 

This is point #2: the important realization I mentioned at the start of the post.

At some point you can think no further, talk no further. You have to remember that the person who is populating your every thought is also a person who is no longer there. Turn the passive to the active and you’ll see what I mean: “Why was I broken up with?” becomes “Why did they break up with me?”, and the responsibility shifts. The new main subject, the “they”, is gone so no wonder you’re having a hard time figuring it all out with half of the conversation missing.

Some might think I’m talking about closure and in a sense I am, but with certain caveats. “Closure” is still too black and white for my liking. To meet the demands of closure, it seems to me that somebody could simply say the right words in the right way without much emotional involvement and then get up and leave just the same. The difference between that and a simple “okay, bye” is minimal, and it isn’t clear to me that this would do much in terms of alleviating the pain of the person being heartbroken.

Now, you might think this is demanding too much of the person doing the breaking up, and I admit that the suffering felt by person A might never be directly eradicated by person B as long as it remains true that B broke up with A. But what I’m talking is taking responsibility for the pain that you cause in somebody else. That takes acting a certain way in relation to the other person, treating them a certain way, and not just ‘saying the right things’. Any view that says that person B owes nothing to person A seems to me such a heartless view. People should be free and self-sufficient, yes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have stakes in each other’s lives that we should respect.

Thus, Sam Harris believes that for any given context, there is always a type of apology that would work (Ep. #203 with Caitlin Flanagan), i.e. a type of apology that would make two people start from scratch again, no matter what the transgression was.

You can’t expect an apology from someone for breaking up with you due to their falling out of love, true, but I think you can lay claim to a type of treatment from them.

However, it is crucial to note what type of treatment I’m talking about. They might not be able to give you a detailed explanation that satisfies you. By nature, it might never satisfy you. They might not be able to give you the love you shared or thought you shared. In fact, this isn’t about ‘winning them back’. But from the moment you had committed to each other’s lives, consented to it, sacrificed for it, stripped naked for it in all senses, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of emotional thoughtfulness on their part. Even perhaps, some consolation. 

Although formalizing it this way may be controversial in the sense that it seems to put the onus of your wellbeing on someone else, notice how it also relieves you of the pressure to clean up a mess that you didn’t necessarily make.

In this vein, what would you wish you saw from your ex? What would you need from them to feel better?

For Harris, in the case of a transgression, a person must show that they are no longer the same person who caused you harm, not just claim that they’ve changed or will change. If you want me to accept your treasure chest, I need to see mud on your boots. But maybe in the above formulation of a break up, you would rather want the person to show you that they haven’t in fact changed; that although they fell out of love, they still care about you. Just like you can’t ask a genie for more wishes, you can’t simply demand the person back, but I do think you have the right to ask for this.

For compassion.

So unless you’re dancing a rueda, it takes two tango. It takes two during the relationship. And I think it takes two during the break up as well.

You broke up. That’s okay. This isn’t about getting back together. But if you loved each other before and you don’t want to dishonor that love, then be there for each other. That should be evermore true in the case of a break up. It shouldn’t have to take an ending world.

If your partner broke your trust or did you wrong, then that’s another story. But if your love simply faded away, then at least be nice because if you aren’t, then what does that say about the love you claimed to have prior to the break up? It is unlikely that you would turn away from a friend balling their eyes out, so why turn away from the very person who since yesterday opened their heart out to you and vice versa? In other words, you know they’re hurt, so why be indifferent to it?

“I know you know that I am empty now,” sings Sam Tompkins in You Broke My Heart So Gently

“I love you” is a strong phrase, and its implications are a lot greater than simply revealing something about yourself.

For the person on the other end, saying “I love you” is a reassurance; it’s a phrase that picks out more than simply what is true in the present moment. I’m not saying it means you’ll be there forever, no, but it does promise that if you cared about a person before the night of your break up, then unless that person did something serious to be undeserving of your kindness, you’ll still care about them in the morning after the break up. But if after you leave them, you immediately stop being receptive to their emotions, it is not surprising that they will question whether you ever really loved them in the first place.

Thus, I think, just like people love each other together, if it was really love, they should also let each other go together.

But say this doesn’t happen, say your ex never steps forward to help you clean that mess, then are you bound to stay heartbroken forever? No, but you can at least find some relief in the fact that perhaps you’ve done all the thinking you could do; your inner pilgrimage towards reconciliation has reached a cliff-edge. Now, in order to transform that feeling of deadlock into one of liberation, all you can really do is help your weary mind to that very edge and, with your feet dangling as you revel in the satisfying heaviness of your beautiful being, let time run its course across the sky, painting you a new horizon

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