Recently, a reader emailed me with a story:
His 4-year relationship had just ended. She’d left him. She’d moved to a new city, and the long distance turned into emotional distance. Unanswered texts, no time for calls – then ‘I don’t have feelings for you.’
It was over.
The night they broke up, he went out with his friends. As the hours went on, insecurity grew and he accessed her Facebook messages.
She was already seeing another guy.
He asked me for my advice. What should he do? How should he feel? He told me he didn’t have any negative feelings towards her, that he wanted closure, and that he didn’t want her making any ‘mistakes’. He told me he was concerned for her well-being.
Reading his story, I remembered my own breakup and the breakups of others that I’ve known. There were ones that went well and ones that sucked. I thought about why they worked and why they didn’t, and I replied saying I’d write a post about what he should do.
This is that post.
If you’ve ever been through a breakup and never gotten over it; if you’re in a breakup and feel like you’re lost; if you’re in a relationship that is spiraling down the porcelain drain; or if you lost someone you loved, and want to get them back – this one’s for you.
THE DOUBLE EDGE OF CONNECTION
Romantic relationships are first and foremost elements of our social lives. As I’ve argued in other posts – our social lives are incredibly important. In his book, Politics, Aristotle wrote that “Man is by nature a social animal; … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” He believed the demands of our social needs were so intrinsic to our lives, that sublimating them or overcoming them was something he equated to being inhuman.
This idea was later echoed in the book Violence, by James Gilligan, who surmised that psychopaths were driven to their acts of cruelty and murder – not only by their violent inclinations but also by their terrible feelings of loneliness. Such was their loneliness that these psychopaths often stated they felt inhuman.
Modern theories of human brain development equate the sheer size of our brains to the size of our social groups as an animal. Because of the complex nature of our interpersonal worlds, our brains were required by nature to develop an equally complex and intricate structure. In fact, recent research shows that, beyond just the size, our brains are so wired for socializing, that when they aren’t undertaking a task, our brains adopt a default state that is identical to that of when we consider the motivations, thoughts and inner world of other people. In other words, evolution rigged us with a social preparation mechanism.
To socialize is to be human. Our need for connection ranks in its importance beside our thirst and hunger – and our process to attaining it operates with the ease of our breath. It’s not something we have a choice over; it simply is. The dark side of this phenomenon is that as with starvation, suffocation or dehydration – when our need for connection goes unmet, we feel pain. Studies show that this pain is so great, that it is felt physically, like a broken leg, and has even been shown to be numbed with Tylenol, as insane as that sounds.
Your mother loved you.
When it comes to socializing, the deck is stacked against us. We’re driven to think about it automatically and take blows against our sense of belonging like wounds against our physical person. We are designed to fear being alone, just as we are designed to fear death, disease, and predation.
Socialising isn’t just something we want, it’s something we are. That is why it hurts when it’s lost, and that is why it is as much a part of our minds as our arm is a part of our body. And it is within this context of obsession and pain… that love sits.
HEARTACHE TO HEARTACHE
Dr. Helen Fisher* is one of the pioneering researchers in the field of romantic love. In her book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romance she categorizes love in three ways:
Whilst she states that these can arise in any order – in modern dating, these generally arise linearly – starting with the hanky panky of lust.
Lust is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a feeling of pure physical desire for another person. It is a short-term phenomenon. You want them physically – your eyes stare at the boobs and butt, and shared touches send rushes of excitement through your entire body.
Attraction is where you invest in each other’s personality, and you ride the thrill of chemistry, learning, and experience. This is where the spark people talk about exists. This is passion. This lasts for roughly 6-12 months – then, as they say, fizzles out.
Attachment is where your shared experience and investment in one another is so strong that your brain, in effect, can barely differentiate between your experience and your partners. When told to think about their partner experiencing a car crash; brain scans showed the participants experiencing this as if it was happening to them. This identification with one another is so strong, that it is a long-term, life-long bond – capable of surviving the death of attraction and lust. You won’t be getting laid as much, but you’ll never be alone.
Take it away, Pat.
A hallmark of someone in love is obsessive thinking; where regardless of what you seem to do, this person keeps cropping up, in some form or another. Fisher refers to this as having someone “camping in your head.” This is the bullshit that causes endless procrastination, rolling round in bed at night running imaginary scenarios, and ultimately; love. An offshoot of this is emotional dependence – this is where the highs and lows of your own life and the ensuing emotional rollercoaster become acceptable to lump onto someone else. This is called support. When it works; it’s gold-dust. When it doesn’t; well we’ll get to that. The takeaway from all this is; love is great, but it fucks with your head.
But love isn’t all that rosy. As with social rejection, rejection in love is excruciating – but it doesn’t stop there. When the connection between you and someone you love is severed, the results can be devastating – ranging from suicide to depression, to homicidal crimes of passion.
This is the shadow of love. When you allow someone into your life, when you make yourself vulnerable to connection – you expose yourself to emotional dependency and obsession; a reality that defines not just your world, but your sense of self; your identity.
The death of the connection can be shattering.
But don’t worry, it’s about to get worse.
LOGIC VS EMOTIONS
Our brains are not on our side. The human brain is an organ wired to achieve its needs. It’s wired for cognitive dissonance, and worst of all, it’s emotional and irrational. One of the things that make my eyes roll out of their sockets is when people treat their breakups like a logical process. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to breakups – our emotions come first.
When we experience a breakup – we’re receiving a combo attack of:
- You’re no longer with someone who you think about all the time.
- You’re no longer with someone who you’re emotionally dependent on.
The feeling of loneliness is amped to 100 and you experience this all like physical pain. All in all, it’s not a good place to be.
And your brain is going to do everything it can to get you out.
This is why breakups are not a logical process. They’re a process of feeling, and managing that feeling. You cannot reason this away, you can only implement systems that best allow for the regulation of emotion and for the context of your own emotional vulnerability, and resulting emotional growth.
This idea sits at the heart of breakups, and at the backbone of your life.
The simplest way for you to regain your emotional dependence, satisfy your obsession, satiate your abandonment and relent to your unworthiness is to contact them. This is the route your brain will take – you will feel body and soul like this is the right thing to do. You will even create logical reasons as to why this is appropriate, necessary, and of course – the rational and mature thing to do.
This is bullshit. This is your emotions speaking. You are trying to use this person to heal a hole that is not theirs to heal. The path to healing your own emotions starts not with someone else, but with you; and the easy way, no matter how tempting, is not the right one.
When you invest in someone else, you lose a part of your emotional independence. This process is all about regaining that independence and rebuilding the most important relationship you have; the one with yourself. You don’t do that through dependence on someone else.
But, remember – your brain can’t be trusted. You need to create a fertile soil for you to get to the point where you’ve moved on. You do this by cutting contact. After all, you can’t connect with someone who isn’t there.
Here’s what you do:
Delete their number. Delete their texts, their emails, their WhatsApp, their Facebook, their social media, their Instagram, their Snapchat, throw out their stuff, burn your house down and kill your friends. Do not call them; do not contact them in any way. Do not send them indirect messages. Do not stalk them on the internet. Do not stalk them in real life (I really hope you’re not doing this one). Delete the nude photos you took together. Delete the nude photos she didn’t know you took (because you know you did). Delete all the naughty videos you made together. Do not watch said videos. Delete them.
No, seriously, delete them.
I’ll wait here while you do.
Okay, let’s continue.
This is admittedly, extraordinarily difficult. Whether it takes willpower, writing a list of all the bad things they did to you, or simply destroying your phone (please don’t go that far) – you just have to do it. It’s the foundation from which everything else builds. You cannot skip it.
Just do it.
LET YOURSELF FEEL LIKE SHIT
One of the most toxic aspects of masculinity is the idea that men shouldn’t express or feel emotions. This is patently untrue. Research between gender differences in emotion demonstrates that many of the gulfs between us and our female counterparts are subject to context, and increasingly, more writing is being done in regards to boys having rich and complex emotional lives.
In short, when you feel like shit, you can’t ‘man’ your way out of it. Sorry tough guy, but that isn’t going to work. Like anyone else, in these situations, we need to accept that we’re going to feel like shit.
As I said before, this process is all about regaining your independence. You need to be able to support yourself emotionally. There is nobody to emotionally support you like your partner used to right now, it’s just you – and a whole boatload of shitty feelings.
Want to cry? Do it. Want to mope around for a whole day? Do it. Want to be alone? Do it. You need to let the shitty feelings have their day – and you need to help them find their way out. Don’t try to conquer your feelings, don’t try to fix them, don’t try to ignore them, distract yourself from them, drown them out of reality with video games and corn chips – No, let the feelings have their day. This is called emotional regulation; and it is hugely important, not just for breakups but for life in general.
A friend of mine has Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. It’s a disease of the mind and the immune system that leaves her unable to think properly, remember accurately, do anything; and for the most part, enjoy her life. In short, she’s an expert on feeling like dogshit. One of her tips; when it happens it happens, you’ve just got to accept when you’re down and treat it the same way you would if you were happy – i.e. you invite it in.
In my own life, this was a huge piece of advice. Instead of trying to smash my feelings into submission, I let them have their way with me – and in turn was rewarded with insight into my problems. As a result, I often find emotions like happiness seemed to, paradoxically, generate from the sensation of allowing myself to be sad. Eastern thinkers have been harping on about this for centuries. For now, here’s Louis CK:
You want to encourage your emotions to regulate. Allow yourself to do nothing but think. Write down how you feel. Explore the ideas that are coming up – do whatever you’ve got to do, just express it; this is part of building a relationship with yourself. You let yourself feel like shit, and you explore that feeling of shittiness in whatever way is right for you. The only way out is through – Express it, write about it –
Bop it, twist it, shake it.
Whatever works for you.
The cliché of breakups is the desire to make your Ex regret their loss. To make them want you. Regardless of which side of the breakup you’re on – this is something that is universally felt. In looking at the other dating advice out there, in one way or another, this was the most common piece of advice I came across; let your desire to make them want to regret their decision motivate you to become the best version of you.
Not only is this a fire for self-improvement, but it’s also incredibly mature. “I feel like shit, so I’m gonna make sure they do too!” A sure-fire recipe for a great human being.
Except, y’know, it isn’t.
But, despite my reservations – I would say the same thing.
Let the bad feelings motivate you.
In my own life, after my break up I threw myself into personal development. I, in an act of stomach-churning cliché, looked myself in the mirror and swore the pain I felt now I’d never feel again. I cut off my ex, stopped speaking to our mutual friends and built my social and dating life like a madman.
I also, like most guys, threw myself into the gym.
For six months I hammered myself into the best shape I’d ever been in. I was lean, broad-shouldered, my arms were bigger and my face was defined. For the first time, I had a six-pack. My anger at being rejected had forged me into the most attractive version of myself. Women made advances at me. Would squeeze my arms and give me compliments regularly throughout the day. I felt incredible.
Then one day – I crushed a vein between my scapula, collarbone, and first rib. A blood clot developed in my thoracic outlet, cutting off the blood flow to my right arm. I was rushed to hospital, pumped full of blood thinner (read: rat poison), and forced to confront the fact that it was highly likely that I was going to die.
Luckily, I survived, but I’ve never been able to exercise since.
It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. In losing the ability to feed that wound, I was forced to confront it. And I learned the one thing we all need to learn:
It was never about them.
Improving for someone else’s sake spits right in the face of what self-improvement is. When you engage in being motivated by someone else, you’re exposing yourself to three, very toxic things:
- You’re driven to improve because you feel hurt.
- You’re attempting to transcend your feelings of hurt (read: the experience of being human), through self-improvement.
- In giving them so much precedence in your motivation, you’re actively preventing yourself from moving on. (check the footnotes)
Self-improvement is, first and foremost, an act of affection for yourself. Just like building a healthy emotional relationship with yourself is crucial – self-improvement is about building a healthy life. It’s about wanting something, and going and getting it. Self-improvement born out of anger, hatred, and revenge is a house built on sand – and if I hadn’t, albeit dramatically, been smashed in front of this reality; I would have stagnated.
So then why recommend it?
Because in giving into your negative emotions, they inadvertently give you a roadmap on how to heal yourself. When you pay attention to what it is you’re trying to do, at the hole you’re trying to feed – you give yourself the ability to figure out exactly what it is that’s causing you all this hurt in the first place.
It’s a gift.
The art of letting yourself be motivated by negativity lies in the interpretation of the emotional motivation itself. It begins with you. If your emotion, like mine, tells you that you that you are not good enough, and you need to become ‘perfect’ so that next time she sees you she’ll be blown away – take a second to examine that. Sure, it would be nice for your ego, but once again you’re making this about her and not about you. It’s not about what she will think of the new you, it’s about WHY you feel the need to change. In looking at the WHY, you uncover the root of your pain – your insecurities, your self-doubts, your negative beliefs, and your shame. It is from here that you can begin to heal.
If you believed you were good enough, that you were fine just as you are, would the breakup hurt as much?
If I believed I was fine, would I have nearly killed myself through obsession?
Being motivated by pain is a gift so long as it is done as a way to get a sense of where it is you actually need to focus your efforts – in this case, on your pain. The longer you relent to the pain itself, the more you’ll push yourself to excess, or abandon your efforts as impossibilities.
You can’t put a plaster on your pain forever. Eventually, you have to listen to what’s motivating you – you have to confront the pain itself.
You have to listen to yourself. You have to confront yourself.
I wish I had learned this when I was younger, instead of the hard way.
IT WAS ALWAYS ABOUT YOU
It was never about them. Breakups are trauma, and trauma magnifies what’s already there. Someone rejected you. Someone weighed you up and tossed you aside. Your relationship failed. What does this say about you?
In most of our cases; it’s that we aren’t enough. That something about us is wrong. That we need to be fixed. That’s why we engage in self-improvement. It is (despite appearances) not to make them regret it, it’s because we feel wrong. It’s because we feel broken.
When you’re in a relationship, it can feel like you can’t be hurt. Like the negative feeling you have towards yourself will go away – but this is a trap. The feelings never go away – and when you suffer trauma like a breakup – whatever was waiting down there comes surging back up worse than ever.
The pain of breakups and the resulting motivation and anger are gifts that allow you to really examine who it is you are, and what it is you’re dealing with, and most importantly; how it is you’re relating to yourself.
This paradox lies at the heart of ‘developing yourself to get revenge.’ If you’re developing yourself from a negative place, all you’re doing is reinforcing the foundation that caused you all this pain in the first place. All you’re doing is living out your painful narrative – that you are broken and wrong, and that you need to be fixed.
This is the gift of breakups. The realization that it was never about them, but it was always about you. That instead of trying to make them feel something (like regret), it’s time to let yourself feel something; like acceptance. That instead of trying to regain your relationship with them, it’s time to regain your relationship with yourself.
But let’s look at them for a second…
I’ve spent this article talking about your Ex.
But that term, despite being freely used, is dehumanizing, and you do that to distance yourself from them a person – i.e. the person you fell in love with, and then hurt you. In real life your ex is just a human being just like you – who’s scared, insecure, confident, shy, bold, stupid, smart and ultimately, just as lost figuring out life as you are – they’re not some malicious monster, they’re someone making a decision for what they feel is right for their life. And unfortunately for how you feel, that life doesn’t include you.
I write this to give you some perspective on the closure you may feel you need. Ultimately, your relationship is over. But demonizing the other person does you no favors. That’s you trying to protect yourself.
But, like most people, you probably feel on some level you still want them. Even if you try not to admit it to yourself, I’d wager you do. And that’s normal. You were connected to this person intimately, and shared experiences with them – you’d miss them like you missed anyone else. But is that really the full story?
I’m not so sure.
A lot of the motivation behind missing an ex, I believe stems from the inability to heal the emotional issues that caused you the hurt in the first place. You miss them because you think they can make these feelings go away. The longer you spend letting those emotional issues linger inside you, without confronting them, the longer it is going to take for you to truly move on.* Remember, it was never about them – it was always about you.
Life’s given you a lemon. It’s time you grabbed the Tequila.
THE GUIDE TO BREAKUPS
Once you’ve set out on the path to healing what caused all this hurt, then you’ve started to build a relationship with your emotions; and with yourself. From this standpoint, you can begin to ask yourself, with a clear mind, the questions that in the first place you were in no state to answer. This is where; finally, the logic comes in:
- Do I want to be with this person?
- Are we compatible, or have our lives gone in separate directions?
- Do I want to even see this person?
- Do I still need closure?
- If this is somebody who doesn’t want to be with me, then is that someone I really want to invest my time in winning back?
- Am I shutting myself off to other options?
- Beyond physical attraction, do I really have much interest?
- Can I see myself having a future with this person?
- Am I still operating from a place of weakness?
It’s in finding the answer to these questions; from building that relationship with ourselves, so that we can answer them without the influence of neediness or shame – that we can move on, to what it is we really want, instead of going back to someone who doesn’t want us. Because that is, at the root of it, what you’ll be motivated to do.
And that’s normal. It’s how this works, and it’s a big reason why it hurts. Relationships and breakups can leave us obsessed with them – when the focus should have always been directed inwards, at ourselves.
And right now, that’s all you need to do. Right now, it’s time you had a look at you.
*This is why, beyond basic life gains, and more importantly pointing out your emotional issues, engaging in personal development to spite your ex is an incredible redundant activity. You’re actively not allowing yourself to move on. Remember that. You’re actively not allowing yourself to move on.