How to Survive a Broken Heart
You know that feeling of introspective stillness that happens when you’re able to look at a traumatic event with a bit of distance and clarity? I woke up this morning feeling ready to talk, so let’s talk.
Dating Consultants are People Too
Being a dating consultant is weird, because I have this unreasonable expectation of myself that I should look like the perfect relationship partner… but, like… that’s not super realistic. Have I always been a great partner? Of course not. Has my heart been shattered into a million trillion pieces? Ohhh yeah. Does that disqualify me from being effective at my job? Nah man, my graduate degree and dozens of glowing reviews say otherwise. We tend to have the expectation that professionals in a field never struggle within it. Please allow me to pop that bubble: most therapists have therapists. We’re also not perfect partners. It’s easy to notice destructive patterns in others, it’s more complicated to correct them in ourselves.
The Hard Truth About Loss
No one really talks about heartbreak. I mean, there are hundreds of vaguely helpful articles about getting over a breakup. But, as someone who has desperately begged Google for relief, there’s just not a lot out there. Honestly, I think it’s probably because there is no quick fix for true devastation- and dating blogs depend on clean resolutions.
Here’s the truth: If you lose someone you love- Someone you really, truly love- you will be in pain for a long time. Your heart will feel like it’s leaking acid. Your body will feel heavy and sore. Your mind gets foggy, and you are overwhelmed by an excruciating ache to hear that person’s voice again. You find yourself trying to think of excuses to reach out to them, you torture yourself with old text messages, photos, and voicemails.
You’re in so much pain, it feels like you can’t bear it, and you’re ashamed of yourself for turning into a needy pile of goo. It’s pretty gross, guys. If you’ve never lost someone you love, you’re probably assuming that I’m being dramatic. If you have, you know that words just can’t really describe it.
The bad news is that there’s no way to skip past the awful parts. The good news is, it is survivable, and when you’ve made it to the other side, you will feel renewed. Rejuvenated. It’ll have been so long since you’ve felt like yourself, that you’ll delight in rediscovering who you are.
Here is my story and the lessons I have learned. I hope they are helpful to you.
Once upon a time, I accidentally fell in love. I had never been in love before. I thought I had. I’d told boyfriends that I loved them, but this was an entirely new experience. Dating had always been easy for me. Falling in love… guys, I was so out of my depth. I’m a fiercely independent person, and while I’m incredibly friendly, trust and vulnerability are extraordinarily difficult for me.
Falling in love was terrifying, beautiful, and an entirely humbling experience. I was in awe of its majesty. It made prophets out of John Keats, Elizabeth Browning, Byron, Shelley, and Taylor Swift. I was lucky, because the man I fell in love with is kind, patient, and good to his core. He was…less lucky. I was skittish, hid the parts of myself I thought were at risk of being damaged, and was so terrified of losing the most precious thing I had ever found that I sabotaged us over and over and over again. Those of you who grew up as children feeling unloved and unlovable are probably familiar with this particularly toxic pattern of behavior.
To his credit, he responded to my bullshit with words of encouragement and support and then plopped down some firm and healthy boundaries. He is my favorite human being on this planet, and I’m really grateful that he was able to protect himself from my unhealthy behaviors when past-me wasn’t able to be a good partner to him.
Of course, the full story is much more complicated, as it tends to be. I had some unresolved trauma. I recently had lost a loved one to Covid, the world was shut down and crumbling around us. The fact that my relationship ended, and it ended because I fucked up and hurt the person I love, was the final push for a girl who had been struggling for a while.
Sabrina Reruns Are the Worst
The days, weeks, and months that followed were a blur. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t work. I cried until my face was swollen and raw. I called him and swore I could be what he needed even though I knew very well that I didn’t even have the strength to shower every day, let alone be a good partner. I called my friends at 2 a.m., and like the saints that they are, they took shifts taking care of me. They watched reruns of Sabrina the Teenage Witch with me until I cried myself to sleep at 4 a.m. every night. I don’t want to freak you guys out, but Sabrina reruns aren’t very good. So many plot holes. So. Many. Plot holes. There’s a dancing pancake episode that I honestly thought was a fever dream until recently.
I wish I could say that I woke up one morning and everything was better, but my recovery came in stages. After the depressive episode that lasted for longer than I’m willing to admit in a public forum, something happened to push me into my first attempt of recovery. I decided that I would get him back, and I would do it in the right way- the healthy way. The mantra I had for myself was, “I love him more than I want him”. Meaning, I would end contact with him until I was healthy, because I loved him more than my selfish desire to hear his voice and the reassurance that he wasn’t over me. I would heal the parts of myself that needed to be healed, strengthen the parts of myself I needed to strengthen, and then I could confidently walk up to his door as the person I knew he deserved.
Learning to Stand
It got me out of bed. It got my grody ass in the shower. I went back to work. I got back into therapy. I met someone who recognized the pain I carried in me and offered me something I hadn’t gotten from other friendships: a push to get better. He refused to stay up with me until 4 a.m. when I was too sad to sleep, but he got me out of bed. He held me accountable to goals I set for myself. He celebrated my accomplishments, even when that accomplishment was cooking a real meal or working four whole hours a day. I know I would have eventually gotten there without him, but man, am I glad I didn’t have to.
Advice by Chloe exploded, I was fully booked out for months at a time, and I started getting really cool opportunities. I made new friends, started working out every morning, and got into a routine. Within a few months, I recognized myself in the mirror again. I felt good. I thought I was getting close to becoming who I needed to be in order to be a good partner… but something was off. It’s like I would be doing really well, thriving even, but the thought of walking up to my ex’s door still paralyzed me, and I reverted back into that broken girl. To be really honest, that realization briefly threw me back into the 4 a.m. Sabrina rerun girl, but thankfully I had enough supportive people in my life that it didn’t last long.
Tripwires and Pitfalls
During one of my morning meditations I had a devastating epiphany: There’s no healthy way to change for another person. Even if it’s a change you need to make, the end result shouldn’t be dependent on your relationship with anyone but yourself. Otherwise, it’s not getting healthier at all, it’s just a less destructive form of coping. I loved him enough to allow him to let me go, but I needed to love myself enough to let him go. I had to let him go. I had to let the hope of him go. The comfort of his voice, the way he said my name, his beard, his eyes, his laugh. The future we could have had. I had to let it all go. I had to be strong enough to find happiness alone. I couldn’t be a good partner to him or anyone else until I could be a good partner to me.
I Got Back Up Again
And so I started over. I stopped looking at his social media, I stopped compulsively checking my emails for messages from him.… But hardest of all, I denied myself the ability to imagine what it would be like when he was back in my life. No more daydreaming about all the things we had planned to do together. I stopped letting myself use the memory of him and the loved ones I lost as a source of comfort, and the hope of a future with him as a crutch. From now on, it was all me.
But as it turns out, I’m not so bad. I discovered things about myself that I had forgotten. Things I never knew. I learned how to reach out to friends in a healthy way, and I watched those friendships flourish. I kindly, but firmly, removed people from my life who were bad for me. That included friends I really cared about, but our relationships revolved around dwelling in negativity. I created goals for myself, and then held myself accountable. I gave myself a bedtime, and I dragged myself out of bed by 9 a.m. every morning (weekends don’t count y’all). I started a morning yoga group, bought a car, bought a glorious new mattress, decorated my home. I set down roots… something I had been so scared to do since losing the foundational people in my life. I became the foundation I stood on, and I learned that it was solid.
A New Beginning
I still have really hard days, but my life no longer revolves around grief. I have loved people who are no longer in my life, and sometimes that is sad. Strength isn’t the absence of pain. It’s the ability to see it, acknowledge it, and to keep moving. I still miss him. Sometimes I miss him so much it’s overwhelming, but I’m finally in a place where I’m genuinely ok. I’m continuing to work on my own healing, and I’m finally doing it for me. Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting, it doesn’t even mean moving on. It’s an acceptance of what is without any expectation of what will be, and the courage to keep moving forward.
I’m not where I want to be yet, I still have work to do, but I’m getting closer every day, and I’ve escaped that horrible fog of depression. Fall is here, the air is crisp and beautiful, and I’m appreciating every moment of it.
Maybe we’ll get back together. Maybe we’ll find a way to be friends. Maybe I’ll meet someone who looks like Travis Willingham, will travel the world with me like The Doctor, and fucks like Daniel Radcliffe (come on, we can all just agree that Radcliffe probably knows how to fuck, right?). Or maybe I’ll adopt a bunch of kids and dogs and we’ll have a different kind of adventure. The point is, whatever happens, I’m going to keep making choices that are good for me, and I’m going to be just fine… and I’m really proud of myself for that.
Ten Steps to Survive Heartbreak: An Instructional Guide from the Other Side
Here’s my TLDR on the lessons I’ve learned as someone who’s made it to the other side of loss:
- This is going to hurt. Any attempt to avoid the pain will only delay it. Drugs, alcohol, sleep deprivation, sex, daydreaming, or codependent relationships will only make it worse. The absence of someone who was a foundational part of your life is supposed to hurt. The only way out is through.
- Gather and preserve your resources. Your heart, brain, and body will probably be sore, so tend to them. Get enough sleep, but not too much. Fucking up your sleep schedule is an unneeded stressor in your life. If you need a nap, take one, but with an alarm. Eat nourishing food. Takeout and potato chips are going to make you feel like shit. Drink lots of water and don’t forget to replenish your electrolytes. Mind your budget if you need to take some time off from work. This is going to be a rough ride, but there’s no need to do it with a constant migraine and sore joints. Self-care will get you far.
- Grieve, don’t ruminate. Grief is a natural process everyone goes through when they’ve lost a loved one. Rumination is an abyss. Try to avoid spending a great deal of time going over past events, wondering what you could have done differently, or daydreaming about what could be. If you spend your time focusing on what could have been, you’ll never reach a place of acceptance of what is. Rumination can be a form of self-punishment or an escape from reality, but it isn’t healing and doesn’t lead to catharsis.
- Emotional release. Talk, cry, scream into a pillow, write, meditate, do whatever works for you- but find a way to release the build-up of emotion. Find a therapist you trust to talk to, start a journal, or talk to a friend. If you’re struggling to regulate your emotions, schedule and time them. My therapist once recommended to me that I set a timer for 30 minutes when I needed to grieve. In the beginning, I needed to set a 30 minute timer multiple times per day, but eventually it went down to once a day, and then a few times a week. This way, I was able to release the emotions I was feeling, but I didn’t spend hours a day in bed.
- If you have supportive people who you trust, reach out to them. My friends carried me when I couldn’t walk, held my hand when I stumbled, and were at the finish line cheering when I learned to run. If you don’t have supportive people in your life, find them. If you aren’t sure where to start, I’ve found meetup.com helpful in joining local groups to make new friends, or use Reddit to help connect you with people who share your interests. All friends are not created equal. If they’re keeping you down instead of building you up, they may not be a supportive person in your life. Beware of those who see your growth as a threat to their way of life.
- Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. You can’t get dressed today? Then at least get a shower. You’re too worn down to work a full day? Then work a half day. You haven’t left your house in two weeks? Go sit on the porch and get some fresh air. You’re grieving. Be kind to yourself, but do what you can. Avoid making unrealistic goals. Don’t quit for the day because you couldn’t keep up. Do it poorly man, it’s so much better than not doing it at all.
- As tempting and romantic as it sounds, you can’t do this for anyone but you. You aren’t doing this for your mom, or your partner, or your dog. They’ll benefit from a healthier you, and that’s great… but if you aren’t doing this for you, you’ll have to do it all over again if you lose the person you’re doing it for. Do it for you.
- Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. It doesn’t have to be a closed door, but you can’t be afraid to leave the house. Whomever it is that you lost, learning to live without them isn’t the same as throwing them away… but you must let them go.
- Reclaim yourself. Rediscover who you are. Re-engage with activities you haven’t done in a long time, or develop hobbies you’ve always been curious about. If needed, schedule your days to stay busy. There’s really nothing quite as fulfilling as getting to know yourself and finding that you like the person you’ve become.
- You are enough. You are so very much enough.