Mixed Feelings: How Do You Break a Heart?

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Dear Mixed Feelings:

A girl I’m dating came from a really bad relationship. As I discovered the details, I did my best to be supportive and got her into various forms of counseling. Over the last four and half years, she has dealt with all of this trauma really well and is doing great. But she is super attached to me, and relies on me for a lot, and I no longer try or make an effort in the relationship, but I’m still a saint in her eyes and can do no wrong. I’m realizing our futures aren’t the same, and that she needs someone who cares for her as much as she does for me. How does one go about breaking the heart of a girl like this—and trust that she will land right side up after her history?

Sincerely,
Still a Saint

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Dear Still a Saint,

The tricky thing about the word “love” is that we use it so liberally. I love my mom and I love my sweet nine-year-old mutt Roscoe. I love the .5mm ballpoint pens I just bought on the Internet. Love, as we most often imagine it, is a feeling—something you do or do not have. It requires nothing more of us than a moderate positive regard.

Thinking about love as a feeling, something brought about by chemistry and circumstance, is pleasant. Because it frees us from acknowledging that we get to choose the people with whom we spend our days. In fact, thinking about love as a casual accident frees us from realizing that we are choosing at all. But aren’t we always making choices in love? Even if that choice is to coast along, or withdraw, or to “no longer try” as you say in your letter?

I love the pad see ew at the Thai place down the street and I love the man I often share my pad see ew with, but these two loves aren’t equal. One costs me $12.95 and a three-minute walk. The cost of any intimate relationship is much harder to assess. You asked me how to break someone’s heart, which is a question I intend to answer, but first I want to talk about the questions looming behind that question: What should love cost us? What do we owe one another? What, especially, do we owe those who have chosen to love and trust us?

Here is what you don’t owe the woman you’ve spent the past four and a half years with: You don’t owe her sex or physical affection or reciprocal romantic feelings. You are not obligated to save or fix her. You cannot undo the trauma she has suffered—though it’s great that you’ve helped her find the support she needs.

Here is what you do owe her: Kindness. Fierce kindness.

I write “fierce” because I think we often confuse kindness with niceness. Niceness is concerned with being modest and polite, maintaining decorum. Niceness is useless in ending a serious relationship.

Kindness, fierce kindness, is immodest and impolite. It is not interested in self-protection or meeting others’ expectations. And this version of kindness is really fucking hard to practice—because it will always cost you something.

Most of us are pretty terrible at breakups. We know we have to hurt someone, and hurting someone sucks. So, instead of walking up to the front entrance and buying a ticket, we try to sneak into rejection through the side door. In fact, I once friended a guy on Facebook just so I could send him a breakup message. Can you imagine? Hey! A friend request from someone I just started dating. Cool! Oh and look—she sent a message!

I am not speaking from my own good experiences here; I am speaking from my failures.

I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness lately. Both the ordinary gestures of friendship and love that many of us aspire to and the other kind—the kind that costs us something. I don’t think I’m very good at the latter, but in light of political changes that often feel so deeply unkind, I’m trying to get better at it. This letter is for you but it is also, in many ways, for me. What I want for myself is more comfort with kindness that costs me something. What I want for you and (especially) for the woman who loves you is a breakup that is so fierce in its sincerity and compassion that she might one day, years from now, recount it with something approximating warmth.

Here’s what I can tell you about the research on breakups: they suck. Breakups hurt us. One often-cited study compares suffering from a breakup to going through cocaine withdrawal. But you should know that breakups don’t permanently wound us. What wounds us is being loved badly by those we are closest to.

Most of us understand that other people influence how we behave, but what you might not know is that those closest to us have the capacity to dictate our most basic biological functions. In their book A General Theory of Love, psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explain that human physiology is “an open loop arrangement”—and we need others to close the loop. In other words, the people we love influence everything from our hormone levels to our sleep rhythms and immune function. Good love has a stabilizing effect on our bodies. When we are loved badly, as it seems your girlfriend was in her past relationship, the loop stays open, with measurable negative effects.

As the authors put it, “that open-loop design means that in some important ways people cannot be stable on their own—not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be.” Let me just make this very clear in case it isn’t already: We need each other—not just for sharing food and cracking jokes and making babies—but, quite literally, to stay alive.

Maybe this sounds like an argument against breaking up with your girlfriend. But it’s actually the opposite. Your letter implies that this woman either has not noticed or does not care that you’re no longer making an effort in your relationship. And I suspect you’ve got this part wrong. Relationship trauma doesn’t just destabilize our physiological function; it also recalibrates our relationship to love itself. The more we need love, the more attuned we are to its absence. Most likely, this is the reason she seems so attached to you lately.

In her book Love 2.0 psychologist Barbara Fredrickson says that love “nourishes your body the way the right balance of sunlight, nutrient-rich soil, and water nourishes plants and allows them to flourish.” Imagine slowly depriving your houseplants of light and water and expecting them to carry on growing and thriving. I live in Canada, above the forty-ninth parallel where, in July, long summer days are easy to take for granted. But, come December, the sun hits the horizon hours before dinner. And I can tell you: No one is oblivious to the darkness.

You say your girlfriend needs someone who cares for her as much as she cares for you. I absolutely agree. But the kindest way to break her heart is to be the saint she imagines you to be. This may require redefining your understanding of love.

Fredrickson doesn’t define love the way the rest of us do. To her, love isn’t infatuation or passionate romance. It isn’t even strong positive regard. Instead it’s something you experience, face to face, with another person—any other person—as you go about your days. She calls these experiences “micro moments of positivity resonance.”

I know this sounds pretty technical. But if, for a moment, we can abandon our ideas about passion and romance and commitment, we can reimagine love more simply—as something we create with another person, something that feels as good as sunlight. What I like about this definition of love is that it can be a useful way to determine which relationships are worth cultivating. I have definitely spent time in relationships that didn’t have enough moments of brightness and warmth and I would’ve really benefitted from this definition about fifteen years ago. But even now, it reminds me that I can always love better.

So, back to your question: How do you break someone’s heart? I think you do it with love like sunlight. This means putting aside your own pain and discomfort and summoning the kindest, most compassionate version of yourself—if only for a few micro-moments of connection.

I know this is an advice column but I’m a little wary of telling anyone how to end a relationship when everything I know about their life is contained in a single paragraph. That said, here’s the advice I would give myself if I could do every lousy breakup over again:

Be gentle and clear. A new study shows that most people prefer to get bad news directly so say something like this: I need to talk to you about something. My heart just isn’t in this relationship.

Know that another person’s heartbreak will probably hurt you. Deal with it privately. Don’t waver and don’t equivocate. Definitely don’t have break-up sex. If they feel angry or disappointed or sad, let them feel that way. Sitting with someone else’s pain in one cost of kindness. You may need to help the person you are no longer in a relationship with to find some sort of support system: friends or siblings or even an affectionate pet—any stable source of light and warmth is good. Also, know that breakups aren’t usually as painful as we imagine them to be. You may find that you are a little bit heartbroken, too, but the very act of trying to feel better after a breakup actually makes you feel a little better. Put your faith in the fact that many people experience growth and self-expansion after ending a relationship. Hopefully you’ll be one of these people and she will be, too. This kind of breakup will cost you the idea you have of yourself as someone who doesn’t hurt other people. Letting go of this illusion is good for you. We all cause others pain.

And Saint, if you follow this advice, remember you aren’t being fiercely kind because your girlfriend has a history of trauma. You are being fiercely kind it because fierce kindness is the best we can offer to those who have given us their love and trust. And because we need more saints in the world right now.

Sincerely,
Mixed Feelings

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Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.


Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Walrus, along with literary journals and anthologies. She writes about love and love stories at The Love Story Project, and she teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essay collection How to Fall in Love with Anyone was published in 2017. More from this author →