It’s Not that You’re Splitting Up, it’s That You’re_______ : Four Different and Consoling Ways to Think Your Way Out of a Break-Up

I recently participated in a “relationship summit” on break ups.


I don’t know how wise or helpful I was. When it comes to break-up and heartache recovery, I’m not sure that anyone’s improved appreciably on the old strategy of “tears, shots of tequila, sleeping on your friend’s ratty sofa, and hours of perseverative conversation about the ex and the relationship until you bore even yourself, to say nothing of your friends, who pray that you won’t sit next to them, and put on a conversational Screen Saver function if you do.”

I’m joking. We’ve all been there. And if we were lucky, we had friends who selflessly talked us down from the ledge.

But I’ve had a few weeks to think further about how to deploy our big brains to subdue the heart’s agonies and mess-ups, and I’ve gone back to the timeless sources—not self-improvement books, therapists, or counselors, per se, but the fiction writers and poets who can turn the theme on a surprising angle.

Much of how we feel about anything depends on how we tell the story.

So here are four different narrations of a break-up that might be useful (or at least less trite) if you or your friend is going through one.

It’s Not That You Failed at Marriage. It’s That Marriage Failed You. A major theme of my book is that maybe the problem’s not your spouse, and it’s not you. Maybe it really is marriage, the institution itself, and what it demands of us. Our first impulse is to assign blame for the break up, often to ourselves. We tell friends that we failed as partners, or that our partners failed us. But we should go easy on each other. Being married asks a lot of us, and our expectations for lifelong, committed relationships haven’t necessarily kept pace with 21st century realities.

For example, could we really have expected each other to fulfill so many different roles in life, a la the romantic ideal?

The incomparable Kurt Vonnegut looked at it this way: No matter what the causes of the break up, there’s really only one. Two people at the end of a marriage should say, “I’m sorry. You, being human, need a hundred affectionate and like-minded companions. I’m only one person. I tried, but I could never be a hundred people to you. You tried, but you could never be a hundred people to me. Too bad. Good-bye.”

 

It’s Not That Your Relationship Ended. It Just Came To “The End Of Its Triumph.” This lovely twist on failure comes from Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Failing and Flying.” It begins, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew./It’s the same when love comes to an end.” Then he describes lovely, fleeting moments from an ended marriage and questions, how can they say the marriage failed? “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

Does an intimate relationship need to be forever, or ever after, to be successful? Maybe a “successful” relationship can be for a decade. We’ve done what we can for each other, and gone as far as we can together. The relationship comes to the end of its natural life. Break ups have a pungent residue of failure, but they don’t need to be hostile—or even a failure.

It’s Not the End of the Book. It’s The End of a Chapter. Every relationship that doesn’t end in marriage or lifetime commitment will end with a break up, and roughly half that end in marriage will end with a break up, as well. The problem with the “It’s over. We’re done.” narrative is its rapier finality. You can hear the door slamming shut, with no other door (that is, a new love) in sight.

It’s not the end of your book, though, just a chapter. “What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle,” writes Tony Hoagland, “What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel. What I thought was an injustice turned out to be a color of the sky.” It’s true, but hard to see in the fog of fresh heartache.

It’s especially true if you’ve got children, because you’ll be in each other’s lives as co-parents forever. And maybe your post-divorce life will gel into a rich friendship, or partnership, and the divorce will be a sad middle chapter in a longer, happier story. Not a fairy tale, but a happier story.

You Didn’t “Break Up.” You “Let Go.”  Maybe this is a vernacular Zen approach. Love and attachment are impermanent by nature—and ideally so.  “The end of desire is the end of sorrow;” “Life is easy if you have no preferences.” It’s only our possessive preferences that break our hearts and cloud our wisdom. Easier said than done, of course.

I was chatting with an acquaintance one night, about whether a “mutual break-up” can really happen. “It can’t,” he commented, “unless the two people say, ‘I want to break up with you’ at exactly the same moment, out loud.”

He has a point. Usually, one feels like the ditch-ee; the other like the ditch-er. Telling the story as a “break-up” almost requires this, because breaking and “splitting up” evoke violent, sudden actions, and are usually done by a person to a thing.  Break is a transitive verb. It requires subject and object.

But it’s so often the case that there’s a lot of genuine ambivalence in a relationship, and hidden reciprocity in the break up. We get to thinking that we want the person back, once we’re ditched, so we forget our own misgivings.

“Letting things drift” and “Letting it go” are metaphors that let us down so much more gently, and they’re often more accurate and honest assessments of a relationship. In these situations, did we really break up, or did we both, together, let it go—regardless of who said it first?

Finally… if all else fails? You might just have to go Bob Dylan on the situation:  “I don’t mind leaving, baby. I’d just like it to be my idea.”

Will China’s green energy tipping point come too late?

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

Is technology corrupting humanity? History says no.

Build up, tear down—new technology stirs up a cycle of progress and cynicism we've seen all throughout history.

Videos
  • "Every time that there's a new technology, particularly around media, there's a set of outcries around how that media is corrupting culture or how it's destroying certain aspects of our life," says entrepreneur and author Elad Gil.
  • In some cases there are real concerns, but taking a historical view can quell unnecessary panic. Progress and cynicism work in a cyclical fashion. New tech is unveiled, the media builds it up, then the media tears it down in a wave of backlash.
  • Today we worry about kids and smartphones; 80 years ago we worried about kids and the radio; same cynicism, different day.
  • Technology lifts the lid on human potential and quality of life, says Gil. We should be duly cautious, but optimism is more valuable (and arguably more rational) than pessimism.
Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
  • The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
  • This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Keep reading Show less

5 communication pitfalls that are preventing people from really hearing what you're trying to say

If you want to be a better and more passionate communicator, these tips are important.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash
popular

If you identify as being a socially conscious person in today's age of outrage, you've likely experienced the bewildering sensation when a conversation that was once harmless, suddenly doesn't feel that way anymore. Perhaps you're out for a quick bite with family, friends, or coworkers when the conversation takes a turn. Someone's said something that doesn't sit right with you, and you're unsure of how to respond. Navigating social situations like this is inherently stressful.

Below are five expert-approved tips on how to maintain your cool and effectively communicate.

Keep reading Show less

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading Show less

How to raise a non-materialistic kid

Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.

Robert Collins / Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
  • Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
  • Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Keep reading Show less