Most living, breathing adults endure multiple romantic fractures in the course of a lifetime, but only one actual heart-splitting, Richter-scale breakup. In its aftermath, devastation tucks you in at night and wakes you up in the morning. Your day-to-day world is thrown out of whack, not to mention the past you thought was fixed and the double-occupancy future you assumed lay ahead. Sounds awful? Yes. Lonely? Excruciatingly. Invaluable? Perhaps.
In the wake of a lover's departure, the wreckage looks like this: There's no one else to make coffee, get the paper, or warm up the bed. Couple friends don't call as often, or if they do, the newly single are less inclined to accept invitations where they'll be the odd woman out. Weekends stretch out as vast, uncharted oceans of solitude. And even when the woman was the one to call it off, sadness bounces off the walls like whispers in an echo chamber.
Grief can be stunning—literally—and yet you still have to go on business trips, unload the dishwasher, and face people.
Calling on one's support system is essential not only for survival through the rough times but for keeping the loss in perspective. "By getting therapy, joining a religious community, creating a new network of friends, and finding safety in ongoing relationships, women realize that their whole emotional life is not just about that one person," says Abigail Trafford, health columnist for The Washington Post and author of Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life.The emotional threads that still connect you to the world, primarily through friends and family, turn out to possess amazing tensile strength, she says. They also serve as a reminder that your capacity for loving relationships is much broader than one person. "You're in for some wonderful surprises," Trafford says. "You see how much people care for you."
The line between introspection and beating yourself over the head is, most of us know, filament thin, especially where love is concerned. In our culture, says Maxine Schnall, author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger: Turning Bad Breaks into Blessings, the tendency for self-blame falls along gender lines. "Women are relationship oriented. The guy will walk away and say, 'She was a bitch,' and the woman will say, 'What did I do wrong?' But blaming yourself is not going to help."
Anyone with a shattered heart can win the prize—a happier life, a better relationship next time around—but only by making use of the mess right there in front of you. You have to think about it. Feel it. Mourn it. Miss him, resent him, and wish you could tell him the funny thing you saw that only he would understand because it reminds you of that market stall in Oaxaca from your honeymoon. And if you do all that, really breathe the sorrow, and let the sadness frame each beat of your heart, you'll not only be able to let it go, you'll find yourself arriving at a new place, in which you know more clearly what you want and need and what you have to offer.
So here are the real rules: Don't run with scissors, don't leave the iron on, don't cross against the light, and don't be afraid of a broken heart.
From the February 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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