The only way to graduate from Heartbreak Academy is to really master the material, and that means absorbing crucial lessons about your true self, your true needs and the nature of true love.
How to Make It Through Heartbreak Academy
I was in my first semester of Unilateral Torture 262, a class I'd taken three or four times already, when I stumbled across a concept in a psychology textbook that finally allowed me to learn my lesson and move on. I don't remember anything else about that book, but I recall one crucial sentence perfectly. "Some patients," it said, "mistakenly believe that their loneliness is a product of another person's absence." I stopped and reread this maybe ten times, but it still baffled me. I could have sworn that my loneliness was a product of my ex-significant other's absence. If not, then what on Earth was it?
Finally, slowly, over the next several days, weeks, years, the light dawned: My loneliness, and the antidote to it, did not come from the significant others I'd loved and lost. I'd been emotionally isolated before I ever fell in love. Something about certain people helped me lower the drawbridge over the moat that separated me from the world, but in the final analysis, I was the one who'd actually done the trick. The power to bring me out of solitude—or to push me back into it—had never belonged to any other person. It was mine and only mine.
This realization is the most important thing you need to get through Heartbreak Academy with minimum effort and maximum positive effect. Realizing that your heartbreak is not a product of the other person's absence brings the pain into an arena where you can work with it, instead of riveting your attention on some missing lover you may never see again and could never really control.
Your Heartbreak Study Guide
Each time you find yourself longing for the love that was, asking yourself the following study-guide questions will help you learn the lessons of heartbreak and move on to a relationship that works.
Most often, heartbroken people are unknowingly grieving a loss or trauma rooted in childhood or adolescence. That's because we tend to fall in love with people who remind us of those who cared for us—even badly—when we were young and totally vulnerable. We become childlike when we feel securely adored, letting go of all inhibition. The failure of adult relationships is often caused by the dysfunctions we internalized as children, and the devastation we endure when we're rejected almost always opens ancient wounds, making us feel as bereft as an abandoned little kid.
If you ask yourself how old you feel when you're in the worst throes of heartbreak, you'll probably find that a surprisingly low number pops into your head. Whatever the age of your grieving inner child, it's your job to comfort her, as you would help a toddler or a teen who had lost a parent. Do small, practical, caring things for yourself: Listen to a song that helps you grieve, schedule a play date with your best friend, wrap a soft blanket around yourself and let the tears come. Most important of all, give your childish self the chance to talk. Open your journal or visit your therapist, and let yourself express your anger and anguish in all its irrational, immature glory.
As you do this, you will almost certainly find yourself grieving losses you suffered way back when, as well as the one you've just endured. This is good: It means that you are finally progressing beyond ways of thinking and acting that didn't work for you early in your life—and still aren't working today. Acknowledging and comforting that younger self is absolutely essential to easing your pain, recovering from your wounds, and finding new sources of healthy love.
How old do you feel?
Look back on the time when you were falling in love, and you'll realize that though much (or some) of your time with your lover was fabulous, the relationship made you happy even when the two of you were physically apart. The really potent part of love is that it allows you to carry around beliefs about yourself that make you feel special, desirable, precious, innately good. To graduate from Heartbreak Academy, you have to learn that neither your ex-beloved nor the fact of being in love invested you with these qualities. Your lover couldn't have seen them in you, even temporarily, if they weren't part of your essential being.
Make a list of all the things you let yourself believe when you saw yourself mirrored in loving eyes. Write them as facts: I'm fascinating. I'm beautiful. I'm funny. I'm important. Realize that you chose to believe these things in the context of your relationship, and now that the relationship is over, you have another choice: either to reject a loving view of yourself or to believe the truth.
But, you may say, 'What if these positive things aren't really true at all? What if the truth is that I'm hopelessly unlovable?' Well, let me remind you that when you believe you're an insignificant bird dropping on the sooty gray pavement of life, you feel unspeakably horrible. On the other hand, when you opt for believing what love once taught you about yourself, the core of your despair is replaced by sweetness, however bitter your subsequent loss. I say, use what works. Self-concept is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we let ourselves believe that we're wonderfully attractive, we act wonderfully attractive. By letting yourself believe the most loving things your ex ever said about you, you can get rid of the bathwater but keep the baby, honoring and preserving what was precious in your relationship, while letting go of the pain.
What did your lost love help you believe about yourself?
Being in love is so intoxicating, that special person so compelling, that lovers often drop some of the obligations and rules that dominated their lives before they met. When you're in love, you may forget that you don't usually allow yourself to splurge on perfume, or write poetry, or be wildly sexual, or say no to invitations you'd rather not accept. When your relationship is over, the bleak prospect of going back to the rules can drive you to the brink of despair, making you pine obsessively for your lost love to return and free you again. Eliminate the middleman. Free yourself.
You can start by making another list. This time, write down all the forbidden things you allowed yourself to do when you were madly in love with someone who was madly in love with you. Now give yourself permission to do all those things anyway.
What did your relationship give you permission to do?
Nothing can make your trip through Heartbreak Academy easy or painless. Grieving will always hurt, but it is not mindless torture. It's more like panning for gold. Recurrent floods of sadness and anger gradually wash away the rubble of the defunct relationship, leaving only the bits of treasure: the remembered moments of real communion, a new understanding of your own mistakes, a clear picture of the dysfunctions you will never tolerate again.
Letting these precious things emerge naturally means that you will retain the real love you've received, even as you let go of your former lover. And realizing that you hold the keys to your own healing will keep sadness from becoming despair and help you master the lessons a broken heart can teach. It means the relationships you create after that will be more trustworthy, the unavoidable losses less devastating.
"The world breaks everyone," Hemingway once wrote, "and afterward many are strong at the broken places." A broken heart is simply a heart that has a chance to become stronger. It's a heart that is more self-sufficient, more open to the truth, and more capable of lasting love.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Three Rivers) and Expecting Adam (Berkley)