A Footnote On Heartbreak

Photo by Lhya Munive

In her poem “The Lover as Tapeworm,” Olivia Gatwood asks: “how is it / possible / that you / are both / my joy / & the taker / of it?” I’ve been thinking about these lines every day for the past month. Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about the absence of love. 

If a cult based on relationships and intimacy was a thing, I’d be an excellent candidate. I can’t recall a period of my life where I wasn’t either a) crushing on, b) in love with, or c) heartbroken over someone. I grew up with a vivid imagination and too much time on my hands, so I kind of got used to making up stories of people I barely knew in my head, which leads to me getting infatuated easily. There is that girl from my class when I was nine who I imagined having an elaborate conversation with countless of times but never did; there is my best friend from primary school who I thought I was jealous of when in fact I simply had feelings for; there is my very first big and teenage love at fifteen, and there have been the older kinds of love where I enjoy playing house and in the morning at breakfast ask them whether they’d like some eggs. It’s safe to say that I’ve had my fair share of heartbreak, because when we talk about love, we’re often subsequently talking about the times we’ve lost it, although a lot less openly.

We spend most of our lives consuming the idea that we will not be a whole person until we find The One. We watch Disney movies and romcoms and mold our affections into the standards we’ve been taught: a relationship is our primary source of joy and satisfaction, our ultimate life goal, and should last forever. A very specific kind of exclusivity is attributed to romantic relationships that friendships, for example, do not enjoy. Whether we meant to or not, these are messages that we have internalised from a young age, and they at times make it difficult to navigate any kind of intimate connection with integrity. Having grown up convinced of the apparent uniqueness of romantic relationships, it is then quite conflicting how we respond to heartbreak. We’re met with a rather capitalist approach: you’re allowed to cry over it while having some Ben & Jerry’s, but you should be a fully functional human being again by the end of the week. We are expected to numb ourselves, and the less we show how we feel, the better. There is pressure in going out, in re-inventing yourself, in picking up a new hobby and meeting new people and being okay. We behave like some kind of product that needs polishing for the next person—the next attempt at finding our Other Half—to consume. This translates into a poignant feeling of shame when voicing the lingering pain that comes with heartache out loud, as if we should get on with it and be sad about more productive things.

How we treat the end of a relationship as a society doesn’t make any sense when you look at attachment theory, a psychological, evolutionary, and ethological theory proposed by John Bowlby as an attempt to better understand relationships between human beings, and carefully explained in the book Attached by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller. Within this theory it is understood that in prehistoric times, individuals who only had themselves to depend on were less likely to make it out alive, while people who formed intimate connections with others and belonged to a community or small group, had a bigger chance of survival. As a result, the need for attachment is quite literally in our genes. Back then, not being in proximity of a primary caregiver or partner was a matter of life and death, and although this is not the case anymore, our bodies still respond the same way. This is why some babies will cry frantically when their caregivers are not around, and will feel immediately soothed when they reestablish contact with them. During our childhood, our parents are often the most important source of safety and comfort, and as we get older our friends and partner(s) are added to that list. From a biological point of view, a breakup is a shock to your attachment system. The person who used to be a source of joy is no longer able to fulfil that role. The total confusion and distress experienced when we part ways from a partner suddenly becomes a pretty reasonable response.

By being so dismissive of what hurts and where, we diminish what people have meant to us. We treat our experiences as disposable. The movie Call Me By Your Name focuses on a tender summer love between Elio and Oliver, one which eventually comes to an end. In the face of this, Elio’s father tells him: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new; but to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything, what a waste.” There have been so many occasions where I’ve been asked what’s wrong and I felt compelled to say I had a bad night’s sleep instead of admitting I just miss someone. A couple of days ago I opted for the latter, more honest option, and my beautiful and thoughtful friend didn’t say it was going to pass soon or that I would meet someone new, she instead held me quietly and told me she understood. I think a lot of what we are in need of in the aftermath of love is permission to feel lost, to feel less than optimal. Don’t subscribe to the idea of moving on so quickly. The world keeps on going even if you’ve barely caught up, but kissing new strangers in poorly lit bars won’t be the thing that makes the scattered pieces of you fall back into place. Allow yourself the time and kindness to acknowledge that you’re going through something, and when you’re ready, look for comfort in the quietness of a Thursday afternoon, in a Mary Oliver book, in a music album you had long forgotten about but now have the privilege to come back to with a fresh mind. And hopefully, in your own time, a fresh heart.

Written by Lhya Munive

Works cited:

Gatwood, Olivia. “The Lover as Tapeworm.” Life of The Party: If A Girl Screams, and Other     

          Poems, Transworld Publishers, 2019, pp. 70-73.

Levine, Amir and Rachel S.F. Heller. Attached. Bluebird, 2019, p. 12.


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