Occasionally the universe (also known as “my Facebook feed”) will give me things to be annoyed about, which I appreciate because I could always use new topics. The latest example was a post from Elite Daily: “How He Became Broken: 3 Ways Men Never Fully Recover From Heartbreak”, which tops my list of “I don’t even know where to start”.
Except maybe like this…
Articles like this make me twitch because they treat socialization like destiny and gender differences as set in stone. The truth of the matter is, heartbreak sucks, but men aren’t taught how to heal from it. The problem isn’t that men are inherently more easily damaged by heartbreak and sorrow but that we’re taught to be disconnected from our damn emotions. So I want to start off an irregular series of posts I like to call Emotional Intelligence with a little about how to not let heartbreak break you.
The Fetishization of the Broken Man
One of the worst things that men do when it comes to their own emotional health is to romanticize and fetishize their pain. Because of the tropes of toxic masculine ideals, men are never taught how to handle emotional pain in a healthy manner. Pain, especially the pain of heartbreak and loss, is something that we’re just supposed to endure and if we are going to handle it, then we need to handle it in the manliest fashion possible.
This almost always comes down to “pushing it down deep so that you never have to actually think about it,” because things like “crying” or “processing your feelings with your bros” are defined as being for pussies. You get to mourn silently, preferably with a glass of brown liquor or in bars with even more drinks. You get one! man-tear and then it’s time to get back into the swing of things.
Of course, part of what makes trying to deal with heartbreak so problematic is the way we fetishize the trope of the heartbroken man. You’ll see it over and over again in pop-culture: the guy who’s been hurt and is afraid to love again and it colors everything he does. Maybe he’s the ice cold broken bird (50 Shades of Grey), the guy who’s become afraid of commitment so now he’s a slut (Crazy, Stupid, Love) or the guy who can’t let go of his One True Love and Isn’t it Sweet? (SO many rom-coms and romance novels). Amusingly enough, it gets marketed regularly to men and women.
To men, it’s part of the Rules of Being Manly. John Wick, for example is literally about a guy processing the loss of his wife (and his puppy) by killing a whole shitload of people.
To women, it’s being delivered as a Romantic Idyll because this broken bird can Only Be Healed By Your Love (Maybe).
Either way, it’s a constant reminder that men can’t handle their shit and heal, which becomes an excuse to not try. The fetishization of heartbreak makes actually trying to recover more difficult because it sells heartbreak as though it were the wound in the Fisher King ((Except, y’know, not in his balls). It’s an unhealable injury that can only be fixed by a love so special and holy that it’s magical. Heal it yourself? Don’t be silly! Hell, even the Elite Daily article that started this train of thought treats the heartbreak men deal as something that inevitably leaves them “broken”, as they just “never fully recover” and posits that if their hearts are broken enough times then they just become sad shells, never fully capable of loving again because man.
It’s bullshit and it’s an extension of the toxic beliefs about manhood that end up hurting us.
Own Your Heartbreak, Don’t Let Heartbreak Own You
Part of how we recover from heartbreak is that we don’t make it this all-encompassing thing that dominates our existence. Now to be fair: this is easier said than done. We’re in pain – literally. As anyone who’s had a relationship fall apart can tell you, heartbreak and rejection causes the brain to respond the way that it does to physical pain.
The problem is that we tend to let that pain define us. We’re no longer a functioning adult with interests and a personality, we’re The Guy Who Just Had His Heart Broken. We make that pain a part of our core identity because… well, we don’t really know what else to do with it besides let it create scars. We end up shoving it deep into ourselves and finding ways to ignore the pain rather than process it. It’s like being the world’s shittiest oyster; instead of creating pearls out of irritation, we’re just creating nuggets of emotional deadness that’ll crack open at the worst possible moments.
When we try to force that pain away, we let that heartbreak take us over. We never really heal because we never really let the process of healing happen. We try to force it away or try to speed through the process or jump to acceptance and our emotions just don’t work that way. The longer we put off the pain of healing, the worse the scars we accumulate.
So how do you avoid this?
To start with: let yourself mourn. A relationship ended; whether it’s because of death, because you left them or they left you or whatever, it’s sad and you should observe its passing. Just as importantly: mourn however the fuck you have to mourn. One of the stupidest things that guys do is that they try to force themselves to mourn the end of a relationship in some “approved” way – staring into your beer like a country music cliche, in stoic silence or ranting about how that bitch done you wrong. The last thing guys want to do is be seen losing their shit or just bawling their eyes out. But if that’s what you need, then fucking do it. If you need to be alone, then hole up for a while. If you need to rant and rave for a bit so that you can get your catharsis, then do so. If you need to cry, then grab some kleenex and a blanket and have it it until your eyes run dry. The only bad ways to deal with a break up are ways that end up hurting people – either yourself or others. Drinking yourself into a stupor so you don’t feel any more is harmful; you’re numbing yourself, not processing. That ranting and raving I mentioned earlier? Doing it in public can be harmful – not because you shouldn’t have feelings about the matter but because you’re inevitably going to say things that can’t be taken back and other folks don’t need to hear that.
But regardless of the form your mourning takes, you need to remember that it’s not forever. As hard as it is to see in the moment – and trust me, I’ve had more heartbreaks than you’ve had hot dinners – it’s a temporary situation. It will get better – it may take a long-ass time to do so, but you will recover as long as you’re not constantly picking at the scab.
That’s why the next stage is:
Take Ownership, Not Blame
Part of effective healing means understanding what happened. This can be incredibly difficult because… well, sometimes you don’t know what happened. Some heartbreaks come screaming out of the wild blue nowhere and smack you upside the head. Other times you may have a great idea of just what happened and it cuts you to ribbons. Still other times you know what happened, but it’s objectively not your fault. And still other times, you may have one idea about what happened, but your ex has a very different idea and you’re both stuck in a passive-aggressive edition of Rashomon where everybody has their version and none of it makes sense.
The key to healing from a heartbreak is that regardless of how it happened, you take ownership of your part in it, rather than blame. Confused? It’s understandable – blaming yourself (or others) can feel like taking ownership. More often than not, however, blame is a way of picking at the scab, finding reasons to stay angry. Ownership is understanding what you did. Blame is beating yourself up for it. For example, if your ex cheated on you, the act is on them… but recognizing why they did it can help you heal. Maybe it had something to do with you, and maybe it didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that you need to beat yourself up because you drove them into the arms of someone else; that’s just blame. Taking ownership, however, means accepting that what happened, happened. Maybe you contributed. Maybe you didn’t. Either way, taking ownership can help you recognize similar issues in future relationships and head them off at the pass.
From my personal files, when I had one of my ugliest break-ups, I took blame. I thought I just wasn’t good enough and got dumped because I was a loser. That led me to a downward spiral that I didn’t pull out of for years. It is only retrospect that I was able to take ownership. I eventually realized that I wasn’t in position to actually be in a relationship and that I’d ignored many, many signals that we weren’t on the same page. There was no good guy or bad guy, just someone who wasn’t ready trying to get something from somebody who wasn’t able to give it. It was recognizing this that let me put the pain of that relationship behind me and finally let that particular hole in my heart close up.
Sometimes you’ll be in a position to actually get your ex’s perspective on things. Most of the time you won’t, and to be perfectly honest, that’s OK. Your ex isn’t obligated to be part of your healing process or provide you with closure. You have to be responsible for your own emotional growth. Sometimes you’ll be in a place where you’ll be able to move past blame right away. Other times, it may take time and distance to get the necessary perspective. That’s ok too; nobody’s saying that you need to do this on a set schedule. The key is simply to be willing to accept what happened rather than indulging in some form of emotional self-flagellation.
Practice Effective Self Care
Taking care of yourself in the aftermath of a heartbreak is important. Doing things that help ease your pain and remind you that life’s worth living at a time when you feel lower than a snake’s ass in a drainage ditch is a critical part of sandpapering the edges off your misery.
At the same time however, there’s self care and there’s self care. A little pampering or self-indulgence is fine but that’s not the same thing as taking care of yourself. So by all means, have your favorite comfort food or a really good beer or just park yourself on a couch to marathon season 2 of Daredevil while you try to pretend that it doesn’t feel like your world’s ending. But that’s not the end-all/be-all of self care. Sometimes self-care means getting out of your pillow fort and handling your shit like a goddamn adult.
As tempting as it can be, self-indulgence can turn into wallowing in a heartbeat and that actually will make things worse. The human body can only take so much high-fructose corn syrup, empty calories and self-pity before it starts to break down. Similarly, abandoning your life to cocoon until the hurt goes away has severely diminishing returns before it goes into negatives. So as paradoxical as it may seem, part of taking care of yourself means doing a lot of the things you’re avoiding. To start with: clean your place. Your living space tends to be an outward reflection of your emotional state and that turns into a self-perpetuating cycle in no time at all. Cleaning your pad is one of the first steps to emotional recovery; at the very least, it means you’re going to feel like you’ve done something productive. If you’re going to wallow, you can wallow in a clean apartment.
Along the same lines: eat clean. Yeah, all that sugar and salt and grease and fat shoot straight to the pleasure centers of your brain, but the crash that comes with it is going to make you feel like ten pounds of ass in a five pound sack. When you’re sweating a week’s worth of pizza grease – no matter how amazingly delicious it may have been – you’re going to feel like the lowest of the low. Taking the time to mix in some salads or chicken breasts with broccoli or even just soup (not instant ramen) that isn’t packing 90% of your daily allotment of sodium may not be desirable in the moment, but it’s going to do wonders for how your body will react. Think of it like cleaning out your guts to match your clean apartment. You’re doing something positive for yourself, rather than just indulging your id and it puts you in a better position to bounce back when your mourning period is done.
You also want to move. I’m a big fan of exercise as part of recovering from heartbreak, but you don’t necessarily need to start hitting the gym as part of your recovery process. Simply moving can make a huge difference. Laying on the couch like a slug may feel temping in the moment – after all, it’s kind of hard to motivate yourself when you feel like the universe just kicked your soul in the nuts – but that lack of movement can make you feel worse. Our bodies were built to move, not for sitting still. Getting up and moving around, even if it’s just going for a walk, can help you feel less like a bag of smashed assholes and more like a human again.
Let It Go
This is the hard part: you have to learn to let it go. All of it. The pain, the self-recrimination, the what-ifs, the would’ve, could’ve, should’ves… they all have to go. Holding on to your pain may be the “manly” thing to do, but all it is is just masochism disguised as toughness. Your pain doesn’t keep you sharp. Your pain doesn’t make you more romantic. It’s just pain and it’s going to grind you down.
Now anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of seeing my LiveJournal can tell you that I’m the king of hanging on to my self-pity. I’d whip out my misery peen at the drop of the hat just to show you how much I’d suffered because I thought it won me all the sympathy. Maybe my ex would just happen to stumble across it and be so moved that she’d come back to me (SPOILER ALERT: she didn’t) or other women would see the pain in my romantic soul and want to heal it with their vajeens (SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t).
Not surprisingly, I was also absolutely insufferable during this period. It was all about me-me-me-me-me, notice me, witness me, feel sorry for me because my suffering makes me special.
Letting go is a critical part of healing from your heartbreak. Holding on to the pain – not the memories or the good times but the pain – past the point of healing – is just emotional masturbation. It’s picking at the scars so people think your wounds are stigmata instead. Sometimes it’s even sadder – an attempt to hold on to someone who clearly doesn’t want to be part of your life any more. Letting go and accepting that this part of your life is over is important because it’s how you mark that a new part of your life has begun. Maybe it’s not the one that you were hoping for or even one that you wanted,. But it’s happening regardless, and the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can take charge of it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you need to pretend that the loss doesn’t hurt or that you don’t miss your ex or that the heartbreak didn’t happen. But accepting it and being willing to put it behind you is the point of healing. It’s part of how you realize that you may have been hurt, but you’re not broken.
Oh and one more thing:
You Can’t Avoid Pain
There’s a tendency among people who’ve suffered from an ugly heartbreak to try to turtle up and avoid the pain. To be so afraid of being hurt again that they avoid anything that might lead to getting hurt again. Maybe it means that you don’t let yourself get back out in the dating scene. Maybe it means that you hold yourself back from connecting with others. Maybe it means you’re doubly or triply cautious in order to avoid heartbreak again.
The problem is that in trying to insulate yourself against pain you’re actually insulating yourself against joy. Pain and pleasure are sides of the same coin, and trying to escape one means you’re not going to be able to experience the other. In fact, paradoxically, in trying to avoid pain, you’re putting yourself in a position to experience more of it. When you’re holding back for fear of being hurt, you’re going to push people away who might want to connect with you. And if you’re ok with that trade off, that’s fine; but you have to own it and accept that you’re choosing to be alone.
You may be hoping for someone who’ll see your beautiful soul and just keep pushing so they can heal you with their love… but the real world doesn’t work like that. Nobody has time to fix someone else’s life; they’ve got enough problems handling their own. And when you realize that you’ve pushed away someone who was right for you if you’d just pulled your head out of your ass, it’ll be too late. They’ll have moved on without you… and you’ll be back at the beginning of the same damn cycle.
There’s a term in Japanese that I like: kintsugi. It’s the idea expressed in lacquerware that’s been repaired and dusted with gold to emphasize the cracks. The idea is that something’s flaws – its history one might say – make it more beautiful for having gone through it. Yeah, you’ve had your heart broken. But you’ve recovered. You’ve got your scars and your cracks, but that doesn’t mean that you’re flawed; it’s part of what makes you uniquely you and that’s a good thing.
You may hurt. But you’re not broken. You’ll make it through and love again. You may be going through heartbreak… but you’ll heal, better than before.