Updated: Feb 22, 2019
You lose a lot more than the person when you break up.
In the days leading up to my first interview in Nashville, I find myself reflecting on all of those things we fear losing most when we lose a loved one. Certainly, as a therapist, I’ve heard a lot: clients reference all sorts of things that they’re afraid of losing or have lost after the end of their relationships and marriages. Some, they feel quickly and deeply. But others, they don't truly experience until weeks or months pass them by. For that which we most fear and imagine losing rarely aligns with those losses that come to shape and expose us most.
Loss of the Partner
Obviously, first, there’s the person, and everything that person is, does, and represents. We’re afraid of losing that person: the teammate, the partner-in-crime, the best friend, the husband or wife, the mother or father of our children. The person we once admired for who they were or could become, respected for how they lived and what they accomplished, and appreciated for the value and spiritual growth their presence injected into our lives.
But there are simpler losses, too. Perhaps it’s the smile we saw when we woke up, even after a night of restless sleep and clammy, sweat-filled sheets. Or the text we received in the middle of the day, even if it was only to remind us to pick up laundry detergent on the way home. Or the hand we felt lightly touch our own, even when it was only to reach for the TV remote control.
There’s a way we tend to remember the small and seemingly insignificant ways our partners existed beside us, and it’s this simplicity that we tend to miss and fear losing most. The simple sight of two stockings over a fireplace, or a wrinkled shirt at the foot of their side of the bed, or the faint lingering smell they left on their pillow. Those of us who have left a loving relationship, no matter how unhealthy or upsetting it may have become, can easily remember those subtle smiles, texts, and hands. The stockings, shirts, and smells. And in spite of all other parts of the story, we miss each of them every day.
Loss of Belonging
Then, there’s the companionship and the partnership, itself, that eternally sought feeling and knowledge that we’re not alone in the world. I’d imagine that many of us ultimately partner not for love, but for connection. For meaning in our escape from aloneness and journey toward belongingness. We find someone who makes us feel seen, heard, and known—and deep down, we feel nurtured, wanted, and a part of something truly beautiful and greater than ourselves.
As we lose the relationship, we are forced to redefine and re-explore meaning in our lives. We lose the spiritual beauty and connection that comes from being a part of a greater whole—and make no mistake, those of us who choose to remain together, but feel no such spirituality, belongingness, or magic within our relationship, are called to this same existential crisis. We are no longer a part of something bigger, no longer a piece of a greater puzzle, and we are tasked to explore what kind of piece—and what kind of puzzle—we want to be and be a part of.
Loss of the Future
But I believe there’s something that could be much more frightening than losing the person or the relationship. When we lose an intimate, loving relationship, we lose a monumental part of the framework we used to think about and conceptualize our lives and our future. Basically, we lose the puzzle. We lose the other pieces that helped us create the story of our lives. As a result, we lose much of the context in which we thought of ourselves—as a boyfriend, or girlfriend, partner, husband or wife, lover.
And, perhaps hardest of all, we lose the projection of ourselves: the way we imagined and forecasted our life beyond the now.
When I was married, I “knew” a lot about my life. There was a kind of certainty to both my present and my future. There was a normal routine. A reliable way of life today and tomorrow. Breakfast now, lunch then, time together here, alone time there. I knew where I was going to live. I knew the general plan for the holidays. I knew some of the hot travel destinations for next summer. And I knew who would wake up next to me each morning. In all there is in life that is mysterious, unknown, and unpredictable, I knew just enough to quell the anxiety of not knowing the rest. Simply put, there was a way I projected my life forward, a way that I envisioned my future unfolding. Despite all of the freedoms and opportunities of life and the existential openness that comes with living, I had made commitments that afforded me a narrower knowable path.
For some, commitments can be scary—all of those opportunities I’ll never have, all of that freedom lost! But for me, in spite of those times I may have felt a loss of freedom, there was peacefulness in having decided. In having made certain decisions about my life and narrowed the lens through which I viewed and envisioned my future.
Sure, there were times I wanted to expand my imagination with my partner and revitalize the way I thought about our future together. I’m no stranger to engulfment anxiety—the anxiety of being consumed and overwhelmed by another, and losing my identity, independence, and autonomy. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, I took for granted the immense wealth of comfort offered to me by the projections I could make about the rest of my life.
But after breaking up, that way I projected myself forward in my life—in large part, it vanished. I expected my life to go a certain way, and it went another. So, like any monumentally important moment of life, I was left to ask myself: what now? I cried when I asked myself that out loud. What now?
In his brilliant book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes:
“It’s a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future ... and this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence.”
But in the pain of a divorce, a time when I’d seek salvation most, the solace and comfort that once came from looking to my future had never before felt so inaccessible.
Most of us who lose a significant and meaningful intimate relationship are stripped of these projections and forecastings. We are exposed. And we rarely are prepared for the existential depths to which such exposure can take us. Perhaps we’re prepared to lose the person—those smiles, texts, and hands. Perhaps we’re prepared to lose the relationship—the belongingness, companionship, and connection. Perhaps we’re even prepared to redefine normalcy and day-to-day living and understand that life, in all senses of the word, is about to blow up for awhile. But little can prepare you for the moment when you look up, blink, and realize: what the hell do I do now? What’s next for me? What now?
Letting Go of Certainty
I’m still figuring out some of the “what now” questions. It’s been a scary, vulnerable, and daunting process, as I believe it is for all of us. I find myself considering parts of my life that I haven’t considered in years—other parts of my life that I’ve never considered at all. But I think many of us actually come to realize, possibly only because of our breakups, divorces, and relationship losses, that the desire for certainty that we so often crave and associate with intimate partnership might actually be something worth letting go. That knowing “what’s next” might not be the best framework worth considering.
Maybe, breakups are an opportunity to turn your attention from the visage of your future self to the exploration, vulnerability, and growth of your present one, complete with uncovering all of the beautiful imperfections and deficiencies you've hidden within the walls of your relationship and future forecastings. You can decide that not knowing what’s next is okay, and maybe even a worthy and courageous step toward finding peacefulness and meaning in the unknown about your life. After all, is it not expectation and the anxious need for certainty that undermines our courage and willingness to be present to the fragility and unpredictability of our lives?
While I don’t believe he was thinking of romantic relationships and breakups in his address, Tim Minchin, a wonderful musician and comedian, illustrates this point beautifully in one of my favorite modern speeches, “9 Life Lessons”:
“You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
For most of us, modern relationships and marriage are often about long-term dreams and distant, projected focus. So, on the other side of breakups and divorce, it’s no surprise that our dreams and projected futures slip away. This is the moment relationship loss truly hits us across the face. You didn’t just lose the person. It’s not just your relationship that ended. The visage of your future self, the life projection you found through love and knew as certain—it's gone.
—But then maybe, just maybe, you can begin to notice your periphery.
Question of the Blog:
How did your thinking about your future change after your breakup?