We have a hopelessly split perspective on being broken-hearted. It’s easy to dismiss from the outside – “get over it, he/she wasn’t good for you anyway” – but from the inside it casts a seemingly interminable shadow over everything. No wonder we would all like to avoid it.
But there is a reason why a broken heart is a staple of country music. After all, it is one of the most common human experiences. It is doubtful that you can escape it without paying a huge price in emotional loss and warping of character. You may toughen yourself against heartache by making yourself a rock or an island, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, but only at the cost of missing out on some of the things that make life most worth living – love, intimacy, trust, friendship.
We often think of this as a binary choice between protecting ourselves and being open and vulnerable. In fact, openness is a matter of degree, and it can coexist with looking after ourselves and exercising a certain amount of caution. We can remain open in the right way by acquiring the useful habits of self-monitoring, examining motives and patterns, doing some reality testing, listening to friends.
One thing to avoid is giving up your self – by which I mean your friends, your values, the things you enjoy in life. Hang on to it if you can – it’s a valuable asset and may come in handy if life events go wrong. While none of this will take away the chance of heartbreak, it does mean we don’t have to leave the door wide open to it.
Let us also remember that a broken heart is a metaphor. Not a particularly constructive one, implying as it does fragility and irreparable damage – a heart that is stuck together will never be as good as one that was not broken in the first place. Perhaps instead we could refer to a bruised heart.
Talking of metaphors, how about using an electrical one in which a cut-off mechanism responds to warning signs in relationships? In this sense, the brain could be the fuse box of the heart.
Death and taxes may well be the only inevitable facts of life, but a broken heart is almost as universal and often seems equally beyond our control. Still, even if we can’t determine whether we suffer or not, sometimes we can choose exactly how we do so.
Take, for instance, David Lean’s classic Brief Encounter. The tragedy of the film is that although circumstances meant that “We’re neither of us free to love each other”, as Laura (Celia Johnson) puts it to Alec (Trevor Howard), nor were they free not to love each other, no matter how inconvenient or destructive it was.
Modern audiences sometimes see the film as little more than a reflection of outmoded English repression, but it was not just prudery and the social conventions of the time that gave Laura cause to hold back. She loved her husband – albeit in a different way from how she loved the dashing doctor – and she desperately wanted to avoid hurting him.
She also treasured family life with her children. She faced pain whatever she did, no matter what society would allow her to do. There is heartbreak in separating yourself from your long-term companion and breaking up your family, and there is heartbreak in letting the great passion of your life go. We do not choose our feelings, but, in deciding which fate to embrace, we have some control over what we do with them and do not simply allow them to control us.
The end of every relationship is a kind of death, and each has its own quality of pain, from the anguish of bereavement, to the bitterness that follows a disastrous liaison with an unsuitable partner, to the agony of choosing between two relationships you value for different reasons. There is little that we can do to change the intensity of such suffering. But knowing that we feel the pain we do because of commitments we have chosen to make, for reasons we endorse, can make it more bearable.
Next week: How do you mend a broken heart?
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England. Stephen Grosz returns in two weeks