Breakup Comfort Reads

thanks, emojipedia

Obviously there’s much more Serious Business going on in the world than my romantic (mis)adventures, but a recent breakup has given me time to reflect on the things that have brought me comfort and meaning when my heart has faced tough times. I wanted to share them for others who are going through heartache, and just to have them all in one place should I need them again someday.

The first  is from one of the earliest Captain Awkward posts, “The Golden Retriever/Kwisatz Haderach of Love“. NB: I’ve never read Dune nor seen the movie, the post is worth it even without knowing the references 🙂 Among the pieces of advice to the heartbroken letter-writer is this wonderful musing on love:

It’s okay to still be in love. Love is – as this hideous wedding-cake topper excruciatingly reminds us – patient, it is kind, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. So there you are, all shaggy and embarrassing bounding toward your person wagging your tail and doing that adorable thing you do where you pretend that you’re not going to hand over the ball you’re carrying in your mouth and your person doesn’t even want your stupid ball and then the leash of reality yanks you back. That part of you is the purest and best and truest part of you, and you can’t really turn it off. It’s just going to love for a while.

I say this because it’s really fucking frustrating to try to talk yourself out of having a feeling or beat yourself up for having a feeling at the same time you’re having the feeling. So just have the feeling. Just be the Golden Retriever of Love. You’re not stupid for feeling it, you’re not a bad person, you didn’t do anything wrong. You just feel what you feel, and you’ll feel until one day you stop, and you can’t decide when that is, so don’t even try.

For me it’s one of those pieces of writing that I come back to over and over, like a worry stone. Just have the feeling. Just be the Golden Retriever of Love. It’s such a beautiful reminder to be kind to the best and most loving parts of yourself, even when they are hurting. Especially when they are hurting.

Next up is the Beyonce Freelancing Method, a delightfully raunchy reflection on the economic value of romantic attention by the Scottish writer and video game critic Cara Ellison:

This frame of mind has been percolating unconsciously for a while. It’s mainly about valuing men monetarily. I weigh up how much money I lose as a freelancer by spending time on pelvic sorcery rather than writing, and I calculate whether it is worth losing that money. […] It’s all about the pleasure return and the impact on my work. Does the sex, the hanging out, the effort to keep my attention leave me energised? Or does it make me really exhausted and sad and angry so that I can’t work? The first type is worth more monetarily. The second type is not worth it and I’ve been learning to refuse to invest in it.

Grieving and forgiveness are two things that I think about a lot in the context of breakups. A breakup leaves one grieving the end of what was, what was imagined to be but never really was, what could have been, or some combination of those. There’s plenty of pop-psych writing on grieving, but a thing I found very helpful was just understanding that the classic 5 stages “are not stops on some linear timeline[…]. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.” Grief is often a messy thing, but I’ve found the 5 “stages” to be a helpful lens to understand my feelings.

On forgiveness, I think often of these quotations from an essay in the journal Character, which Emily Yoffe (the former Dear Prudence) excerpted in a column on choosing whether or not to forgive abusive parents:

In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”

In the documentary version of Margaret Atwood’s Massey Lecture “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” she interviews Louise Arbour, former Canadian Supreme Court justice. Arbour says, on forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a link between the past and the future, it’s not the restoration of the past prior to the injury.

And it was one of those lines that jumped out at me so much that I paused the film to write it down. It’s available on Netflix in Canada or Amazon in the US, if you’re interested in watching it.

I mention forgiveness specifically because there’s often a rush to try to make nice with an ex, to preserve social bonds and mutual friendships, and that to me often feels like a jump to the “exculpatory forgiveness” Elhstain describes. A friend pointed out to me a few years back that often the reasons one might choose to break up are the same reasons one may not want to be friends. And that’s ok. The rush to be friends is often about one person’s absolution, particularly when it’s the dumper asking it of the dumpee. It’s such a frequent theme in r/relationships posts and Captain Awkward columns that it feels cliché to even mention, but you’re under no obligation to stay in touch or stay friends, and it’s often healthier not to.

It’s not a read either, but this clip of Oprah and Maya Angelou talking about Angelou’s exhortation to believe someone when they show you who they really are, the first time is worth a watch. Or several 🙂

On the longer side, there are a couple of books I come back to over and over as I process relationship stuff. I’ve read a lot of terrible garbage self-help books over the past few years, but these stand out as being works which have helped me grow and change as a person.

A couple of books which talk about attachment styles have been very helpful: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind – and Keep – Love by Levine and Heller, and Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Canadian family therapist Sue Johnson, who is it turns out a different person from Canadian sex educator Sue Johanson whose Sunday Night Sex Show educated an entire generation of Canadian radio listeners. I digress. Both of those books are relevant to people of all genders, and manage to avoid the pitfalls of heterocentricity that many relationship books fall into. Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life has helped me unpack the inner mechanics of my desires. It is primarily directed at cisgendered women (and their partners), but it also has a great primer on attachment theory as it pertains to sexuality that is broadly applicable.

Three books have helped me through times I’ve been uncertain/ambivalent about relationships I’ve been in: Lundy Bancroft and JAC Patrissi’s Should I Stay or Should I Go?, and Mira Kirshenbaum’s Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, and her embarrassingly named Is He Mr Right. That last one helped Valerie and me develop this really cool spreadsheet for thinking about relationship preferences. In Mr. Right Kirshenbaum defines her “essential five elements of chemistry” as “ease & closeness, respect, safety, affection & passion, fun”, which I think is super helpful to read about just on their own – here’s a summary. Of the three books, Should I Stay and Mr. Right are aimed at women who date men. Too Good to Leave is less gender-specific (though still fairly heterocentric) and is in a neat Dr. House style “differential diagnosis” format I found very useful.

On the more seriously dysfunctional end of the spectrum, Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men is essential reading and has been instrumental in my avoiding getting involved with abusive people in recent years. Despite the title, it’s worth a read regardless of your gender as the patterns of abusive mindsets are super helpful for people of all genders to understand.

And finally, when your heart is sad, you can always summon a calming manatee.

Some of my best work

Comedy is tragedy mellowed by time.

–Carol Burnett

A few years ago I ended a particularly unhealthy relationship. With the distance of a few years, a very traumatizing time in my life just feels very funny, and I’ve told this story enough times that it felt time to write it down.

We had been seeing each other long distance for several years, and I’d eventually decided to move to his city. This required my going back to school for a year to finish my degree so that I could get a visa to work in his country and move across the continent. About the only part of this that I don’t regret is finally finishing my damn degree.

Things lasted 10 weeks after I got there. It was the relationship equivalent of constructive dismissal; my partner was at times absent, at others cruel. But he was mainly just extremely focused on someone he’d started seeing over the summer as I finished my final class in university. I hadn’t yet figured out that polyamory is just too damn complicated for my tastes, and I didn’t particularly get along with her – an arch libertarian whose explanation for why she wanted kids started with “have you seen the movie Idiocracy?”

On a cold Saturday in December, I finally had enough. The only time I was going to be able to see him was around a talk he was giving at a local geek group, so I figured I’d tag along for that and then have The Conversation afterwards. When I got to his place, he was the most affectionate he’d been in the weeks since my transcontinental move, and my resolve weakened…

But not for long, because a few minutes into the half hour drive to the geek event, he sprung on me that New Partner would also be there. Well, that explained things.

We arrived at the meetup and I let New Partner know through clenched teeth that I couldn’t handle talking to her today. She left me be. I listened through the mildly interesting presentations, then there was some awkward socializing that involved my trying not to talk to old nerdy men, then we departed.

The arrangement was that my soon-to-be ex would drive me to my next engagement for the day – volunteering at the SPCA. It was a 40+ minute drive, of which I remember nothing.

We got to the parking lot, and I initiated The Conversation, and was met by the kind of “wow, you’re actually breaking up with me” that only those who have dated the intensely self-absorbed are familiar with. I had been mainlining the first year of Captain Awkward posts – he was an archetypal Darth Vader Boyfriend, but I did my best to be clear that it was not a negotiation.

He was quiet for a bit, and it finally dawned on him:

“Did you get me to take you to the SPCA so that you could break up with me in their parking lot and then go pet cats?”

I sure had. It worked out great.