On the value of a broken heart

Several months back, I went to LA to visit my sweetie Gina.

There are a number of reasons I really dig her. She has the same deadpan, two-degrees-off sense of humor I do. She’s smart, independent, capable, and sexy as hell. She knows a lot of things I don’t know and has a lot of skills I don’t have, which is something I tend to look for in people. She’s a lot of fun to spend time with. She planted the seeds of an appreciation for horses in me.

And every now and then, out of the blue, she says something that I end up mentally chewing on for months.

One of the things she said while I was out visiting her is that she is usually only attracted to people who have had their hearts broken at some point in the past. People who are “lived in,” I think was the term she used. And I’ve been chewing on that idea for months.

I think there’s something to be said for the notion that a person isn’t really complete until his heart has been broken.

Which is not to say that having a broken heart is a positive thing. On the whole, having been there myself, I think I’d rather have a root canal. From a myopic dentist with a seizure disorder. Using rusty implements. On a yacht. During a hurricane.

But how a person responds to heartbreak can really illuminate some important things about who that person is.

The easiest thing to do, I think, is react with anger. After all, how dare that no=good, rotten bastard treat you so poorly, right? And to some extent, that’s probably normal and natural for most of us; anger is one of the recognized stages of grief, and grief is an appropriate reaction to losing a relationship that’s valuable to you.

But it doesn’t last forever–or at least, it shouldn’t. It’s too easy an out. Blaming the other person, the person who broke your heart, is seductively simple to do, and offers a powerful absolution from your own hand in the events. Even if the other person is completely at fault, though, there are lessons to be learned in the aftermath of heartbreak, and the lessons that a person comes away with are potent signs of that person’s character. The worst breakups can still teach a lesson about partner selection, after all.

I’ve talked to folks who seem to have the worst luck in relationship. Every person they’ve ever been romantically involved with, or o it seems, is a no-account, worthless, shiftless, gormless right royal bastard, at least to hear them talk about it. I’m always slightly saddened to hear people talk about their past experiences that way, because it seems to me that there are valuable lessons in the experience which aren’t being learned. And I do believe some lessons can only be learned by heartbreak, and even then only if the people involved are really paying attention.

Having your heart broken is a high price to pay for a lesson you don’t bother to learn.

On of those lessons is about compassion, and it’s difficult to even think about compassion when anger is occupying all of the space in your emotional realm. I’m not saying that folks who’ve never had their hearts broken are incapable of being compassionate, of course; but I do think that heartbreak drives the lesson home in a particularly immediate way.

I know that for myself, at least, my own greatest heartbreak occurred at least in part because in some small back corner of my mind, I assumed that my partner and I would always have a friendship, would always come round to being on good terms; and I think to some extent that prevented me from being as compassionate as I could have been, and of working in the most effective way I could have to resolve the problems between us. (Problems that were, to be fair, mostly of my own doing.) That idea that we’d always be friends led me to a tacit assumption that there would always be plenty of time to set things straight between us, so I didn’t really need to worry about making things right right now.

As you might imagine, hat person and I have not spoken to one another in over fifteen years. And I still carry the lessons, and the marks, from that heartbreak with me.

There is another lesson that comes from heartbreak, too, and that lesson is courage.

To me, one of the single most valuable things a person can carry into a relationship is the knowledge that it is okay to be alone. I don’t want a partner who believes that she must be with me, out of fear of being alone; to me, the healthiest relationships are those that are engaged in freely, as a matter of choice. I don’t want the feeling that I must be with a partner; the knowledge that it is possible for me to lose a relationship, to have my heart broken, and that I can still move on and still be happy means that I am free to involve myself in relationships as a conscious choice. I can be happy even without a relationship; that means the relationships I am in, I am in because they add value to my life and to my partner’s life, not because I have no choice about them.

Knowing that I can be happy without a relationship means I can never be trapped in a relationship. Knowing that my partners can be happy without a relationship means I never need to fear that a partner is only with me because she has no other choice, which means I never need to fear that a partner will leave me simply because some other choice presents itself to her.

Courage is grace under pressure. It takes courage to know that you can lose a relationship and still find a way to be happy. It takes courage to know that it is possible to face down the fear of being alone, and to release the idea that without your partner, things will never be good again. That’s the light on the other side of heartbreak–the certainty that as painful as a broken heart is, there is always the possibility of happiness beyond it.

Compassion and courage together make for the most effective combination I’ve yet discovered for personal happiness.