What My Broken Heart Taught Me About Love

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Given that everything we do is an attempt to satisfy our five basic human needs, I have learned that I can live without love. At least, the romantic kind of love.

We hear many things about love. It is the condition that has most fascinated poets and songwriters and eludes lovers of love. Freud says it is merely neurosis. A reflection of our unmet expectations. It is a source of euphoria and heartache. But what is it REALLY? Is it even a THING? It sounds like a place when we talk about “falling in love”, like falling in a lake. “Guess what! I met someone! I’M IN LOVE!” Sounds a lot like “I went for a drive and now I’m in PARADISE!” Everyone wants to know, “How did it happen? Where did you find it? How did you fall into that lake?” It has been described as a tremendous feeling that motivates humans to go to great lengths or commit terrible acts. And when something goes wrong with love the pain is immeasurable. People have ended their lives over the pain from the loss of love. A friend’s 19-year-old grandson recently hung himself when his girlfriend broke up with him. A tragically permanent solution to temporary, overwhelming pain.

With love being so powerful you would think humans would have a better understanding of what it is and isn’t. We know it is an essential human need: survival, love, fun, power, and freedom. The need for love is the need to connect, give and receive affection, and belong. We get this from our families and peers and that enables us to grow into healthy adults. But what about romantic love with the opposite or the same sex? There is a sexual desire that drives us to reach for this. Is that all romantic love is? If it were, there would be no heartache. No one would kill themselves for the loss of a sexual partner. We would simply move on to someone new. So how does the heart get involved? What is that ache in the chest and where did those butterflies in the stomach come from? What steals our voice and numbs our minds? What causes the sudden rash of romantic fantasies?

What I know now is that it doesn’t always make sense, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to. It’s not reasonable or rational. It’s often very messy. Have you ever tried to tell someone who is in love that they should stay away from that person? You could name a hundred reasons why that person is bad for them, but they still say, “But I love him!” (Anyone with a teenage daughter has seen this!) Once love takes hold, it is not easy to be logical about practical things. We sometimes twist ourselves into pretzels to accommodate someone we love or hope to unite with. There is an expression: Follow your heart but take your brain with you. Sometimes, in spite of feelings of love, we must act otherwise. This is where self-love comes in. Sacrifice and compromise are parts of any healthy relationship. However, if the sacrifice is causing mental or physical or even financial damages or stress, self-love should cause you to step away from the object of your affection. Reciprocal love would not want to cause suffering. There are sociopaths, narcissists and generally self-centered people that we might need to break away from loving. (But this is for another article.)

But love is not just a feeling, it’s a verb. It is what we do for another, with another, to express the feeling. To love someone is to engage in activities that show deep affection, thoughtfulness, and commitment to that person. When I realized that the man that I loved was not “loving” me back in his actions I had to decide if it was worthwhile to continue to love him. When the sacrifices and compromises I was making became too great — losing large amounts of money and compromising my self-respect and safety — I stopped loving him. I had to do this with my actions before my heart followed. I had to verbally end the relationship, physically remove him from my surroundings and cease to give to him and do for him. This was difficult because the feelings were strong. Taking the actions of walking away caused the feelings to follow. In this case, reason took the lead and my heart followed.

I needed to spend some time loving myself to repair the damage caused by loving him. It turned into a great year. I wrote, I read books on my very long list of ‘books to read’, I cooked for myself and reconnected with friends. Loving myself with intention and in action made me feel great. The next time a man asked me for a date I declined. I was invested in romancing myself for a change. After a year I was reluctant to date again. Did I really want to complicate my life with another relationship? I was hesitant, but I was stronger than I had ever been before. I knew that I could survive my feelings. I knew that I enjoyed my own company. I was no longer afraid to be alone. Most of all, I knew that I would no longer compromise the non-negotiable things like self-respect and safety. Love should be a sanctuary. A place to come home to where you and your partner meet to share joy, mutual support, and sacrifices that are agreed on together.

We have all heard “you must love yourself before you can love another”. I’m not sure about that. I think love can be pretty flexible. Nothing in life is perfect, but I know that loving one’s self has a big impact on our relationships with others. How we love our self impacts the choices we make. Sometimes we don’t know what our limits are until we bump up against them and it hurts.

Former addictions counselor, empty-nester, activist, animal lover, writer and lover of what it means to be human.

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