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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

The Heroism of Leaving a Relationship

In The Odyssey, an epic poem from the 8th century B.C. attributed to the Greek writer Homer, the brave and wiley hero Odysseus faces a succession of challenges as he makes his way home to his native Ithaca – having defeated the Trojan armies in a corner of what is now Western Turkey. He and his men have to outwit a band of giant cannibals, fight off a six headed monster, skirt a fatal whirlpool, slaughter a demented one-eyed cyclops and resist the temptations of a land of debilitating and narcotic lotus plants. The poem continues to resonate down the centuries because it speaks – in disguised metaphorical form – of many of the adversities and ordeals we are liable to face on our way to our goals. 

It is in this regard highly telling that two of the most dangerous and protracted trials that Odysseus is confronted with are also those with which we ourselves may be most intimately familiar: having to leave a relationship. Twice Odysseus ends up entangled with someone whom he gradually recognises to be highly dangerous to him – and whom he must employ every last bit of courage and ingenuity to escape, barely managing to do so with his life. First on the mythic island of Aeaea with Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, then on the island of Ogygia with Calypso, daughter of the Titan Atlas, we watch Odysseus fall prey to an initially charming, but ultimately possessive and formidably vengeful lover. We witness the grave difficulties involved in realising that someone with whom one shares a bed might actually pose a vicious threat and the shift in mindset – from passivity to vigilance – required to summon the will to leave. Rarely in literature have the dangers of staying mired in a relationship and then of being the target of an ex’s rage been so chillingly evoked. 

Edward Burne-Jones, The Wine of Circe, 1863

The poem leaves us in little doubt that, no less than fighting off a one eyed beast, getting away from a certain sort of partner may belong to one the most significant struggles we ever have to deal with. This is not a point to which the modern world seems attuned. Our public squares don’t have statues commemorating the valour of people who managed to escape from their exes, nor do we teach the art of getting out relationships to new generations of school children. But, given what is at stake, we should.

Unless we are extremely lucky, we will probably all at some point fall in with people who claim to love us and yet will do pretty much anything to ensure that we don’t evade them, including trying to destroy our confidence, spoil our reputations, rob us of our possessions and in extremis, kill us. The reasons are firm: beneath some pleasant exteriors, the planet is filled with people who were very badly treated in their formative years and now lack any of the integrity, generosity and sanity required not to seek to destroy any partner who evokes their early helplessness.

The difficulty is that such partners seldom reveal their natures cleanly. Circe and Calypso were nothing but charming for a long time: they were hospitable, gave good advice, listened, paid for the ships to be repaired, sang songs and put on banquets with Pramnian wine. One can be far down the line before a terrifying realisation dawns: the person I am committed to, share a mortgage with and have entrusted my life to may – in fact – be out to do me in.

This is where Homer’s epic poem, in its grandiloquence, ancientness and solemnity, can be so helpful. It frames in noble and martial terms what we would otherwise risk passing off as a mere failure of emotional understanding or a hiccup in attachment styles. It girds us for a battle, it bids us to snap out of our sentimental haze and to use all our intelligence and resources to plot our escape. It reminds us not to underestimate who we might be dealing with, it forces us to think that a person we are intimate with may for our sakes need to be recast as an enemy – and treated as carefully as if they were a vindictive mythical creature with a hotline to Zeus and an army of carnivorous pigs at their disposal. It strengthens the thoughtful, instinctively meak and empathic ones among us for the necessity of mortal combat.

Not all lovers are – of course – Circes or Calypsos. Many genuinely understand when we say we want to be off and wish us well as we sail out of their restorative harbours. But every now and then – and probably at least once in a lifetime – we will be confronted by something far darker and more risky. We musn’t panic – nor must we fail to panic enough. Good and kind people have been here before and they have succeeded, and we can in turn. Odysseus, battle scarred and weary, eventually found his way back to Ithaca and – if we can gather the necessary insight into what is unfolding and the impetus to break free – so can we.

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