Chapter 1.Relationships: Breaking Up & Heartbreak


For Those Stuck in a Relationship

This is for those among us who are, secretly, very stuck – that is, who are entirely committed to staying, wholly tempted to leave – and entirely unable to resolve their dilemma one way or the other. We, the stuck ones, alternate between periods in which we manage to convince ourselves that it might after all be bearable and recurring crises when we acknowledge that we are – by remaining – well on the way to ruining the one life we will ever be granted. Torn between intense shame and untenable claustrophobia, weak in the face of our conundrum, we may start to fantasise that someone or something else – a parent, the government, a war, an illness, a divine command – might magically resolve the problem for us; like desperate children, we hope against hope that something might just show up.

But because it behoves everyone eventually – and with nothing remotely unkind being meant by this – to try to become an adult, that is a person who can alter their circumstances through their own agency, we may well benefit from a few ideas to strengthen our resolve:

1. For a start, we are here not because we are evil, fickle or just unlucky, but – at base – because we had a bad childhood. This could sound like an odd place to begin and the tone may sound overly assured as well but the matter does appear desperately simple in structure, however impossible the repercussions can feel in practice. Anyone on earth can end up in an unhappy relationship. But those who get badly stuck in them, those who cannot find the courage to have a difficult conversation and move on, those who spend years feeling intensely ashamed of what they want and doubting their right to aim for anything more satisfying, these creatures are a particular subcategory of humans: they are the ones who, when they were little, never learnt the art of confident self-assertion, they are the benighted creatures who never felt they had a right – at points – to tell others what they needed and to stick up for their vision of contentment whatever the short term troubles that might be entailed. We, the stuck ones, were the good children, the under-loved ones, the ones who were scared of angry parents or overly anxious about fragile ones, those who too early on learnt to comply and obey, to worry about everyone else, to fit in and to smile – and now, decades later, the ones who cannot get up and leave because we would, at some level, and let’s be clear on the matter, rather than die than make a fuss.

2. But however appealling that can sound, the problem is that there’s a small part of us that won’t actually let us die like this, that’s why we’re here, a part of us that – awkwardly – refuses to shut up and be stifled, a healthy part of us that won’t let us continue without the kind of love, intimacy and closeness we crave, a part of us that is like a germinating seed with strength enough to move aside a one tone concrete slab in order to reach the light. 

3. We endlessly question the legitimacy of our aspirations. Is it fair to want what we want? Is it normal to seek whatever it is that’s currently missing: more love, more intellectual stimulation, more friendship, more sex, more solemnity, more laughs? We would, in a way, so love someone to tell us that we were plainly wrong. But the reality is that there can never be an objective measure in these matters. We want what we want and no amount of arguing with ourselves can make our appetites go away or fundamentally delegitimize our needs. The way forward isn’t to call ourselves difficult and shut up – but to learn to honour and adroitly defend in front of others our own inner complexity. However insane this will inevitably sound, anyone is allowed to find someone else’s offer of love to be – in the end – not their thing.

4. We are, along the way, naturally, terrified of being alone. In our minds, by exiting this relationship, we won’t be setting up a promise of a better arrangement in the future. We’ll be condemning ourselves to a lifetime of isolation. It’s a feeling of basic unworthiness and fundamental unattractiveness that turns the prospect of singlehood from what it really is, a minor inconvenience, to what we are sure it must be: an ongoing and eternal tragedy.

We should, to calm ourselves, remember a rather dark but ultimately consoling truth. Though we may at present have someone to share a pizza with on Sunday evenings, we are, where it counts, already alone. What we fear might happen has already happened. We won’t, by leaving, be aggravating our isolation, we’ll be taking the first proper steps towards ending it.

5. Stuck people are agonised to the point of paralysis by the prospect of causing difficulties; they possibly already have a lot of hesitation about asking strangers where the bathroom is. So now they worry whether the partner would ever recover, what friends would say, how the family would deal with it… The last thing that occurs to them is how much, in the end, everyone copes. The frightening yet liberating truth is how little anyone actually cares. Even the hurt lover will recover – and come to appreciate the benefits of freedom as opposed to enduring a constant unmentioned emotional tourniquet around their heart. An orderly life is a beautiful and fine thing, but it can only ever be so when it sits on top of a flourishing relationship, rather than when it is fostered as an alternative to developing one. Better to blow up a home than continue in one unworthy of the name.

The way to start getting unstuck is via a properly strange-sounding move: valuing ourselves a little more. Slowly, we must accept that the point of a relationship isn’t to suffer; that some things are necessary but fewer than we think – and that no one will congratulate us on our death beds for having thrown away our lives. We are not suffering because we need to, but because we have grown up to be people for whom suffering feels horribly and compellingly familiar. We need to take the entirely unknown step of telling the world what we truly, truly want – and dare to believe that we might even one day get it.

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