Chapter 1.Relationships: Breaking Up & Heartbreak


The Feeling of Being Back in Love with the Person You’re About to Leave

Over the years, it’s been so difficult with our partner. There’s been a long history of harsh words, accusations, insults, shouting, slammed doors, resentments and aggressive silences. 

It all culminated, sensibly enough, in a decision to leave. It took us four years to reach this conclusion, perhaps even longer. There were hours of conversations with friends, therapists and a lawyer or two. We certainly haven’t jumped into this. We made the awkward announcement a few months ago and faced a long period of the partner’s hurt and anger. There were some truly horrible scenes. But things have calmed down; the end has turned into a quiet, melancholy and well accepted fact on both sides. We’re moving out imminently, things are ready with the new apartment; it’s the last weekend and we’re having a farewell drink before supper. 

Which is when we start to realise something at once deeply puzzling and not a little embarrassing too. We acknowledge that we have started to find our about-to-be-ex-partner – from whom we have struggled with every sinew to separate at enormous cost and inconvenience – distinctly charming. They’re wearing a pair of shoes we like them in; there’s a fascinating thing they do with their eyes when they hold their head on one side and shoot a glance at us. We sense their inherent kindness in the way they discuss a mutual acquaintance; their dignity and intelligence is present in their manner of arranging objects around the living room. They say something wry and sharp about an idea they’ve read in the paper; their mind is a very fine thing. They mention they’re going for a walk later to pick up some wine, with no assumption that we’ll want to accompany them. But we do. They’re extremely lovely. We want to touch their hair, stay longer, unpack the bags, maybe talk to them once more about… We feel we’re having a dramatic change of heart at the last possible moment. We appear to be on the cusp of realising that we’ve made a terrible mistake: it’s wholly bizarre and contrary to everything we could have predicted but we’re experiencing a powerful attraction to the person we’ve done everything to try to leave.

What is going on? Is it a genuine reawakening of love and evidence that, if we were to cancel our plans and move back together again, we would now truly be much happier? Or is this a devilish delusion arising from a temporary mental imbalance with no possible import on reality?

We might decode our feelings as follows: we are developing a last-minute crush on the person we’re leaving. 

A classic literary description of a crush can be found in the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s novel, The Torrents of Spring, published in 1872. It tells the story of a man who – on the way to the station on a warm spring day – goes into a bar to get a glass of mineral water. The woman who serves him has delightful hair, a lovely smile and she opens the bottle with unusual grace. He instantly feels he’s in love with her and envisages a blissful future for them together. He abandons his journey and books into a nearby hotel so he can be with her all the time. After two days, he decides he must marry her.  But after three days, he’s realised it was all a terrible mistake – and he runs away and never sees her again. 

Though crushes are almost universally associated with the very start of love, in reality, they can happen just as much at love’s near-end point. In honour of Turgenev’s book, we might call our experience with our departing lover an Autumn Crush.

The essential feature of Crushes in both their Spring and Autumn varieties is that we are not, while under their sway, attempting to engage too deeply with the reality of another person. We are standing outside, peering respectfully in. We are not in any way trying to run a household, get a person to agree with our opinions on politics or family, sex or work, or asking them to love us in a specific way. We’re not bringing any of our demands to bear on them. We’re merely looking – and from this unpressured vantage point, we register the presence of a properly fascinating and sincerely delightful person. This is a fair judgement on another human, though not necessarily for that matter on our chances of being able to maintain a happy relationship with them; there are – unfortunately – far more lovely people in the world than there are ones we might be able to live contentedly alongside.

Though they can seem like ambitious endeavours, crushes are secretly fuelled by the lowest of expectations. When we are thinking obsessively of a new person, our hopes are running in the background at almost zero: we would be overjoyed simply if they answered our phone call and agreed ever to see us again. We would feel blessed beyond measure if they held our hand for a minute. We are at an apogee of modesty. But, the more the relationship succeeds, the more the criteria on which we judge its success expand. Two months in, we might consider it infuriating or tragic that the partner doesn’t want a certain kind of sex with us, misunderstands our family, puts forward a contrary opinion on a friend or has a clashing taste in interior decoration. We can end up having to finish a relationship not because the partner is awful per se but because they are deeply disappointing in relation to the expectations for mutuality that we have brought to bear on them. 

And yet it would be unfair to these expectations automatically to dismiss them as pathological or overly demanding either. They might – from an objective point of view – be entirely legitimate. It isn’t any sign of madness to want to be understood deeply. It doesn’t have to be a delusion to seek out connection and good communication. Our partner might be accomplished in many ways and still not be the person we should be with. During our late crush, we are rediscovering what’s nice about someone, not – as we might get muddled into thinking – rediscovering why it might be a good idea to be with them.

If we have decided to leave a partner and, without there having been any new psychological developments or ground-breaking conversations, we suddenly find we desire them once more in the last moments, we should beware of ever thinking ourselves back in love. We are merely enjoying an artificial rush for someone because we have – in a deep part of our souls – finally given up hope of ever trying to live with, or be happy alongside, them.

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