By Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D.
Lately I have had several friends go through rough break-ups. I’m talking about divorce-caliber break-ups—the kind where one’s whole idea of the future gets turned on its head. I am hearing a few variations on the it-was-all-so-perfect-until-she-just-up-and-left-me theme, which I know from years of professional experience is really code for “There were problems in the relationship that I just didn’t want to acknowledge, and I am now so broken that I don’t think I will ever know a moment’s happiness again for the rest of my life.”
It is important to remember that during the shock and grief stage of a break-up, there are certain tricks the mind can play on you. Looking at life through the lens of depression can lead to distorted thinking. What is remarkable is how universal the pattern of distortion can be. That is, there are universal “truths” that almost everyone comes to believe when in the throes of post-relationship anguish. Since the “truths” are rarely ever really true, it is helpful to identify and acknowledge them as a way to ultimately surmount them. What follows is a brief description of “truths” that at one time or another may have been “true” for you:
Truth: Everything, everywhere reminds you of your ex, all the time. Remember on Grey’s Anatomy when Meredith broke up with McDreamy for the first time. She opined to her friend that she would never be able to look at another ferry boat again for as long as she lived because McDreamy liked ferry boats and she never cared about ferry boats until McDreamy talked about them and now ferry boats were ruined for her forever? It is a universal truth that a painful break-up will lead you to avoid, dread, or loathe certain objects, days of the year, songs or other entities because they remind you of your ex. Things that never had a lick of significance to you now take on gargantuan importance. Like now you can never read the works of Voltaire because your that was your ex’s dissertation topic. The Bangles make you cry because your ex had a broken “Doll Revolution” CD cover on the floor of her car. You can’t get out of bed on the first Thursday of every month because that was your ex’s bowling league night. You can’t engage in normal daily activities without wondering if your ex is doing the same. Everything around you becomes a potential minefield of pain. You switch your brand of toothpaste because the old one was the one your ex used. You feel betrayed by friends who still have contact with your ex. You feel similarly betrayed by things like tap water. And air.
Truth: You will never have anything fabulous in your life again/your ex will have everything fabulous. Part of the significance of this truth is the inverse relationship that your level of misery has with the level of joy that your ex is feeling. You believe that not only will you never eke out an iota of enjoyment of life again ever, but just as importantly, your ex is living an ecstatic existence right this very moment that will last forever! You are at home on Saturday night reorganizing your Netflix queue while your ex is out doing something popular, exciting, sexy, and expensive with other attractive people. You see no reasonable prospect for anything different on your horizon, and you anticipate nothing but smooth sailing for your ex, who clearly has only experienced a change for the better and who is having so much fun that he or she doesn’t have room in their brain for any lingering thoughts of you. Meanwhile your thoughts…(well, refer back to the previous “truth.”)
Truth: Your ex’s new date is better than your new date. Your ex-boyfriend will soon be dating Jessica Biel. You are relegated to the fix-up by the person in your office who has a buddy from Kling-on camp that he wants to introduce you to. Yep, that’s how it works. After a devastating college break-up, I came to embrace the “truth” that my ex-boyfriend was going to end up with Mariah Carey, or someone who looked just like her. (Hey—it was 1991—I was only twenty, and she was hot back then. It was before the marriage to Tommy Mottola and all the rehab. It was a different world.) Since then, “Mariah Carey” has come to be the code name for all my exes’ future girlfriends and wives. You have a “Mariah Carey” too, if you are just honest with yourself. When going through and end-of-the-world break-up, there is someone that is your best worst fantasy of who your ex will end up with that will make them much happier than you did. It might be a celebrity like Mariah Carey or it might be a real life hot person that your ex once commented upon regarding their hotness. Whichever it is, that is who you believe you will see on your ex’s arm the next time you are picking up carry-out for another exciting Netflix Friday night. They will be at the corner table looking well-coiffed, smug and delighted. You will be wearing sweats. The ones with the paint stains.
Truth: Your ex was your last best chance. It happens every time—whichever relationship just ended was your last reasonable shot ever and for all time at having a soul-mate, partner, and/or best friend. You are convinced you will never meaningfully connect with another human being– never ever ever again. You might as well get a head start on collecting those 78 cats that will be your only solace and companionship in your waning years. You rent “GreyGardens” and start thinking that headscarves might be a good look for you too. You. Are. Doomed. To. Be. Alone. Always.
Except that you’re not. Remember, this is flawed thinking. It is your grief talking. Once you have known enough people in the same position, you realize that this is simply part of the routine. Do you really look around at all the newly single people you know and believe in your heart that they will be single forever? Then why do you believe it about yourself? You may be special, but you are just not that uniquely tragic. It may have some romantic appeal to think that you will suffer so nobly for the rest of your life, so if you need to hang onto that belief for now, go ahead. I will hold the hope for you until you are in a place where you can take it back for yourself. That time will come eventually. And that’s the real truth.
Image from: blog.lib.umn.edu/meriw007/myblog/2012/03
Dr. Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Louisville. She can be reached at 412-2226 or at KABerla@aol.com.