Dear Dr V,
A few weeks ago, I went through a very bad breakup. Truth be told, I’m 24, a bit of a “late bloomer” and this is my first real breakup. I was out of town for my job and when I came home I discovered that my ex had cheated on me with the guy she was with before, and wanted to end our relationship (we’d been together for about a year and half, I was pretty attached). I look at the news and see all the horrible things going on in the world and know I shouldn’t be as upset about a silly thing like this as I am, but I feel how I feel. What can I do to get out of this?
I’m so sorry you’re going through such a tough time. Breakups are never easy, let alone when the additional baggage of infidelity is involved. You do have your work cut out for you here, and I would advise against disrespecting your own heart and feelings by comparing what’s going on in your life with the misfortunes of others. You need to honor what your circumstances are, and how they are undoubtedly affecting you; I can promise you, nobody else will do this for you. And to be fair, this particular issue is bad enough that you felt compelled to write in seeking guidance, so that says something, no?
You closed your letter with a direct question, and it is one I can answer directly. You wanted to know what you could do to “get out of this” The answer is: Nothing. The only way out is through. I also get the feeling from your letter that, in your own mind, you have positioned yourself in opposition to your emotions. This is to say, it seems to me that you perceive your emotions as hostile forces that need to be subdued and dispelled.
No doubt, nobody likes the awful bucket of emotional slop we’re handed when we go through heartbreak, but this can be a productive time of growth for you, should you choose to make it so. I won’t lie to you and say it will be easy, but I can promise you if you try to avoid dealing with these emotions, either through drugs and alcohol, other distractions or, (God Forbid!) another relationship, you will be setting yourself up to deal with the same mess again in the future, only amplified in strength.
Powerful, negative emotions are a lot like fungus. They thrive in darkness. At the same time, these feelings are not your enemies. They are messengers letting you know that you have injuries that need attention, no different from physical pain. This being said, let’s consider some of what you might be feeling now, and how to address it in a positive, proactive way.
Although it’s a true rarity when one partner is solely responsible for the end of a relationship, being the “victim” of a philandering mate can be very hurtful and destructive. For many relationships it can be a deal breaker, as is the case for you. I think for men it can be uniquely difficult because in addition to all the emotional injury that goes along with a cheating partner, for a man, infidelity strikes at a very deep, Darwinian place inside. After all, at its most basic level, the biological reason we fall in love to begin with is to procreate and continue the species. Now you are faced not only with the fear of not passing on your genetic material (thus “dying”), but also questioning why it is your mate left you. Was your plumage not preened enough? Did you not bring enough meat back to the cave? These questions, of course, move down from their primitive point of origin in our minds, on through the filters of modernity to manifest as being afraid that your partner left because you drove the wrong car or didn’t make enough money, but the fear is the same.
And as it is a very ancient and primal fear, it is a very powerful feeling. Again, knowing this won’t make the hurting magically stop, but hopefully it can help you better understand what you’re feeling. Understanding is the antidote to fear, and I hope this empowers you to face these emotions in a way that is receptive to the lessons they may have for you.
Of course, there is also the complex, searing pain of a broken heart to contend with as well; that awful feeling of grief. And you are mourning something here, the loss of the relationship. The loss of that particular state of being you shared with this person. It’s OK to feel sad, angry frustrated, etc. for as long as you need to. And do whatever it is you need to recognize and vent all those emotions, so long as it’s neither destructive nor self-destructive. If you’re told to “get over it,” “cheer up” or (the one I hate the most) “Smile!” and you’re not ready, you don’t have to. Honor your feelings, but try to keep yourself oriented as much as possible in a positive direction; remember, this won’t last forever. The same way your body knows how to heal itself from a cut, on some level you know how to heal yourself from this. You will recover.
The movie “Swingers” dispensed great wisdom when one character advised another regarding heartbreak (and I’m paraphrasing here): “You just keep waking up every day, and every day it hurts a little less. And then one day you wake up, and it doesn’t hurt at all.” And in that simple but brilliant bit of dialogue, I think is something you could make your mantra for the road ahead: Just keep waking up.
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