My fiancé and I broke up in May of this year. It’s been a rough ride ever since, both with her and with the friends and family who surround and support me. I’m finding that most people know how to respond to a breakup about as well as they know how to respond to a death: not very well. And it can be incredibly isolating and silencing.
“At least you didn’t find all this out AFTER you got married.”
“She’s clearly going through something. Be glad it doesn’t involve you.”
“Wow, YOU dodged a bullet!”
All of the above statements are true, at least partially. But you know what? Facts aren’t the same thing as compassion.
The Grief Recovery Institute would label this a classic case of “intellectually true, emotionally NOT HELPFUL.”
Here’s how it goes: People think that intellectualizing a breakup makes it all better — that polarizing your ex, turning them into a monster, pointing out how improved your life is without them somehow changes the fact that your heart is broken.
“Oh, I’m better off that I didn’t sign my life away to this woman on paper? I had NO IDEA. I feel SO MUCH BETTER now!”
That’s not how it works.
See, here’s the thing about “intellectually true” statements. Grievers already know they’re true.
People don’t need to be reminded that their mom didn’t suffer or that their dog is in a better place or that there are plenty of fish in the sea. They already know these things to be true (and they’ve probably told themselves these truths already).
And yet these “intellectually true” statements get dished out over and over and over again after a death, divorce, diagnosis, or breakup. People who’ve experienced a loss are inundated with “the facts” about their situation.
The societal myth behind “intellectually true” statements is, “If what I say to you is true, you shouldn’t feel bad.”
Otherwise known as: “Logic and facts can magically heal an emotional heart wound.”
If I still feel bad after someone tells me I’ve dodged a bullet, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t feel heard — and more than likely, they feel awkward/helpless/weird that “the facts” they just presented to me didn’t “make me feel better.” The societal equation falls apart.
I shouldn’t have to advocate for my heartbreak, but I find myself doing it pretty often these days.
Because of the work I do, I’m insistent on following up people’s “intellectual truths” with, “But that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts.” That (usually) opens dialogue in another, more compassionate direction.
Because here’s my truth:
I don’t talk about my breakup to be told it was for the best.
I don’t talk about my breakup to gain the sympathy and pity of others.
I don’t talk about my breakup to be shown how good I’ve got it.
I talk about my breakup because it’s what’s going on for me right now.
I’m not “out of the woods yet” in terms of milestones, nightmares, or plain old missing her. I’m not done wrestling with stories of betrayal, abandonment, or tomfoolish assholery. I’m not finished doing the work of coming back from this loss that so drastically changed where I thought I’d be right now.
I want to reiterate that people don’t talk about their losses to be fixed.
Unless they’re explicitly asking, “What should I do?” grievers don’t want facts, logic, advice, or resources.
People talk about their losses to be heard.
Because losses hurt. Sometimes they hurt for a while. And while grievers know what’s true about their situation, they’re looking for what’s helpful. And 99% of the time, what’s helpful is a kind, listening heart, a curiosity for their situation today, and the knowledge that you don’t need to fix anything for them.
We undervalue being heard, but to a griever, it’s the most valuable thing in the world. So don’t tell me I dodged a bullet. I already know that. Just hear where I am today, okay?