LESSONS IN HEARTBREAK
WHAT CAN YOU LEARN FROM THE FAILED RELATIONSHIPS YOU HAVE LEFT BEHIND? ALEXANDRA JONES WENT TO COUPLES THERAPY, ALONE, TO FIND OUT
What’s it like to go to couple’s therapy… alone? One writer reveals how looking back on past relationships taught her everything she needed to know about love – and herself
”I’D TAKEN ACID AT A LOW-RENTSEX party and had a bad trip. I’D FELT THIS FATHOMLESS DESPAIR, as if inside me there was a VAST DARK PIT FILLED WITH CREATURES”
Vast and white with exposed floorboards, a huge bookcase and even a psychoanalyst’s daybed – the room looked like a therapist’s office from a film. I eyed the daybed from the doorway; the thought of lying down feeling somehow embarrassing. ‘Do your clients use that?’ I asked. He smiled, ‘No, not really. I mainly use it when I need a nap.’ He motioned for me to take a seat on the sofa opposite him. It was heatwave weather in Berlin and I was there to do relationship therapy. If I hadn’t been so unhappy, I would have found it funny – like ‘ha ha, a single person doing relationship therapy’. But mainly I just wanted to die. I’d booked a depressing Airbnb and a week with a couple’s therapist who offered intensive courses (‘great for singles too’, it said on the website) meant to examine and understand patterns of behaviour across my many failed relationships. A friend, also in her early thirties, but single for different reasons, had recently done a similar thing. The therapist was one I’d interviewed several times for work, who always gave reassuringly no-nonsense advice. That is what I felt I needed – an impartial person who could cut through the emotional noise. At 3O, I’d had relationships with some great men, but none of them had worked out. If the men were indeed great, I began to wonder whether the problem was me. I was both impulsive and anxious, which didn’t always make for an easy combination in a relationship. And then there was the despair. A few months before the last break-up, the one that sent me reeling to therapy, I’d taken acid at a low-rent sex party (see… impulsive) and had a bad trip. In that trip, I’d felt this fathomless despair, as if inside me there was a vast dark pit, with no sides and no bottom, filled with creatures I could not name but which felt like despair. Afterwards, I realised this was something that had always been a part of me, but I’d never taken the time to truly examine it. ‘So,’ he got out his notebook. ‘Why are you here?’ ‘I… I…’ My mouth opened and closed like a guppy. ‘On email you said you do things, but afterwards you’re not sure why you did them?’ ‘Yes…’ I said. ‘My relationships break down, and I think the problem is me.’ ‘Ok,’ he said. ‘Tell me about them.’
THE FIRST L O V E ...
I met my first boyfriend at a house party when I was 15. You know when you’re so obsessed with someone that you want to touch every part of them? That you want to put your finger in their mouth so that you can feel the seahorse ridges of their soft-palate? That. Things I remember about our relationship: the smell of his bedroom, his single bed, snogging, house parties, holding hands. He was six months younger than me and very naughty. While I worried constantly (that I was too fat, that I wasn’t doing well at school, that I would never get off the estate, that I had too few friends and too much body hair), he was popular and funny and lived fully in the moment, as if there was absolutely nothing to worry about. I lost my virginity one blazing June afternoon two months before my 16th birthday. Afterwards, I felt that we should do it again to make sure it was done. And that was it; it’s like my hymen took my rational mind with it. My whole world revolved around him. At break times, instead of being with my friends, I trailed around school looking for him. I sent him doleful messages, always signed off hungrily with ‘tb x’ (text back). At the weekends, his single bed would become my world. It wasn’t just him, it was sex; the smell of scalp and semen. It was living inside my body, in the moment. It was a revelation. But it didn’t leave much time for friends. I was too busy being fully me, inside our full-on relationship. One night, my best friend sent me a message. Just a few months before, we’d spent so long on the phone that her dad had disconnected the landline. ‘Heya, can you talk?’ I was out of credit and resolved to call her later. I never did. He and I were very much in love, but that kind of tinderbox passion has a tendency to burn itself out. We fought almost constantly. Then, one Friday afternoon, 18 months into our relationship and after another screaming row, he sat me down
and said, in a very grown-up way, ‘Alex, this isn’t working.’ His words were jarring. ‘Did your mum tell you to say that?’ I asked him. ‘Yeah,’ he shrugged. I snatched up my bag and slammed out of his house. On the way to the train station, I felt empty. I stood on the pavement for 1O minutes. I knew that if I got on the train to go home, it’d be the end of the relationship. Now that I’d had love, how could I not have love? I had felt deeply reassured by his presence; how could I go back to being just ‘me’?
THERE BOUND ...
I started sleeping with an older man (well, I was 16 and he was 23, which seemed ancient at the time). He had his own flat and a car. I could get into clubs with him, even though I was underage – and that seemed like good compensation for the live-wire love that I no longer had. Things I remember about our relationship: mid-morning sun through Ikea-grade cloth blinds, his heart hammering next to me, indie bands, a car crash (literal and emotional). I was a nightmare. I used him to staunch the bleeding from my breakup wound, but I was never really invested in him. I laid listlessly in his flat and in his bed, having listless sex and avoiding food. I refused whatever he offered, lost weight and, for the first time in my life, it felt easy. I was convinced I’d never be happy again, but at least I’d be thin and he could drive me around in his car. We broke up after six months – a fight in front of my parents after I’d asked him for space and he’d come around anyway. ‘See how she treats me,’ he shouted at them on his way out. Cash In The Attic played in the background. My parents sat stunned. ‘It’s been a week now…’ the message pinged onto the screen of my pink Motorola phone. ‘A week since what?’ I shot back. ‘Since you broke up with me,’ he replied 1O minutes later. I thought about how he’d said ‘I love you’ as we lay in his bed one morning. I’d pretended to be asleep, simply because I couldn’t say it back. I didn’t love him. His heartbreak was heartbreaking, but I was too much of a coward to reply. The next time I saw him, he looked through me, as if I wasn’t there. I resolved to have more compassion next time. Because I felt a searing gratitude – someone had loved me at almost no emotional cost to myself and it had felt good. It meant that the needy loner wasn’t the real me. I could be normal and detached. It felt good to know that. Since then, we’ve bumped into one another. He’s married now, with children. ‘You look great, Jones,’ he said. ‘I’m so happy you got everything you always wanted.’ Meaning, I was a writer, like I’d always wanted to be. I smiled and nodded.
THE ONE I WAS MEANT TO MARRY ...
At university, I met the man I thought I would marry. He was stupidly handsome and kind. Our relationship was everything: good, bad, wholesome, ruinous, full of despair and full of wonder. We spent 1O years together, we grew up together and then we broke up. Things I remember about our relationship: the feeling of belonging, the painful blue of the South Aegean, the smell of damp clothes, dancing in Serbia at 7am, talking and more talking. On paper, this break-up shouldn’t have happened. But what’s on paper and what’s inside my head are two different animals. The stability of it was intoxicating, but perhaps not distracting enough. Throughout my twenties, the seabed creatures inside me had begun to grow restless. Those swirling things. While I was in the relationship, they were easier to ignore, but I couldn’t quieten them completely. I developed odd habits – binge eating, binge drinking, bingeing on porn, bingeing on drugs. Something wasn’t right in me, but what exactly? Instead of confronting it – because ‘what the f*ck is actually up?’ is a big question – I took it out on my relationship. I behaved really, really badly. For the last year, I was surly and unkind. I snapped at everything he said and made us both miserable. I am ashamed of how I behaved. Towards the end, exasperated, he said: ‘Sometimes uncertainty is worse; sometimes it’s better to just make a decision and stick with it.’ Of course, when we did break up, I regretted it bitterly. I had anxiety dreams where I was killing children. I’d wake up with one clear thought: if we are over, the children we’d once considered having will never be born. Heartbreak is always painful – even if you’re the one inflicting it. For me, the most painful part was confronting who I was without the other person. There seemed to be so much worry, so much fear. Being with someone who was so solid and positive had fortified me. Now, though, I was cracking up. Eventually, he said we shouldn’t talk anymore, as it wasn’t good for either of us. Even though I saw the logic, I hated it. Alone, I thought I might explode from longing. I stared at his ‘last seen’ on WhatsApp: 11:29, 12:O2, online, 12:5O, 13:O4. We saw each other at friends’ birthdays and I’d feel desperate. ‘I just don’t feel the same anymore,’ he said one time. I thought my heart would burst with the pain. He’s in a new relationship now, a better fit. I am grateful to call him my friend – his girlfriend, too. ‘I could have helped you,’ he told me a year after we broke up. ‘I could have come to therapy with you.’ But I needed to do it on my own; I wasn’t ready then.
”HEARTBREAK IS ALWAYS PAINFUL – even if you’re the one inflicting IT. FOR ME, THE MOST PAINFUL part was confronting who I WAS WITHOUT THE OTHER PERSON”
THE ‘EXPERIMENTAL’ RELATIONSHIP ...
In the wake of the devastation, I threw myself into a new kind of relationship. A non-monogamous one. It was brilliant – he was brilliant. He was supportive and fun – we’d eat food and laugh and have sex and down I pushed those murky creatures. Things I remember about our relationship: Rome, New York, Miami, New Orleans, eating dessert with every meal, crying until he couldn’t bear to look at me any more. ‘Non-monogamy’ was a loose concept – in fact, it started as a joke. In practice, it meant we both slept with other people once or twice. And that was fine. We craved a degree of freedom, but the label didn’t inform who we were. Ultimately, we broke up because we just didn’t get on. Every conversation ended in some dramatic miscommunication. I found him stubborn and critical; he found me erratic and ridiculous. Both things are true about both of us. But still, when the axe fell, as before, I couldn’t let it go. Despite having the friends and compassion I’d lacked as a teenager, and a dawning self-awareness, I still felt incapable of confronting myself. I fought and fought to keep it going, while he got more and more exhausted. We finally broke up, sitting in the park. I looked at the tender undersides of the leaves, silhouetted against a deceptive powder-blue sky. It was late summer, but looked like spring – like it was still all to play for. I asked him if he thought it would ever be different. He said he didn’t know any more.
THE OTHER LOVE ...
I was born in 1988 during the last cold, death rattle of communism in Romania. We lived in a tower block in an industrial town in the middle of the Carpathian mountains. The first love of my life walked out of my life when I was four. My relationship with my father was short and uneasy. I wanted him around but I was also, for various reasons, afraid of him. Fear, desperation, love, longing; how can you reconcile these vast and vastly conflicting emotions when you are so young? You can’t. You just grow around them – you grow a solid shell around acid-green, Fun House-gunge feelings. ‘What have you learnt about men from your relationship with your father?’ The therapist looked at me, waiting. ‘That men are cruel and violent and that they will leave you…’ We spent a moment ‘sitting’ with the statement. ‘But that’s not how I feel about men,’ I protested. ‘I like men. I’ve had good relationships, with good men.’ He pointed out that, by my own admission, my relationships had been punctuated by fear, desperation, love and longing. And when they weren’t, I made them so or I left. ‘People often fulfil the narratives they learned early on,’ he said. What I realised in therapy last summer was that relationships can be wonderful bandages. They have the power to conceal old wounds – to take you away from pain for brief or longer moments – but they cannot heal you. Throughout my life, my emotions (those slimy seabed things) had exploded out of me – the good and bad, love and fear alike – but the only times I’d truly confronted them, and myself, were in those moments in bed, heartbroken and alone. Sex felt good because it took me away from anxiety, not eating felt good because it gave me control, stability felt good because I could ignore the emotions, and drama left no room for selfreflection. But alone, with no distractions, there were memories that did not feel good. There were feelings I couldn’t ignore. Now I am alone and I feel good. I have been lucky to have had amazing relationships with men who have treated me well. I have made mistakes, but we’re all still friends, and I believe that says something. I don’t really have a relationship with my father – and the fear of abandonment will probably always be with me. But what I realised in therapy is this: in relationships you learn about your potential, who you have the capacity to be, how wide your horizons can get, how expansive your outlook. But I also realised that, while you learn a lot from love, it isn’t anywhere near as telling as what you learn from heartbreak.
“RELATIONSHIPS CAN BE WONDERFUL bandages.They have the POWER TO CONCEAL OLD WOUNDS – to take you away from pain – BUT THEY CANNOT HEAL YOU ”