Recently I found out a friend of mine was likely going through a divorce, and when I heard the news, I had to pause for a moment to manage what felt like heartburn of the soul. It’s sad of course to hear of any couple deciding to part ways, amicably or otherwise. But this was the first time in recent memory someone around my age had started going through the process, and it caused a flare-up of dormant feelings I haven’t examined in years. Prior to hearing this news I hadn’t experienced a bad acid-reflux flashback since I went through a divorce myself. It’s the kind of heartache that no one ever asks for, but is often given and taken in flurried exchanges of passion, ambivalence or scornful retribution. I’m talking, of course, about having your heart ripped out of your chest and drop-kicked into the rubbish bin.
Alright, so perhaps that’s a bit dramatic. But you know what I’m talking about. The feeling of being betrayed, of being on the receiving end of deceit and lies. Or worse, having someone fall out of love with you. The feeling when someone ends a relationship with you suddenly, with injury or simply without care. A million cliches from scorned lovers in centuries of literature and film immediately spring to mind: “How could you do this to me? Why? What did I do wrong? Don’t you love me anymore?” All of these questions of hobbled fidelity and faith; of furrowed-brows in disbelief at these cruelest of cuts from those we loved which all seek the same answer; How could you betray my trust? You of all people, amongst all those we expect to inflict wounds to our ego at work or at home? You, the person I was closest to? Or to be more facetious: Et tu, Boo-tay? You too?
We can relate to Ceasar’s incredulity even if we haven’t been stabbed to death by a pack of angry gay dudes wearing bed linens, because we understand the value of trust. Whether you are the dumpee or the dumper, it’s a dirty business when someone gets the proverbial rug of trust pulled out from under them in a relationship. It’s almost transactional; as if your partner is saying I don’t believe this institution is viable any longer and I wish to withrdaw my investment. Or more to the point: I don’t believe in you, or us, any longer. One person’s worth has been substantially devalued by their biggest investor and advocate, and it hurts because that investment was based on an intimate understanding. If someone who knows so much about us – someone who knows our accomplishments, idiosyncracies, and peccadillos, can think so poorly of us seemingly overnight, what does that say about our true value as a person? Its easy to see from that point how people might go into a complete emotional tailspin and never regain the altitutde they once enjoyed.
But relationships take nosedives like this every day, often to people around us that otherwise seemed fine. And as good as things may be today, tomorrow may look very different when staring across the table at your partner, spouse or significant other. So what can we do to avoid these violences of the heart? How can we avoid pushing each other off of psychologically steady ground and over the edge of devastating uncertainty? The answer is not obvious of course, because humans are bizarre, complicated primates with growing, changing feelings and interests. The circumstances of every breakup is slightly unique because the history and the personalities involved are in and of themselves so varied.
Many of us feel an upcoming fork in the road and realize we’d rather go where the other person simply can’t follow. Maybe we were “tempted by the fruit of another.” For whatever reason, you can see a point in time or opportunity approaching where you wish to make a change, and even arriving at that conclusion can fill one with the dread and anxiety of not knowing how to handle it. Honestly I think that is why so many relationships end with what looks like carelessness: people just not knowing how to process those feelings or how to act on them and then getting flustered or upset when having to deal with the situation when that fork finally arrives. Now imagine the person on the receiving end of this change, watching the person you love veer off in another direction while you go speeding off of a cliff. Not only is someone breaking up with you, but they are handling it with all the maturity and care of a Fox News host interviewing someone from the NAACP. Or so it would seem.
The point of all of my rambling is this: if you find yourself looking down the relationship path and not liking what you see, the onus is on you to take action. If you see something, say something. To use yet another ridiculous analogy, if you were the pilot of a small plane, you wouldn’t turn to your co-pilot and say “Listen, this has been great, but this plane is out of fuel and we’re about to crash. I’ve already prepared my parachute, so I think it would be best if I move on. But you can keep trying to glide this thing down on your own or whatever. You’re a great person, really. You’ll be fine.” All of this could have been really, super useful information for the co-pilot to have known at any point prior to you strapping on your helmet and jumping out of the fucking plane. Can you imagine the co-pilots face at that moment? A Ceasar-esque mix of confusion, desertion, hopelessness and what-the-fuckism. Sounds a lot like the Ceasar salad at the Olive Garden, actually.
As someone who has been both the pilot and co-pilot, the first person to spot a fork and the survivor of a few nasty falls off the cliff, I know it’s never easy to navigate your way through life. But the worst injuries I’ve witnessed came when there was little or no communication between people. It’s easy to say all of the responsibility should fall at the feet of the person who is wanting to leave, but we all know relationships are a two way street. So while yes, it is extremely dickish to ditch your co-pilot with no fuel, if that co-pilot had up until that point been high on angel dust and clawing at the controls while dressed like an anime character, a lot of people wouldn’t find fault with your sudden departure. But let’s be honest – most of the time that’s not the case. If anything, your relationship has been on auto-pilot as you’ve watched the fuel levels diminish and the red lights begin to flash.
So all that said, if you do need to bail, do it with the grace and respect you would afford somebody who has something you need. Because guess what – they do. They have all of the time of a newly released convict with the aim to seek retribution on those that have done them wrong. They have all the dirt on you, and none of the socially constructed expectations for good grace or civility. If the onus was on you to bring the relationship to an amicable close, your partner has the inaliable right to be pissed off. More importantly though, your former partner will continue to hold-on to something you should value: your self respect. Nobody wants to be thought of as the asshole in the relationship by their friends and family, but really you should be more concerned with how you think of yourself. Were you crueler than you needed to be? Did you allow your partner a modicum of dignity or a chance to save face? If Mr. Rogers was watching the whole thing playout, would he think you are acting like the best person he knew you could be?
These are the questions you need to ask yourself when in the business of breaking hearts. Ultimately, you are responsible only for yourself and your own well being. But communicating and being open about your feelings in any relationship is just basic courtesy towards someone who has comprehensive knowledge of how weird you really are. And if nothing else – maybe you can avoid causing lasting emotional and psychological damage to your fellow human beings. That would be nice. Wouldn’t it?
Well I think so, anyways.