Photo: Lance Shields
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about a particularly painful breakup he'd gone through recently. His girlfriend had decided she no longer wanted to be with him and had summarily cut him out of her life. Naturally, he yearned for an explanation and some closure, so he confronted her. She explained to him what she perceived as the problem, that he wasn't focused enough on her and their relationship, and that she wanted something it had become apparent to her he couldn't or wouldn't give. In response, he told her he could and would if she would only give him the chance. This was the first time he was hearing all this, he argued. It was unfair of her not to give him a chance to respond to her feedback. Her answer: no thanks.
Often, of course, the reasons we get (and give) for ending relationships are often less than truthful. Sometimes, the truth is avoided because it seems simply too harsh. At other times, it's because the real reason isn't grasped even by the person doing the ending, coming as it so often does from a place of dysfunction (e.g., insecurity, fear, etc.). Whatever the reason, by the time someone has decided to end a relationship, they're usually committed to that course, and nothing the other person does or says will change his or her mind. Even when the relationship proceeds from that point to end slowly, in a series of recurrent reconciliations and breakups, eventually the relationship does end for good, leaving the person who was left devastated. As was my friend.
WHAT IS LOVE?
Artists, writers, philosophers, and psychologists have been attempting to understand love for as long as people have been feeling it. And while the debate over its precise definition continues to rage on, like art, most people seem able to recognize it when they see it (feeling it themselves). What's most interesting about love, however, is that how it feels seems to vary not just with the phase of the relationship in which it's felt, but with the phase of life in which the feeler finds themselves when they feel it.
Most of us currently involved in long-term romantic relationships remember the obsessive nature of what we felt during our relationship's early stages, a love that caused all other concerns to recede (sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically) into the background of our lives. We remember just how fun, pleasurable, intoxicating, and all the other good things the songs all say love is quite vividly. But most of us involved in stable romantic relationships now have also experienced romantic relationships in the past that failed and remember too how much embarrassment, heartbreak, angst, and every other bad thing the other songs say love is, too. To have love yanked out from under us in the early stages of a relationship is dramatic and devastating, often leading to suffering far out of proportion to the actual event. For all sorts of reasons, when we lose a love that's freshly minted we often feel like our lives are falling apart and that we'll never be happy again.
But people who lose love when in a different stage of a relationship than the beginning—perhaps several years or even decades on—or in a different phase of life from their youth (when emotions generally run to extremes), tend to experience suffering over the loss of love in a slightly different way. When we lose love through divorce in middle age, for instance, there are often other things lost as well: children, homes, lifestyles, and dependable companionship. Though the loss of these things compounds our suffering, often the suffering we feel is less tinged with a sense of dramatic tragedy. Most people in this circumstance are better able to glimpse through their suffering the truth that life will go on, that they will be happy again someday, as studies on the set-point theory of happiness have now begun to demonstrate.
When we lose love at the end of life, however, most often due to the death of our spouse or life partner, recovery tends to be just as hard as when we lose love at the beginning of our lives as teens or young adults—but for different reasons. It's not that our emotions run as hot as they did when we were younger. It's that we know our own demise is coming sooner rather than later and our constitution and confidence are often not what they once were. Our scope of interest and involvement in the world has often narrowed so that without our life companion in it we often have little else in our lives to return to after we recover from our loss. And then, of course, we have the entire history of the relationship looming large in our minds like a movie playing over and over, which retrospectively seems like the fuel that was keeping us going all along. Without it, we often feel our forward momentum stall.
HOW TO GO ON
So how do we recover when we lose a great love? As with any loss, we must look upon it as a challenge and an opportunity. I say this without in any way attempting to downplay the intense suffering the loss of love brings. No matter what stage of a relationship or stage of life in which we find ourselves, dealing with the end of love is often overwhelming. But whether we're sixteen and feel as if life is about to end or sixty-nine and know it actually soon will, within that ordeal resides the opportunity not just to survive but to thrive—to alter the very way love functions in our lives by becoming stronger for having lost it.
We can love and be loved from a position of strength or weakness. Even the strong suffer when they lose love—but are proven strong when eventually they emerge from their cocoon of suffering and re-engage life with gusto. The strong know the true meaning of the Buddhist phrase "suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy" in a way the weak do not. They know that romantic love, especially the obsessive kind, is essentially grounded in selfishness. That they craved it because of how it made them feel, not because of how it made the person they love feel.
THE LOVE WE ALL WANT
In Buddhism, the term jihi is used to denote the mercy, or love, that a Buddha feels for all people. In contrast to romantic love, jihi represents the kind of love that requires nothing from the person toward whom it is felt, the joy that we experience from feeling it having nothing to do with any response we receive in return. If our children rebel and cease to speak to us, do we stop caring about what happens to them—in effect, stop loving them? No. This love we bear our children, then, represents the closest thing to jihi the unenlightened can feel, actually becoming jihi when it expands to include all beings. Romantic love may provide the spark that gives birth to it, but jihi romantic love is not.
Jihi is the kind of love toward which we should all strive to feel for others, whether we're romantically in love with them or not. If we feel jihi toward another with whom we're also romantically in love and they take their love from us, they cannot take our feeling of jihi for them unless we allow it. And if we don't allow it, though we'll still hurt—even a Buddha has an ego to contend with—we'll find ourselves far better positioned to recover and eventually flourish again.
Developing the capacity to feel jihi represents the greatest benefit we could gain from a broken heart. If we can use the suffering we feel at losing romantic love to break through the shell of our smaller selves (the selves that might even hate the person who once loved us for hurting us by taking their love away), we just may find ourselves in a place where we can genuinely wish for their happiness whether we're a part of it or not. And if we can accomplish that—well, then we'll have gained something of far greater value than the love of another person: the indescribably joy that comes from the ability to love everyone.
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.