Do you remember the pain of your first breakup?
It’s that existential Armageddon when you’re absolutely certain that no one will ever love you again and that you’re going to die alone and miserable with 14 cats. Because 13 would be bad luck. Well, I’m a 35-year-old single mom of three, and I wish I could tell you that heartbreak gets easier with each passing year, but it doesn’t.
Dating after a divorce is pretty comparable to dating as a teenager. You still have to be home before midnight, no one spends the night until you’re practically married, and nobody has the first clue what they want out of the relationship. The only difference is that now you both have more baggage and significantly less elasticity. And if you’re a parent, you’re now dragging defenseless little mini-humans on the rickety emotional roller coaster along with you.
It’s terrifying, which is probably why so many single parents choose to shelter their kids from their dating life until they’re ready to remarry. Frankly, I’d shelter myself from it, too, if it weren’t for those cats.
I understand the desire to offer children stability, especially while they adjust to new living arrangements. However, I also feel that by denying them the opportunity to witness loss and heartache as a normal and survivable part of life, we could be obstructing their ability to develop the skills they will need to endure their own breakups as they grow up and enter the world. It’s an example of short-term versus long-term benefit.
Let’s face it, no one is prepared to talk to their children about divorce and dating. It doesn’t matter how many books and articles you read on the subject, how long you wait, how many psychologists you consult, the force of the blow will inevitably knock the wind out of you. Because, like it or not, your romantic life — your ups and your downs, your excitement and your heartbreak — is now a communal experience. Even if your children never meet your new partners, they will still feel the emotional upheaval with each new scar on your heart. It’s a lot of pressure.
From the moment my children were born, I believed that my purpose was to keep them safe and happy, to teach them about the world and to guide them through life with as little pain as possible. But life involves pain. Dealing with pain requires skills, and mastering the skills necessary to withstand pain takes practice. And there are few other experiences as universally painful as a broken heart.
Studies have found that, neurologically, breakups are processed in a very similar way to physical pain and addiction. They are assigned equal urgency and importance to, and can stimulate the same fight-or-flight behaviors as touching your hand to a hot stove. We become addicted to our partners and can experience withdrawal in as corporeal a way as if we were weaning ourselves off alcohol.
This isn’t news to anyone who has recently been dumped, but it turns out that after being in a relationship for 12 years, I was not prepared. My world imploded around me, my hopes crumbled, and it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. I couldn’t breathe. Not for moments or even days, but for months. I couldn’t breathe for months. And the worst part was my kids asking me why we didn’t see our friend anymore. I wanted to lie. I wished I’d never introduced him into our lives. I cursed my naivete and my poor judgment.
But then I noticed my kids were mostly upset because I was hurting. They didn’t know about old maids. They didn’t know about the 14 cats. All they knew was when Mommy cried they searched for a reason. When I said I missed my friend, they understood and related it to their own experiences. They missed him, too. Watching their little faces mirror my sadness was humbling. And it made me reflect on how common a thing is loss and grief.
People we love move away, they grow apart, break up, have fights, and eventually some of them pass away. It’s inevitable, yet the experience of loss is intense and filled with unfamiliar emotions. And when we are young, we look to our parents for guidance on how to interpret those feelings. What was I teaching them? That losing a friend or a loved one was earth-shattering. That it was a pain that crumbled even their heroes and protectors to dust.
So I decided to change the lesson.
Studies show that the stories we tell about breakups have a tangible effect on the pain it causes. When people reminisce about love in a way that is appreciative and grateful for the experience, they tend to suffer less than those who think of the breakup as a betrayal or violation of trust. This is particularly true if the person who was dumped looks for internal reasons for the breakup.
Did I do something wrong?
Was I not good enough?
Should I adopt another cat now?
So the next time I wanted to quit and fall asleep next to my 3-year-old in her bed at 7:30 p.m. because I couldn’t face another night alone, I talked to my kids. Except this time, I talked about how wonderful it is that special people come in and out of our lives, and just because we miss them doesn’t mean it wasn’t important or meaningful. Each and every person we love leaves a mark on our heart, and all of them together make us who we are. In other words, I faked it. Big-time.
And it worked.
Studies have shown that even insincere positive self-talk in the face of addiction recovery and heartbreak can change the outcome. And the kids jumped on board. They smiled and talked about the things they liked and the things they missed about friends and family who lived far away. And I started to feel better, too. I’d changed the narrative of my breakup to something positive. After I’d told the story a few times, it became my reality.
Yes, dating is ugly. It’s dangerous and primal and sometimes feels like a suicide mission. It’s natural to want to shelter children from the whole nasty cluster bomb. But as it turns out, modeling effective coping strategies for dealing with sadness and loss might be more beneficial in the long run than simply pretending nothing ever hurts.
Someday our babies will grow up. They’ll fall in love and make plans. And some wicked person will come along to break their hearts, too. And as parents, the best we can do to comfort them is to hold them when they cry and remind them that grief makes us appreciate the beauty in each moment. It reminds us that we are alive. Our goal isn’t to protect our children from life. It’s to give them the skills to thrive.
Might as well start practicing now.
Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and novelist. Her debut novel, “A Mutual Addiction,” will be released in January. Read more at marywiddicks.com. You can find her on Twitter @MaryWiddicks.