Dear Carolyn: I’m 25 and my boyfriend of five years just broke up with me. I was completely blindsided — I had been going through a difficult time at a new job and for a few weeks was admittedly absorbed with my own problems. I was leaning on him too heavily for support. I would have tried my best to make the relationship work if he’d said he was unhappy. He said this isn’t something that can be fixed — though he misses and loves me.
I know heartbreak is part of being human. I know that I’m young, that I shouldn’t expect to spend my entire life with my first boyfriend, that I’m lucky he didn’t wait until we lived together, and that I’m lucky to still have supportive friends.
But we did everything together, we talked about everything (except, apparently, his doubts), and everything reminds me of him. I’m exhausted from feeling sad and scared all the time.
I know this is not a unique experience, but how do I start to accept this? I’m amazed to realize I don’t have any single friends — I don’t know where I fit now. I’m tired of feeling pathetic all the time.
Help: You’ve already started to accept this, you just don’t see it yet.
Your weariness with feeling pathetic is a dead giveaway. It’s not feeling bad that motivates us to reach for something different, it’s getting annoyed with feeling bad — annoyed enough to face the different kind of struggle that comes with moving on.
In that sense you’re also further along than you realize. You don’t have to agonize about whether your relationship is working, whether you’d regret leaving or regret staying, etc. Your ex handed you big changes as a fait accompli. All you need to sort out now are the particulars of your new circumstances.
I don’t mean to sound like a complete lizard here; I understand the intense pain you’re in. But when surging emotions seize control of all your executive functions, a little lizardry can help.
It can remind you that relationships of five years don’t end over five weeks of self-absorption. General reflection is important and useful, but this breakup was coming regardless, so don’t second-guess what you said two weeks ago Thursday.
It can remind you that new breakups are like new jobs, handing you an unfamiliar routine requiring intense presence of mind where your old circumstances were comfortably reflexive. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by a learning curve — and progressively less so as familiarity starts to kick in.
It can remind you that being with someone requires a specific kind of effort: of accommodating someone’s habits, emotions, preferences, autonomy, etc., while remaining fully yourself. Now no such effort is required — home is all you! — which is convenient because that energy can go toward an effort you’ve neglected, building “d[o] everything together” friendships. You didn’t lose everything; you just traded one emotional challenge for another.
Have your sad and scared jags, of course; they’re a normal and cathartic part of a lousy process. In between, though, try to listen for what the lizard has to say: This was unavoidable, it hurts intensely, intensity fades. Trust time and trust your own resourcefulness — if you do, then together they’ve got this, I swear.