It’s so cliché to break up around Valentine’s Day.
I hate the broken, wounded-animal feeling that comes with the end of a relationship I was serious about. Even if I’m relatively sanguine about it, I’ll still get those terrible moments where I have to run to the bathroom and “wash my face” and stare in the mirror and breathe deeply and tell myself to damn well pull myself together and, really, this is ridiculous, I’ve felt worse in the past, I’ve got practice with breakups and surely they get easier with practice, I’ve even posted the awesomest guide on how to break up to my website, I can totally deal with this, calm down, no don’t cry, it’s the middle of the damn day.
I saw the excellent movie “Persepolis” recently, and it has been much on my mind; it’s a memoir by an Iranian girl who, as a teenager, was sent to Vienna from war-torn Iran. In Vienna, the young lady catches her lover in bed with another woman. She storms out, utterly heartbroken. Then she walks the street homeless for months until she collapses and is rushed to the hospital for acute bronchitis. In a slightly ironic tone, she says: “A revolution had carried off part of my family … I had survived a war … but a banal love story nearly killed me.”
That line really struck me. I can totally understand where she’s coming from. I mean, don’t worry—I’m certainly in zero danger of fleeing and living homeless until I die of bronchitis! Yet, despite the fact that I’ve dated a fair bit, I can always be stunned by my own emotions, especially breakup awfulness. It seems so self-indulgent, childish, melodramatic: banal indeed. Banal and boring. I wrote after I broke my neck that “Even with a fractured spine, I’m not as boring as I am with a broken heart.”
Yet really, why am I so stunned and self-conscious? Why is it so surprising that heartbreak feels, well … like my heart breaking?
With this relationship, I ended it myself. Does that make it worse or better? Who knows, right?
My good friend Erica (@ericaricardo), a strong and hilarious woman with a flair for the dramatic, has built her own body of theory on Seeking True Love: the metaphor she uses is “Hunting for Bear.” As a vegan, this analogy makes me a little uneasy, but I can deal with that because a long time back Erica wrote me the following brilliant exposition by email:
And so it may come to pass that you find yourself in your 20s and 30s no longer interested in hooking up or casual dating. Casual sex was swell but the swelling has gone down.
You’re through hunting the small game of life, the pheasants and marmots. You are ready for True Love All the Time. You are hunting bear.
The good news about hunting bear is that you only need to find one. The bad news is that those things are elusive.
The False Bear
Sometimes you date someone and get very excited and happy, and then it doesn’t work out but you still like the person and probably even remain friends. You didn’t find your bear, but you learned some things.
These misfires are not of whom I speak when I speak of the False Bear.
The False Bear is romantic to the core, and the Bear Hunter tirelessly seeks romantic love; thus, the Bear Hunter and the False Bear will feel a deep, immediate attraction to each other.
The False Bears are dazzling every single moment until the moment that they suck. They make you feel beautiful, perhaps while holding your cheek and looking into your eyes and whispering, “You’re beautiful.” They kiss you passionately. They tenderly offer you a glass of water in the morning.
The False Bear appears identical to the True Bear, and so you will not recognize her right up until she says it’s been fun but she doesn’t want to see you for the next couple months because she needs to be alone, and then you find out that, really, she just needed to be alone with her new boyfriend. Or he tells you that he likes you, but he has to break it off because you’re just too intense and creative.
You will know the False Bear because the False Bear will do something that makes you feel shitty.
No, it’s worse: The False Bear will make you feel shitty, and won’t even care.
Do not second-guess this feeling. If, still, you must subject your feelings to cross-examination in order to believe that you serve justice, then ask: “If I reported these events to my closest friend as dispassionately as possible, in words as bloodless and neutral as a good Wikipedia article, would my friend have any sympathy for this asshole?”
Do not judge yourself harshly when you realize you have wasted time on a False Bear. It’s a sign that your heart is open, and your heart must be open in order to find the True Bear.
Good news: The more intense and passionate you are, the more quickly False Bears reveal themselves. More good news: All of the intensity and passion which is so wasted on the False Bear will be welcomed and loved by the True Bear.
If you hunt bear and lose faith, that is in fact part of the hunt. You may lose faith entirely and resign yourself—to paraphrase the words of Alain de Botton—to forever sharing your bed with those who could never comprehend your soul. You might pawn your rifle, move away from the woods, and take a job working at a grocery store.
But once a bear hunter, always a bear hunter. I promise even the most jaded and faithless that if a bear walked in while you were stocking the dairy aisle, you would throw your price gun into an endcap, tear your apron in half by flexing, and scream a courageous YAWP! whilst leaping onto the bear’s back.
What I’m saying is that you can declare bear season permanently CLOSED and still, when life sends you a bear, find it open.
The True Bear—Soulmate
People and culture describe a “soulmate” as a panacea to every bad and broken thing inside yourself, and if you meet your soulmate you will be magically and immediately cured on contact and bells will ring and there will be dancing in the streets and you’ll smile for the rest of your life. Your soulmate will be perfect and the relationship will be perfect and you will never have any conflict and neither of you will ever screw up and you’ll never have to do any work.
If that’s what “soulmate” means, then I don’t think anyone finds a soulmate.
But I do know it’s possible to meet someone who is your good friend, who inspires you, who helps you dream your greatest dreams, who believes in you, and who can make you laugh even on your darkest day.
If you find a person like that, in whatever form he or she might take—whether the True Bear, a friend, a parent, a sibling, a mentor—treasure that person. You may only ever find one. But one is enough.
(Incidentally, Erica is in a happy, long-term monogamous relationship even as I type this. I know.)
It’s me again, Clarisse.
I was so into this guy. I was so into him that I walked on air, had butterflies in my stomach. I was so into him that I wrote passionately about him. My mother liked him, my friends liked him. As soon as Erica heard me talking about him, she said to me: “You’re hot on the trail of a bear.”
Honestly, I have mixed feelings about Erica’s Bear Theory. I kind of love it. I reread it all the time and it still cracks me up. But it’s compelling like a whirlpool; compelling like a soap opera. Those things are fun and intense and draw you in, but they have certain obvious disadvantages. Erica usually writes people off faster than I do, for example. And I’m not sure I really want to call all my most impassioned, lost exes False Bears. Sometimes these things just don’t work out, you know?
And one of my maxims is that you don’t always know what you’re thinking, and that’s OK. Sometimes you just don’t have a handle on what’s going on in your head; and it’s so important to make space to figure that out, to talk it out with your social support system … and hopefully your partner.
But Erica’s also right that, really, if you can’t convince yourself that things are OK unless you cross-examine yourself for hours … then things are not OK. You don’t always know what you’re thinking, but there’s a difference between feeling a bit confused and taking time to understand that … and feeling sick to your stomach with anxiety. That thing she says about good Wikipedia articles? Right on. Plus, everyone loves a romantic.
Banal, boring, etc. There were a bunch of red flags that I worried about for hours, vetted with my friends, and tried to discuss with my ex. My whole body felt heavy with loss when I ultimately broke up with him. He said he was sorry; he said a bunch of cute things, and he said that: “You know what’s best for you, and I trust that you’re acting to preserve your own emotional and mental well-being here. I respect that, and I give you props for acting judiciously when something doesn’t feel right.”
The problem, of course, is that if you end a relationship long before it’s unbearable, you pay a higher cost in uncertainty. Especially if your ex is sweet during the breakup, and gives you “props for acting judiciously when something doesn’t feel right.” Sometimes I think that being super nice to someone when they’re breaking up with you is the shittiest thing you can do to them. It is seriously the best revenge. It’s also the kindest and most honorable thing to do, of course, which is why it’s like the single greatest way to send the breaking-up party into a tailspin of self-doubt:
Maybe I should have tried harder and hoped more; maybe my standards are just too high because I’m an entitled high-maintenance bitch; maybe I’m going to be alone in five years and feel conflicted about it; maybe I’m going to die miserable and be eaten by house cats, etc. You may know the drill, especially if you’re female and in your late 20s. High 5, sisters!
However, the truth is that when I shunt aside the social programming and look at the actual situation at hand, I’m pretty sure I did the right thing. Not just because of the red flags. Not just because I did my best. But because, now that I’ve ended it, I feel less conflicted. Yeah, I’m upset—but I’m not nearly as conflicted as I was.
I’m not certain that I Made The Right Decision. No, I’m not. I can’t be certain, because I ended the relationship long before I was miserable. But that, too, is a good thing. I have broken up (and been dumped) plenty of times, and the only times I was utterly certain about it were times when I had already been emotionally devastated—and thinking about leaving—for months. So if that’s what it takes to be utterly certain about a breakup, then I’m OK with uncertainty.
And so this is the point where I get up, put some really loud music in my headphones, and go out for drinks with my friends. That’s what my own breakup guide says, after all. (It’s a good breakup guide! It also says not to say sad things publicly about your breakup, but I figure I get special dispensation on that, because I write professionally about my relationships. Right? Right.)
Am I Hunting For Bear? Well, I’m hunting for a relationship where I don’t have to cross-examine myself to believe that things are OK, that’s for sure.
Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.