Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The past few columns you’ve been handing out “dump him” advice and, while I don’t think you’re wrong, I take issue with how easy you’re making it seem to end a relationship. I was with my ex for four years, we ended things three months ago and it sucks. It sucks so much. I’m having a hard time. I don’t know what to do with myself most evenings. I try to keep busy but really I’m just waiting to go back home so I can sit on my couch and cry. Since you want everyone to break up with people, answer this: After you break up with someone, how do you move on? How do you get through the pain? I don’t know if I regret ending my relationship or if I’m just not made to be single. Since I dumped the guy, how do I feel better?
Dear Now What,
You’re not wrong. It’s ridiculously easy for me to sit here at my computer and type “dump him” over and over and over again. It’s a reality of advice columnists that “dump ‘em” is the correct two-word answer to about 80% of the questions that we receive. Dan Savage has an acronym DTMFA for it, Captain Awkward explains it as the Darth Vader Boyfriend, but the truth is that a large amount of an advice columnist’s job is to sit on this side of the computer screen and type over and over again, “Oh my God just break up with him/her.”
You are in an interesting position, Now What, because you are living the result of taking our smug advice. You did DTMFA, you did realize that your boyfriend was actually Darth Vader, and now you’re living your life solo. And, frankly, it kind of sucks, in that same way that radically changing your life always does suck.
Staying with the wrong person won’t make you happy, but leaving the wrong person also won’t make you happy. Leaving the wrong person doesn’t create happiness—it only creates space. And that space can be filled with any possible thing. At first it will be sadness and loneliness, then restlessness, and then, maybe, eventually, hopefully, a form of happiness. But at first, you take your slight daily misery of being with the wrong person and you ratchet it up so it becomes an acute daily misery of mourning a relationship that has ended.
In order to completely change your life, to leave the person you love and set out anew, you have to basically take a portion of your life and set it on fire. You have to metaphorically burn it down to prevent yourself from going back. Some people may be well-versed in the art of breaking up with a long-term partner and still staying friends, but I think only 10% of the population can pull that shit off. The rest of us light a match, throw it, and run.
Burning down your life sucks because you’re surrounded by ash and rubble and you’re also on fire. Because, you see, in burning down your old relationship, your old life, you’re really burning down yourself. You’re the one who’s on fire. Lots of profiles on dating sites and apps state strongly that they aren’t looking to date anyone who’s fresh out of a relationship. Why not? Because people fresh out of a relationship, especially fresh out of a long-term relationship, are kind of awful. They’re metaphorically aflame and can’t be any good to anyone until enough time passes that they can put the fire out. But, in the meantime, they walk around, burning, singeing everyone they try to kiss. They can’t be of any use to anyone until they calm down, accept their new single state, put out the fire, and allow for something new to grow.
Right now, you are in it. You are in the shit. You are grieving your lost relationship, you are forcing yourself to try to go out and be single and have fun, but you are also miserable. Now, lean in close to the computer screen and pretend that I’m holding your face tenderly in my hands: I need you to understand that your current misery does not mean that you made a mistake. Your misery is understandable, and so temporary that in a few more months, a few more years, you will hardly remember it. In order to break free of that situation which was not right for you, you had to make yourself uncomfortable. This pain you are feeling is real, but it is also temporary. It’s not punishment—it’s growth.
But re-conceptualizing your pain only helps so much—you are in a place that sucks and you asked me for practical advice on how to get out of it. Here is how you get over a break up—divide your time into three segments:
- Fuck Around
- Do the Damn Thing
Wallowing usually comes first, though some overeager folks put it off for months in favor of fucking around ASAP. I recommend wallowing first, though, because it prevents your hot burning self from giving other people second-degree burns. Don’t go out if you don’t want to. Sit on your couch. Cry. Watch sad movies and cry. Watch “The West Wing” and cry. Watch old videos of yourself from high school and cry. Stop pushing against your urge to grieve and instead give in.
Develop specific wallowing activities for yourself—mine involved doing my nails, drinking good scotch, watching the whole of “Jersey Shore,” buying dumb shit at Target, and curating my Netflix queue with a level of precision that bordered on psychotic. I also: went to the gym five times a week, sat in cafes and drank wine while looking sad and writing in my journal, joined and then quit every online dating site I could find, ate cereal for dinner, considered getting a cat, watched “The Hero’s Journey” over and over again while taking notes, called every friend I had at least once a week to talk about them but mostly about my heart and how much it hurt, spent hours staring of pictures of the two of us, deleted all pictures of the two of us, and spent hours trying to get the pictures of the two of us back.
I sense you are afraid that you can’t let yourself wallow or else wallowing will take over your entire life and swallow you. This is because you don’t know your own strength, resilience, and how fucking boring wallowing actually is once you give in to it fully. Really, you can only cry so much until even your deepest, saddest self is like, “Can we move on?” And then you’ll be ready to move on to the next phase: Fucking Around.
This can be the phase where you go out and mouth kiss/pants kiss a bunch of strangers, or it can be the phase where you just metaphorically mouth kiss a bunch of new experiences. The point is, after you’ve been all shut up in your house wallowing for a few months, you’ll be ready to get out into the world and try things. But just try them, don’t commit to them. Take a one-off class, go to a part of town you never visit, take a trip by yourself, take a trip with a group of friends, take all of this free time you have and do some things with it that make your stomach churn with excitement. Push yourself, date some people, try some things on, take some things off. Get you some strange, however you like it. And, in doing so, figure out how it is that you like it.
Last phase is Do the Damn Thing, by which I mean: OK, you’ve had time to grieve, you’ve had time to play, and now it’s time to figure out what the fuck you’ve learned and, more importantly, what the fuck you’re going to do about it. Found out that your ex is the worst person ever and you never want to engage with someone who’s anything like him again? Great! Make a plan to make sure that you avoid all dudes like him for all time. Found out that your ex is the worst person ever and also you are super sexually attracted to people who are awful to you? Great! Time for therapy so you can unravel that knot.
Do the Damn Thing is the part where you take ownership for your part in what happened in your previous relationship and then move forward with your new perspective and your new plan. Lots of people start a phase of being single with the fear that they are unlovable, that they made a terrible mistake in their last relationship, and that no one will ever want them. The thing about people is, though, everyone wants everybody. People want you. Like, thousands of them. Do the Damn Thing is the part where you realize, in your bones, that not only do people want you but also they should be so lucky as to get you. It’s where you’re too busy having an awesome time to notice that this new guy just showed up and really would like to be your boyfriend for the rest of his life and is also pretty nice to you. It’s the part where you realize that you’re actually through your break up, on the other side, and it wasn’t that bad. Not really. Not as bad as not dumping the guy would have been.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.