Dealing with a breakup

Have you ever held a sprout in your hand? Besides a butterfly’s wings, it must be one of the easiest things to break with just two fingers. Yet, these sprouts push their way with all their might through ground that you would struggle to even dent with a sledge hammer.

When you deal with the anguish of a sudden breakup, remember the humble sprout and its inner strength.

To many, a breakup can seem sudden. For example, you had plans to see a movie and then have dinner with your partner on Friday night, but you received a phone call from your partner on the Wednesday evening saying, “Sorry, but I just don’t want to see you anymore”. You try to call your partner back to find out why after all this time this decision was made so suddenly, but he never answers. You drive to his home, thinking that perhaps if you confronted him face to face you’d be able to sort things through. But he’s not there. Before you know it, a week of phone calls and visits to your partner’s house has gone by, and you still haven’t managed to connect. You finally realize – perhaps you will never connect… again.

For others a breakup may be gradual. For example, one evening you decide to tell your partner about something you did when you were younger. For some reason your partner finds this terrible and seems to reject you for the rest of the evening. ‘This is strange,’ you wonder, ‘he’s loved me for five years already, surely my past cannot take away what we’ve created in those five years’. Yet over the next couple of days you find yourself getting one word answers from your partner. Eventually, you have a major disagreement and your partner says, “That’s it. I’m outta here.” And with that he is gone. Once again, your partner refuses to answer your calls or see you. Any attempts you make to put things right are rejected.

Then there’s the more common scenario, where your partner simply doesn’t find you attractive anymore and has found someone else. You discover this after he has been seeing the other ‘friend’ for a couple of weeks already. ‘He must be working overtime,’ you wondered when he never came home from work on time.

Regardless of how your relationship has ended, it hurts. You may feel there were no warning signs, but there always are. All you need to do is take a step back and think about your partner’s warmth toward you weeks before he ended the relationship. Can you remember? Think hard now. Ahhh! It’s coming to you. That night he chose to eat all the ice-cream without offering you any, or was it that morning he chose to go to work without giving you a kiss on the lips?

There are always signs, but they are seldom too obvious. Being wrapped up in a dream that you alone created can easily keep you from seeing the alternative reality, and this is probably what happened to you.

It’s easy to look at the dark side of things after a breakup. Depression, though something that you never thought you would suffer from, is just waiting for you in the corner. If you think that it’s weird for you to feel like that, don’t. It’s a perfectly natural reaction after a breakup. After all, you and your significant other have cut ties. You will no longer be seeing each other after doing so regularly for the past few months or even years. You will have to deal with telling friends that you’re no longer together. You may even have to deal with the painful process of moving out or seeing them move out of your apartment. To put it simply, it’s a very painful process and depression is the natural way for a human being to cope with it. However, even if a breakup can turn your whole world upside down, it’s an experience that you can learn a lot from. In fact, it’s something that can teach you to be a stronger and wiser person.

When you think about why breakups hurt so much, it’s sort of weird. This is especially strange since most, if not all, breakups happen after the relationship has already turned sour. This means that the relationship was already on the rocks, and that both parties may have already considered the possibility of a breakup.

So, why exactly does it still hurt even if both parties already know what’s coming? For starters, breakups are sort of like businesses that go bankrupt after struggling for many months or years. Sure, the owners already knew what was already coming, but the whole bankruptcy thing still hurts – a lot.

To put it simply, it represents a huge loss, not just of a relationship, but also of dreams, commitments, promises, and so on and so forth. With that loss comes the disruption of everything that was part of that romantic relationship. I’m talking about your daily routine: You waking up next to him. You waking up to his texts or calls. You going out with your friends with him. You going out with him. As well as many more things that both of you shared and did. After a breakup, you’ll end up wondering what life will be like without your partner. You’ll ask yourself whether or not you will be able to find someone else, and even if you’ll end up alone.

The breakup and end of a relationship may feel a bit like losing a limb – the neural connections are there, but the motor nerves have gone. Or it is like playing a musical instrument that has a part missing, like a violin with three strings.

Because of this, you may even wish that you were part of an unhappy relationship, because at least, you wouldn’t be alone. Sure, breakups are hard, but there is a reason why it happened. It may be because you cheated, or your partner cheated, or maybe it just wasn’t working anymore. It doesn’t matter what lead to it; what’s important is what you do afterwards. What you have to do is keep on reminding yourself over and over again that you can and will move on from this. Remember, the healing process takes a whole lot of time. Be patient. Don’t rush things.

You need to recognize that the slew of emotions you’re feeling right now is perfectly normal. It’s okay to be sad and happy at the same time. It’s okay to be irritable too. It’s okay to feel depressed, confused, exhausted and so on and so forth. Sure, it may be the first time that you’ve felt this way, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not normal. While these emotions may come as a shock to you, you’ll eventually feel these less and less over time. If you don’t, then always take this as a sign that you’re just a person that once deeply cared for another person. While depression may last for years at a time, you should never let yourself be affected by it for such a long period of time. It may be easier said than done, but trust me, it’s all going to be worth it.

Women of Inspiration: Susan Carland

Susan Carland was born in Melbourne, Australia. A writer, sociologist and academic, Carland completed her PhD in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University in Melbourne in 2015. Her research and teaching focus on gender, sociology, terrorism and Islam.

The word I choose is hope – hope is a boat that we can get into when everything is difficult.

Q. What really matters to you?

What matters to me most – what drives me the most – is service. But I don’t believe service has to be grand; service is not only relevant on the scale of opening an orphanage, but includes those tiny acts of everyday service, whether they be to your own children or to your neighbour. Because the ultimately happy and content life is actually the life that you give away.

There’s a great quote attributed to Muhammad Ali that goes something like, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ That really makes sense to me and is something that I’ve tried to live within myself, though I fail regularly. I’m always telling my children to look for opportunities to help, even if it’s just when they see an older person struggling with a trolley in the supermarket. Because, in the end, a life of service is the only life that makes sense.

Raising my children with strong beliefs and values matters to me. I want them to be happy with who they are, but to never develop a sense of spiritual arrogance; I want them to see the core dignity in every human being and to respect that. It’s not about us and them – Muslim and non-Muslim – because we are all people and can only function as a society if we respect one another. I believe that every person is potentially good, so engaging with people with that in mind allows for respect; without respect, there’s an assumption of superiority – there is no dignity in an interaction like that.

It’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt, even when they probably don’t deserve it. It’s about dealing with people with compassion, even when we don’t want to. The challenge is to ask yourself what you can do to try and create the society that you want to be a part of and that you want to see flourish. We must deal with each other with compassion if we are going to counteract what is happening in the world.

I am Muslim. I had a very good experience in the Baptist church growing up, but, when I was seventeen I started to wonder why I believed what I did; I didn’t know whether it was the truth, so I started looking into other religions. There was a lot of noise surrounding Islam – the typical things Westerners and non-Muslims say about it being sexist, outdated and barbaric – but I realised that Islam was in fact the antithesis of what was being presented to me. And what was at the heart of it made a lot of sense. In fact, it felt like a continuation of what I was raised to believe.

After 9/11, I definitely started to feel the burden of the international representation of Islam. I remember people saying, ‘It’ll have to get better soon,’ but the negative representation hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s escalating. But, even when I engage with people who are incredibly rude, I try to remember to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know how often I feel I’ve been wrong or changed my mind, so I have the awareness that other people, too, can change their minds.

Q. What brings you happiness?

It’s when I feel most useful. We live in a society in which there is so much noise and so much pressure for self-promotion and narcissism: ‘Pay attention to me! This is my CV!’ But I find contentment in the quiet life of service, in any capacity.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

True misery is when people have no hope, when they are in a situation they feel they cannot change. But, people can endure anything if they feel there is hope; even in situations of horrific injustice, inequality and fear, if they have hope, they will get through it. And if they don’t have hope, then it’s our responsibility to bring them hope.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would change inequality. If you look at every injustice, pain or hurt, it comes from a place of inequality, of people crushing other people on a big level or small – in fact, I would struggle to find any problem in the world that didn’t have inequality at its heart. If we could get rid of that, things would be so different.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with?

Hope. Although, if someone were to describe me, they would probably say ‘trying’ – the sense of never achieving and always failing, but of keeping going. But, the word I choose is hope – hope is a boat that we can get into when everything is difficult.

Dealing with your husband’s mid-life crisis

Is your husband going through a mid life crisis? He has a long journey of self-discovery to go on first. Start thinking about yourself. You are the only person in this world over whom you have any control. You are also the only person in the world for whom you are responsible. That means you have a duty to yourself – to take care of yourself. It also means that you are not responsible for him or his actions, nor can you control him.

A marriage consists of two willing participants. If he is currently not a willing participant, then you can’t make him be. I’m not saying you have to give up on your marriage, you can hold out as long as you want to for him to return and some of these men do return and go on to have solid good marriages. I am saying that you need to understand that you are not doing yourself any good by continually focusing on your husband and your marriage. You cannot control either of them whilst he is not a willing participant. The only one you can control is yourself. I know that may not be what you want to hear, but that is how it stands.

It is true in all of our relationships that we cannot control and are not responsible for another, but it is crucial to understand this when it comes to a midlife crisis man. He is not doing this because he wants to hurt you, you have not caused it. It is simply a part of his development as a person and personal growth is, by definition, a one person project. You cannot influence it. To help you to learn to practice loving detachment from him and instead switch your focus onto yourself and getting yourself through this difficult time.

EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT
Emotional detachment is a way in which we can truly honor and respect another person. It means allowing them to live their life in the way they choose and not trying to intervene or to “help” them because we believe that we know better for them. If you can truly detach from your husband then you will not be basing your own wellbeing on him and his behavior, you will be accepting that although he is making choices that hurt you he is making the best decisions he is capable of for himself at this point in time.

Detaching really does mean accepting that you have no control over or responsibility for him and accepting that he will do whatever he is going to do and you cannot change it. Detaching does not mean stopping caring, but it does mean stopping being affected so badly by your husband’s choices. I’m not going to claim it is easy, it is very, very difficult when you have been basing your happiness around him. It is however, very necessary to your emotional wellbeing that you try to let yourself be affected as little as possible by him.

You have to understand and remember that his crisis is not about you and it is not aimed at you, it will only affect you to the extent you allow it to. Of course it will affect you, this is your husband we are talking about, but you DO have control over whether you allow it to destroy you and your life or whether you choose to detach as much as you can in order to take care of yourself.

I use the term “loving detachment” because it is not about trying not to care, of course you care. It’s more about saying “I love you enough that, despite the fact that it hurts me and I do not understand, I will not interfere in what you are choosing to do. I will be here waiting should you choose to come back to our marriage, but I also love myself enough that I cannot allow myself to be destroyed by your choices in the meantime”.

It is incredibly difficult to detach. It is also the best thing you can do for yourself. The more you focus on yourself the less you will be able to focus on him. So turn your attention and energy away from him and all that you cannot control. I am advocating that you devote your energy toward taking care of yourself in order to survive and not make his crisis your crisis.

How do you start taking care of yourself? That is such a big question that it can stop you from even trying. Your world has been turned on its head. All your stability and normality has been torn away from you and even when you are able to think about starting to take care of yourself, you have no idea which steps to take first.

The starting place is different for each one of us. Your own thoughts will lead you to the place you need to begin. They will constantly drag you back to the place you need to focus on. Let me explain……. The aspects that our minds dwell on are our own particular demons. They are the places that we get stuck for reasons of our own, they are aspects of our own weaknesses and our own conditioning that come out under stress. Until we address them we can’t become the whole healthy person we need to be.

Let’s take a moment to look at some of the common places we get stuck that prevent us from starting to take care of ourselves and detach from our husband.

BLAME
It’s a cycle that many of us go through, we fall to blame, it appears to offer some answers, but beware, it is a trap! It’s just a way to perpetuate the misery. If you find yourself living in, with, or for, blame, it’s time to stop it. Moving past blame is your place to start. Yes, I know that’s hard, but until you can manage it, you cannot move forward, it is purely destructive. The constructive is to be found in responsibility. Taking responsibility for yourself and your actions, recognizing and refusing to own the things are not your responsibility. One very important aspect is acknowledging what is his responsibility, not blaming him, just noticing and accepting fact. The truth of his midlife crisis is that it’s his responsibility, all his choices all his actions are his alone, only he has control, only he has responsibility. Blame won’t help you deal with it, but accepting that you are not responsible and cannot control the situation can help you deal with it.

SELFLESSNESS
Another of the ways we try to deal with this ordeal is by being totally selfless. Compromising ourselves, our beliefs and our values in order to support him, or win him back, or just to have to avoid dealing with ourselves, is not good. You need to become selfish and importantly, being selfish is really not so awful. You need to begin your process of looking after yourself by wrestling with this demon. Until you can do that it will keep coming back to haunt you, holding you back from loving yourself. Understanding this area will also help you deal with his selfishness in a different way.

NOT SETTING YOUR BOUNDARIES
You might find that you are constantly doing things you feel uncomfortable with in order to accommodate your husband’s wants or supposed needs. Whenever you feel uncomfortable doing something for him or because of him, you are compromising your own boundaries.

This is a time in your life when you can and need to define your own boundaries. Not having boundaries and not upholding boundaries is very unhealthy. People who don’t uphold their boundaries are often thought of as ‘doormats”, they allow people to walk all over them. In order for you to take care of yourself, it is really important to decide what you will accept and what you will not accept in the ways you are treated. It is time to stand up for yourself and protect what is important to you. It is certainly not a case of being harsh or cold, simply a matter of deciding to protect yourself from more hurt.

What if you still don’t know where to start? Those first three examples of areas that might be major issues for you tend to be the most common ones. But what if that doesn’t feel right for you or you just don’t feel ready to tackle those demons yet?

You need to take your focus off your situation and how to cope with it and focus instead on how you are and what you need in order to cope with it. If a friend were to come to you and describe the situation that you are facing, what would you do? What would you want to do for her? Listen to her, show her support, be there for her, take her out for lunch? Whatever you would do for a friend, why can you not do that much for yourself?

Treat yourself with at least as much kindness as you would show to a friend.

Pampering yourself may be the furthest thing from your mind at the moment, I understand, but what harm can it do? How can being good to yourself damage anything? How can it not help you? Try it and see. Even just one tiny little gesture to start with.

There’s also gratitude. It may seem odd to start thinking about gratitude at this point too. I know it can feel that there is not a lot to be grateful for when your marriage and your life are falling apart. You don’t want any of this to be happening, but it is and you can’t stop it, what’s to be grateful for in that? This is where you need to come all the way back to basics and have a bit of a perspective shift. There are so many things still to be grateful for, there really are, and once you can begin to notice them again, you will be shifting your mind to a more positive place from which so much more is possible than it is in the dark, negative pit.

Nurturing emotionally balanced children

What causes you the most stress? If you are a single woman, apparently the greatest stressor could be moving house, even greater than looking for a job or a partner!

And if you had children, child care is likely to be among the top of your concerns. It is not just the hunting down of a good nursery, one that provides adequate care for your child that causes stress, but when they are just there your stress levels do go up slightly, lurking in the background, fearful of a call that says something may have happened. The lack of control over the midst important things is a recipe for heightened stress.

And if you were expecting? Try not to get too stressed.

Researchers have found that mothers who have stressful second trimesters are prone to transferring these thoughts of anxiety and stress to their unborn child. In a study conducted by the University of California, a group of women were monitored throughout their pregnancies and those who reported experiencing stressful situations in that period later had children who were more sensitive to stress triggers. That is to say, the children were more prone to anger and behavioural issues as well as mood swings.

What can you do if you are pregnant? Well, for starters, be a little selfish and look after yourself. Actually that is not being selfish, it is a way of looking after your unborn child and shielding it from stresses that it cannot really deal with. In a dark world that echoes with muted sounds, the unborn child learns to interpret your reactions and feels how you do. How you feel and react to things around you are passed on to the child.

If you just happen to have a stressful pregnancy, all is not lost though. The researchers found that with the correct post natural care, babies whose mothers experienced stressful pregnancies can attune to a calm world around them and develop a sense of calm so that their stress receptors are not overly active.

Children develop in response to the world around them. They physically experience stress triggers from the environment around, but if the mother is calm, then this association and state of reaction is synapsed into the child’s psyche. How you deal with stress as the child’s mother influences how the child reacts to it. A calming motherly influence can go a long way into preventing a child from developing behavioural problems in the later life.

A escape from the day to day needn’t involve much

Everyone gets this feeling from time to time – you know, the feeling of being overrun with work and other assignments or commitments? If you have family and young children to look after, you may find it fairly tiring to be moving from one thing on to another, ticking off the to-do list, which by the way, never seems to end!

But it is not a good idea to continually live under that kind of stress. You may enjoy whizzing by on the surf of the adrenaline rush, but one day that way will get too big for you, all your life may just come to an abrupt snap. We all hope it will never come to that, of course, but who among us is to say we have never experienced that kind of “losing it” emotion?

We can all sense when we are getting to that point – we feel increasingly hassled and fed up, we snap at the people around us, which really doesn’t do any good because it only creates an even more tense situation that ramps up the pressure.

So what can we do?

One of the things we could consider is just taking a short break. I always recommend two or three days. Of course I would recommend more if you could afford it – and I’m not talking about the cost. I’m talking about the time. Could you really afford more than three days away from work? If you are self-employed, probably not. If you work for someone, then you may have two weeks annual leave, but taking three days in a go means you have shorter periods for the rest of the year, which may mean you might be under pressure later on and have no avenue for escape.

A day break is really not a good idea. By the time you factor in the travel and all that, you might find that you really exerted yourself for an unrewarding few hours – you might have well have stayed home and done nothing.

If you live in the city, try heading to the coast. There are plenty of nice places such as in the beautiful seaside towns of St Ives, or Brighton. Just sit on the beach and chill, or do some arts and crafts; doing something away from the usual routine can give your mind some down time and a chance to feel refreshed when you get back to the daily life.

If you really can’t afford more than a day away, then maybe visit somewhere in your local town that you don’t usually go to. The spa? Pamper yourself once in a while. Or maybe simply head for a coffee in a quiet cafe and read for a couple of hours – losing yourself in a good book is a good way of not having to be too physically active; if you spend a lot of time running around, actually this rest might do you good!

You have to look after yourself so you can give to others more. This is especially true if you have children. Sure, you must run after them and they are your responsibility, but if you give yourself fully to your children and don’t reserve a tiny smidgen for yourself, you will be run down, ill, and have nothing to give – and no good to your children.

So take a bit of time for yourself. It need not cost much in terms of time or money. But choose activities that relax you, not ones that cause you even further stress. If a holiday de-stresses you, go for it. But if the packing and planning for the holiday causes you so much that the holiday is merely to recover from the planning itself, then try another activity instead!

 

Women of Inspiration: Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of twenty-three books in her native Spanish, which have been translated into thirty-five languages. Her award-winning works include The House of the Spirits, City of the Beasts and the international bestseller, Paula.

Allende has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Chilean National Prize for Literature and the 2014 United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996 – in memory of her daughter, Paula – Allende established the Isabel Allende Foundation to support initiatives aimed at preserving the rights of women and children.

‘People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything.’

Q. What really matters to you?

It’s people – women especially. I have been a feminist – a feminine feminist – all my life, and my main mission has been to care for women; I have a foundation that works for the empowerment of women and girls. Justice matters to me. And stories – I love to listen to people’s stories.

Q. What brings you happiness?

Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

On a universal level – speaking outwardly – I would say that there are many depths of misery, but the worst is probably slavery. When you are a victim of absolute power and are living in constant fear, that is the worst.

On a personal level, I would say that the lowest depth of misery is when something happens to your child and you have absolutely no power to control it. It is when your child is behind a door and you don’t know what someone is doing to her – when you have no say, when you can’t be there and when you can’t even touch her.

My daughter, Paula, had a rare genetic condition called porphyria, which my son and my grandchildren also have. It is manageable and should not be lethal at all. Paula took very good care of herself but, when she was newly married and living in Madrid, she had a porphyria crisis. She went to the hospital, and they f**ked up the whole thing: they gave her the wrong drugs so she fell into a coma, then they didn’t monitor the coma, then they tried to hide their negligence.

For five months, I lived in the corridors of the hospital waiting for them to bring my daughter back to me, and everybody kept promising that she would open her eyes and recover. She suffered severe brain damage. By the time they admitted this and gave me back my daughter, I decided to bring her back to the United States. She was married, but her husband was a young man who couldn’t take care of her. I told him that, in her condition, she was like a newborn baby. I said, ‘Give her back to me.’ He did – that’s something that I will always be grateful for. I was able to bring her back to California on a commercial flight – today that would be impossible, but this was before 9/11. I sectioned off a part of the plane, and we flew with a nurse and all the necessary equipment.

But how do you come into a country with a person who can’t apply for a visa? We came to Washington, DC, where Senator Ted Kennedy sent two people from his staff to wait for me at the airport – I don’t know how, but they got us in. When we got to California, we went directly to the hospital. After a month, it was absolutely certain that Paula wasn’t going to react to anything. She was in a vegetative state, so I brought her home and decided that I would take care of her – because that’s what mothers do. I created a little hospital in the house, and I trained myself – we had her there until she died.

That experience, culminating in Paula’s death, changed me completely. It happened when I turned fifty, which is the end of youth. Menopause followed, so it hit me at a moment when I was ready to change, to finally mature. Up to that point, I had been an internal adolescent. It made me throw everything that was not essential in my life overboard. I let go of everything. With Paula, for example, I let go of her voice, of her charm, of her humour. I cut her hair short, then, eventually, I let go of her body and her spirit, then everything was gone. I learned the lesson that I am not in control.

People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything. When we go, we have nothing and we can take nothing with us. Paula gave me many gifts: the gift of generosity, the gift of patience and the gift of letting go – of acceptance.

Because there are things you can’t change: I couldn’t change the military coup in Chile or the terror brought about by Pinochet; I can’t change Trump; I can’t change the fate of my grandchildren; I can’t change Paula’s death; I can’t even change my dog!

Now, no matter what happens, it is nothing by comparison to the experience of Paula’s death. I loved my husband intensely, for many, many years, but two years ago we separated. When people wanted to commiserate, I thought, ‘This is not even 10 per cent of what I went through with Paula.’ Nothing could be so brutal, to me, at least. It gave me freedom, in a way. It gave me strength and an incredible resilience I never had before.

Prior to that, many things could have wiped me out. ‘Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.’

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would change the patriarchy – end it! All my life, I have worked towards a more egalitarian world, one in which both men and women are managing our global society – a place in which feminine values are as important as masculine values.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with? Generosity. Years ago, my therapist said that I had very low self-esteem. He told me to go to ten people and ask them to write five things about me – whatever they wanted. It was a very difficult thing to request from people; it seemed like an exercise in vanity and narcissism, but I did it. Everybody mentioned generosity as my first trait, so maybe there is something true in that. The mantra of my foundation is, ‘What is the most generous thing to do?’ This is because of my daughter. She was a very special person and a psychologist. Whenever I was going through something trying, she would ask me what the most generous action I could take was. She used to say, ‘You only have what you give.’

Choosing a partner for life

How do we choose the people we fall in love with? The Romantic answer is that our instincts naturally guide us to individuals who are kind and good for us. Love is a sort of ecstasy that descends when we feel ourselves in the presence of a benign and nourishing soul, who will answer our emotional needs, understand our sadness and strengthen us for the hard tasks of our lives. In order to locate our lover, we must let our instincts carry us along, taking care never to impede them through pedantic psychological analysis and introspection or else considerations of status, wealth or lineage. Our feelings will tell us clearly enough when we have reached our destiny. To ask someone with any degree of rigour why exactly they have chosen a particular partner is – in the Romantic worldview – simply an unnecessary and offensive misunderstanding of love: true love is an instinct that accurately settles on those with a capacity to make us content.

The Romantic attitude sounds warm and kind. Its originators certainly imagined that it would bring an end to the sort of unhappy relationships previously brokered by parents and society. The only difficulty is that our obedience to instinct has, very often, proved to be a disaster of its own. Respecting the special feelings we get around certain people in nightclubs and train stations, parties and websites appears not to have led us to be any happier in our unions than a medieval couple shackled into marriage by two royal courts keen to preserve the sovereignty of a slice of ancestral land. ‘Instinct’ has been little better than ‘calculation’ in underwriting the quality of our love stories.

Romanticism would not at this point, however, give up the argument quite so easily. It would simply ascribe the difficulties we often have in love to not having looked hard enough for that central fixture of Romantic reverie: the right person. This being is inevitably still out there (every soul must have its soulmate, Romanticism assures us), it is just that we haven’t managed to track them down – yet. So we must continue the search, with all the technology and tenacity necessary, and maybe, once the divorce has come through and the house has been sold, we’ll get it right.

But there’s another school of thought, this one influenced by psychoanalysis, which challenges the notion that instinct invariably draws us to those who will make us happy. The theory insists that we don’t fall in love first and foremost with those who care for us in ideal ways, we fall in love with those who care for us in familiar ways. Adult love emerges from a template of how we should be loved that was created in childhood and is likely to be entwined with a range of problematic compulsions that militate in key ways against our chances of growth.

We may believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood – and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on was confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right – in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable – given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearned. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.

Psychoanalysis calls the process whereby we identify our partners ‘object choice’ – and recommends that we try to understand the factors semi-consciously governing our attractions in order to interrupt the unhealthier patterns that might be at play. Our instincts – our strong undercurrents of attraction and revulsion – stem from complicated experiences we had when we were far too young to understand them, and which linger in the antechambers of our minds.

Psychoanalysis doesn’t wish to suggest that everything about our attractions will be deformed. We may have quite legitimate aspirations to positive qualities: intelligence, charm, generosity … But we are also liable to be fatefully drawn towards trickier tendencies: someone who is often absent, or treats us with a little disdain, or needs to be surrounded all the time by friends, or cannot master their finances.

However paradoxical it can sound, without these tricky behaviours we may simply not be able to feel passionate or tender with someone.

Alternatively, we may have been so traumatised by a parental figure that we cannot approach any partner who shares qualities with them of any kind, even ones disconnected from their negative sides. We might, in love, be rigidly intolerant of anyone who is intelligent, or punctual or interested in science, simply because these were the traits of someone who caused us a great deal of difficulty early on. To choose our partners wisely, we need to tease out how our compulsions to suffering or our rigid flights from trauma may be playing themselves out in our feelings of attraction.

A useful starting place is to ask ourselves (perhaps in the company of a large sheet of paper, a pen and a free afternoon) what sort of people really put us off. Revulsion and disgust are useful first guides because we are likely to recognise that some of the traits that make us shiver are not objectively negative and yet feel to us distinctly off-putting. We might, for example, sense that someone who asks us too much about ourselves, or is very tender or dependable, will seem eerie and boring. And we might equally well, along the way, recognise that a degree of cruelty or distance belong to an odd list of the things we appear genuinely to need in order to love.

The myth of Romantic love

To fall in love with someone feels like such a personal and spontaneous process, it can sound strange – and even rather insulting – to suggest that something else (we might call it society or culture) may be playing a covert, critical role in governing our relationships in their most intimate moments.

Yet the history of humanity shows us so many varied approaches to love, so many different assumptions about how couples are supposed to get together and so many distinctive ways of interpreting feelings, we should perhaps accept with a degree of grace that the way we go about our relationships must in practice owe rather a lot to the prevailing environment beyond our bedrooms. Our loves unfold against a cultural backdrop that creates a powerful sense of what is ‘normal’ in love; it subtly directs us as to where we should place our emotional emphases, it teaches us what to value, how to approach conflicts, what to get excited about, when to tolerate and what we can be legitimately incensed by. Love has a history and we ride – sometimes rather helplessly – on its currents.

Since around 1750, we have been living in a highly distinctive era in the history of love that we can call Romanticism. Romanticism emerged as an ideology in Europe in the mid-18th century in the minds of poets, artists and philosophers, and it has now conquered the world, powerfully (yet always quietly) determining how a shopkeeper’s son in Yokohama will approach a first date, how a scriptwriter in Hollywood will shape the ending of a film, or when a middle-aged woman in Buenos Aires might decide to call it a day with her civil servant husband of twenty years.

No single relationship ever follows the Romantic template exactly, but its broad outlines are frequently present nevertheless – and might be summed up as follows:

  • Romanticism is deeply hopeful about marriage. It tells us that a long-term marriage can have all the excitement of a love affair. The feelings of love that we are familiar with at the start of a relationship are expected to prevail over a lifetime.
  • Romanticism took marriage (hitherto seen as a practical and emotionally temperate union) and fused it together with the passionate love story to create a unique proposition: the lifelong passionate love marriage.
  • Along the way, Romanticism united love and sex. Previously, people had imagined that they could have sex with characters they didn’t love, and that they could love someone without having extraordinary sex with them. Romanticism elevated sex to the supreme expression of love. Frequent, mutually satisfying sex became the bellwether of the health of any relationship. Without necessarily meaning to, Romanticism made infrequent sex and adultery into catastrophes.
  • Romanticism proposed that true love must mean an end to all loneliness. The right partner would, it promised, understand us entirely, possibly without needing to speak to us. They would intuit our souls. (Romantics put a special premium on the idea that our partner might understand us without words …).
  • Romanticism believed that choosing a partner should be about letting oneself be guided by feelings, rather than practical considerations. For most of recorded history, people had fallen into relationships and married for logical pragmatic sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing grain business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such ‘reasonable’ marriages, there flowed loneliness, infidelity and hardness of heart.

For Romanticism, the marriage of reason was not reasonable at all, which is why what it replaced it with – the marriage of feeling – has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happens, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age has had enough of ‘reasons’, those catalysts of misery. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatised reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable ‘reason’.

  • Romanticism has manifested a powerful disdain for practicalities and money. Nowadays, under the influence of Romanticism, we don’t like such elements to be at the forefront of the mind around relationships, especially in the early days. It feels cold – un-Romantic – to say you know you’re with the right person because you make an excellent financial fit or because you gel over things like bathroom etiquette and attitudes to punctuality. People, we feel, only turn to practical considerations when all else has failed (‘I couldn’t find love, I had to settle for convenience’) or because they are sinister (the gold-digger, the social climber).
  • Romanticism believes that true love should involve delighting in a lover in their every aspect. True love is synonymous with accepting everything about someone. The idea that one’s partner (or oneself) may need to change is taken to be a sign that the relationship is on the rocks; ‘you’re going to have to change’ is a last-ditch threat.

This template of love is a historical creation. It’s a hugely beautiful and often enjoyable one. The Romantics were brilliantly perceptive about some facets of emotional life and were extremely talented about expressing their hopes and longings. Many of the feelings had existed before, but what the Romantics did was elevate them, turning them from passing fancies into serious concepts with the power to determine the course of relationships over a lifetime.

We can at this point state boldly: Romanticism has been a disaster for love. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism. Our strongest cultural voices have – to our huge cost – set us up with the wrong expectations. They’ve highlighted emotions that don’t tell us very much that is useful about how to make relationships work, while drawing attention away from others that offer more constructive guidance. We deserve sympathy. We’re surrounded by a culture that offers a well-meaning but fatally skewed ideal of how relationships might function. We’re trying to apply a very unhelpful script to a hugely tricky task.

This Romantic script is both normative and at points delusional. In order to be thought normal in the age of Romanticism, many of the following are meant to happen:

  • We should meet a person of extraordinary inner and outer beauty and immediately feel a special attraction to them, and they to us.
  • We should have highly satisfying sex, not only at the start, but forever.
  • We should never be attracted to anyone else.
  • We should understand one another intuitively.
  • We don’t need an education in love. We may need to train to become a pilot or brain surgeon, but not a lover. We will pick that up along the way, by following our feelings.
  • We should have no secrets and spend constant time together (work shouldn’t get in the way).
  • We should raise a family without any loss of sexual or emotional intensity.
  • Our lover must be our soulmate, best friend, co-parent, co-chauffeur, accountant, household manager and spiritual guide.

Knowing the history of Romanticism should be consoling – because it suggests that quite a lot of the troubles we have with relationships don’t stem (as we normally, guiltily end up thinking) from our ineptitude, our own inadequacy or our own regrettable choice of partners. Knowing the history invites another, more useful idea: we alone are not to blame; we were set an incredibly hard task by our culture, which then had the temerity to present it as easy.

It seems crucial to systematically question the assumptions of the Romantic view of love – not in order to destroy love, but to save it. We need to piece together a post-Romantic theory of couples, because in order to make a relationship last we almost have to be disloyal to many of the Romantic emotions that get us into it in the first place. The idea of being ‘post-Romantic’ shouldn’t imply cynicism, that one has abandoned the hope of relationships ever working out well. The post-Romantic attitude is just as ambitious about good relationships, but it has a very different sense of how to honour the hopes.

We need to replace the Romantic template with a psychologically mature vision of love we might call Classical, which encourages in us a range of unfamiliar but hopefully effective attitudes:

  • It is normal that love and sex may not always belong together.
  • Discussing money early on, upfront, in a serious way, is not a betrayal of love.
  • Realising that we are rather flawed, and our partner is too, is of huge benefit to a couple in increasing the amount of tolerance and generosity in circulation.
  • We will never find everything in another person, nor they in us, not because of some unique flaw, but because of the way human nature works.
  • We need to make immense and often rather artificial-sounding efforts to understand one another; that intuition can’t get us to where we need to go.
  • Spending two hours discussing whether bathroom towels should be hung up or can be left on the floor is neither trivial nor unserious, and there is a special dignity around laundry and time-keeping.

We need to accept that love doesn’t necessaily mean always feeling positive emotions, being whisked off to romantic locations such as St Ives or Brighton and watching romantic sunsets forever while bathed in the warmth of the beach. It also involves a “head” approach to the running of the day to day. The attitudes reflected above, and many more, belong to a new, more hopeful future for love.