At one time I felt that Jonathan, aka Darth Vader, was the “Man of My Dreams” – my “last lover” (and exactly how many “lovers” do I wish to accumulate? Not too many is the hope…). Weird how one can believe in fairytale romance, even in one’s Golden Years, or maybe it’s just me.
Alas, we crashed the day he rushed into our bedroom, in a highly agitated state, to ask, “Have you been thinking of moving out?” We had not been getting along well, though I did not know it was that bad. But within two days I had packed all my essentials and moved out. Easy breezy, pandemic be damned. And not particularly onerous, as breakup stories go.
So, what happened? Months were spent agonizing over this question. Darth is a gifted teacher and writer, but talking about relationships was not his forte. What went wrong was left to my imagination, other than him telling me he needed “space,” and criticizing a couple of my quirkier, but certainly not revolting, personal habits.
But still, in the dead of night I would obsess about whether I was inherently unworthy. Girlfriends and family were my therapists/detectives in getting through all the unpleasantness of loss, rejection, and uncertainty.
Narratives Don’t Always Match!
The last time Darth and I spoke, he offered his brand new narrative. Introducing a heretofore unknown theme into the story of us, he advised me that I had always been smitten with him, while his feelings had been more lukewarm.
We lived together not out of love, but because he was helping me out during a rough patch. I did not know any of this! The narrative stung, which may have been the intended effect, who knows. He actively revolted against any suggestion that his scenario was less than spot on.
But think about it. Having a palatable, realistic narrative for life’s setbacks goes a long way towards putting an end to late night obsessing. Darth has this great narrative he struts around with, but what about me?
Why does he get to characterize me as a loser? Can I right this wrong? Why do I care what he says about me to people I will never meet or never see again? Or worse yet, has he just stopped talking about me?
Lauren Howe, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford, wrote a piece in The Atlantic addressing the power of narrative when rejection occurs (“Why Some People Take Breakups Harder Than Others”).
In it, she said: “The stories we tell ourselves about rejection…can shape how and how well we cope with it.” People who believed they were rejected because of an immutable personal flaw suffered more greatly than people who either accepted rejection as a part of life, or understood that two wonderfully great people are not necessarily great together.
People who believed they were rejected because of a fixable personal flaw also did well, the flaw could be fixed, life goes on.
Personal Psychology Affects Memory
In The New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Loftus, a controversial but respected psychologist specializing in memory, says:
“Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality. It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature” (“Past Imperfect”).
In a Ted Talk, Loftus said:
“Part of memory may tell us who we want to be. There is scientific evidence that we distort our own memories in a positive or prestige enhancing direction without anyone else intervening.”
“Distortions can occur in the minds of people who are otherwise trying to be honest.”
“Maybe memories are who we prefer to be.”
Are there gender differences in how people process breakups, thus shaping their narratives? Women normally get the benefit of talking with friends about their breakups. We help one another create narratives that help make things more palatable.
My sister rewrote my Darth narrative to say that I had actually sent him away (by so readily and easily moving out), conveniently bypassing the couple of times that I tried to win him back. But on good days, I completely and highly endorse her version of events.
When I am with friends, we often pass the time analyzing and discussing the male psyche. We exhume, poke, and prod at their inner lives, sometimes with great authority, sometimes with wishful thinking, Tarot Cards, and pseudoscience. Typically, these sessions are fun but equally important, also healing.
According to a study conducted at Binghamton University and University College London, “women tend to be more negatively affected by breakups, reporting higher levels of both physical and emotional pain.”
Nonetheless, “women tend to recover more fully and come out emotionally stronger.” Does the processing we do with our female friends help create more sensibly robust narratives? Are men’s narratives stilted if they occurred strictly within the confines of the mind?
Could this explain why Darth’s narrative felt so off? He had no one but me to tell him he was wrong and why would he choose to listen to me?
According to the Binghamton study, “men […] never fully recover – they simply move on.” These researchers boiled the differences down to biology:
“Put simply, women have evolved to invest far more in a relationship than men. A brief encounter could lead to nine months of pregnancy followed by many years of lactation for an ancestral woman, while the man may have left the scene literally minutes after the encounter, with literally no further biological investment.”
Women seek quality mates, men just kind of float around? Oh, how I hate it when life is boiled down to biology. And if there really is credence to this line of thought, do we continue to be affected by biology in our Golden Years?
Is There a Right Way to Heal?
The internet is awash with books, stories, and articles about how one must “heal” after a breakup in order to move forward in a positive fashion. With all due respect to the counseling field, psychotherapists are probably paying for their vacation homes from earnings counseling abandoned clients.
Some would argue that healing and self-examination is unnecessary. The BBC reported the findings of a City University of NY study of the psychological well-being of people who had recently broken up. Claudia Brumbaugh, a psychologist who studies adult attachment says that people who quickly start new relationships “feel more confident, desirable, and loveable.”
“There were no cases where people who were single were better off.” Apparently, people who quickly rebounded into a new relationship experienced that “their relatively uninterrupted relationship status allows their lifestyle to flow smoothly as they transition from one partner to another.”
Now this is great storyboarding! Person A thought I was not good enough, but here is a wonderful Person B who thinks I am amazing! The article goes on to suggest that people, who report personal growth following a breakup, may actually be kidding themselves. Telling oneself that life is better is a way of soothing the ego.
But of course there are caveats. “Quick rebounders also tend to be people who had issues with insecurity in their previous relationships.”
Now I am confused. It’s supposedly okay if I rebound quickly, but only if I am not insecure? Who is not insecure, on some level? How do I know if my level of insecurity is high enough to fall into this new category? And if I am improving my self-esteem, how do I know if it’s really improved, or am I just selling myself a bill of goods?
What Does Nature Tell Us?
Even scientists find the breaking up process worthy of study. In 2012, Scientific American briefly reported on the study “Love Hurts: Brain Chemistry Explains the Pangs of Separation,” which discusses the deep depression that male prairie voles slip into when they lose a mate.
Interestingly, Prairie voles “…display social traits we think of as deeply human.” These rodents are rare amongst mammals because they form bonds that outlast the mating process. Curiously, these prairie voles also like whiskey (an unintended side dish to the study).
It’s not clear if there is a correlation between whiskey and monogamy, but I have my theories. I can pretty much chart the course of a new friendship based on the amount of drinks I have on the first date.
But all is not hearts and flowers with voles. “As with human romances, pair bonding doesn’t preclude what researchers call opportunistic infidelity.” And, some males don’t pair bond at all. These footloose individuals are known as “wanderers.” One wonders about the stories that voles tell themselves when losing a mate: “She must have been eaten by a predator or sweet talked by a wanderer.”
Abandonment is part of the breakup lexicon. In her book, The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson says: “Emotional experience is more painful when it echoes an episode from the past; that’s especially true when it comes to rejection and loss. The relationship that ended today may be the fulfillment of your worst nightmares from childhood.”
Many of us with these histories display tendencies towards “self-attack and recrimination.” One ends up scrutinizing the relationship beyond what can be considered healthy, looking for all the little things one must have done to lose one’s lover. The self-examination runs the gamut between the heartbreaking to the mundane.
For people with difficult pasts, rewriting the narrative in a positive light is particularly challenging and probably cannot occur constructively in a vacuum. Some people have an unusually difficult time disbelieving the sad, negative, critical stories they tell themselves.
Grab Hold of Your Narrative
My favorite part of the book is the section on “rewriting the Closure,” which advises you to decide how things ended, on your own terms. After all, you were a 100% participant in this relationship. Just because someone else ended it doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own experience.
Because I was so mad at Darth for his insistence on his narrative, I wrote him a long letter detailing all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors, the kinds of things you might think about a person but never say. I ever so strongly wanted to seriously wound his pride and make him doubt himself.
I wrote, rewrote, then wrote again, but never sent the letter. Why would I intentionally want to hurt someone I once cared about, just because he hurt me? At the end of the day, I decided I want to feel squeaky clean, emotionally speaking, and not feel encrusted with hate and thoughts of revenge.
The day-to-day nuances, as well as the random thoughts that run through the mind of a partner can never be fully captured or understood. And even though we all need narratives, more than likely there is never one perfectly clean narrative.
Forgiving someone who needed to have a particular relationship narrative in order to continue functioning, like Darth, feels important. Its only when that narrative is used to hurt or destroy another that storyboarding becomes unforgiveable.
And, a word to the wise. Pay close attention to the story that your new love tells you of prior breakups. Was their wife an evil shrew who did this, that, and the other, he being a not so willing victim? Life is so rarely that clean.
In fact, at this stage of the game, anyone that I date would hopefully have laid their last relationship to bed and does not use dating and intimacy with me as a way of processing his last loss.
Have you been looking for the “Man of Your Dreams”? What’s been your success thus far? Have you ever experienced a relationship storyboarding? How did that feel like? Have you been on the delivery side of things? Would you seek revenge after a breakup? Please share with the community!