Anatomy of a Broken Heart

heart with plaster on green

(Originally written for Darling Magazine)

The pain of loss. That sinking feeling of blackness. Lethargy. Tears triggered by engagement ring ads, a reminder of a future interrupted. The cell phone, once a source of a smile and a quiver over the ping of a lovers text, now lies lifeless in hand.

All these symptoms plus a body that responds to an invisible invader. Some people, when suffering from a broken heart, actually experience a temporary disruption of heart function, perhaps a reaction to stress hormones that produce abnormal pumping and pain that mimics a heart attack. But the center of heartbreak syndrome is often the stomach?a hornets nest of thoughts and feelings?it churns around chemical messengers that signal sadness and terror. Its no wonder that psychologists call the stomach a second brain. Its as if our lover has cut an emotional umbilical cord and we are sailing away from Mother, vulnerable, unmoored. Nauseous. We are dying a tiny death.

For most of us, heartbreak is a necessary loss.

Carly Simon once sang that theres more room in a broken heart, and she may well have been singing about the strange empathy that comes with vulnerability. Its not that one needs a serious abandonment episode to become a kinder person. Its just that a fall from the high horse of love drunkenness lands us down to earth, and from here we can have a much clearer view of what drew us to that racehorse in the first place. Simply put, if used correctly, a broken heart can help us know ourselves better. A broken heart can empower us. Heartbreak can shine a light on our unique attachment style. Parts biological and parts psychological?each person has a unique manner of bonding. Some cling. Some avoid. Some can give care but not receive it while others prefer to only take.

Heartbreak is an opportunity for a prickly reality check.

In our sea of tears, free from the fantasy of what was, we can look clearly at how we swam into the deep waters of a love relationship with a partner who was no longer swimming beside us. We can use the sadness to prevent future heartbreak.

Did we move too fast? When the words I love you gush out, between breaths under a duvet, they are not to be believed. This is not the declaration of loyal dedication, nor the workhorse of sacrifice that secure attachments require. This is a rush for definition?an anxious attachment style that clings fast to fantasy.

Perhaps we ignored some important signs. Maybe we moved at a sensible pace but wore carefully adjusted blinders to selectively ignore some signals that our paramour was less than en par. If we tend to become attracted to dodgy lovers who feel like they are always slipping through our fingers and then artfully reel them in for moments of bliss, we are addicted to something that is more challenge than comfort.

Maybe we pushed love away. And what of those of us who coiled away from too much closeness? The feeling of loss is as confusing as it is painful after we worked so hard to not let our lovers cut close to the bone, only to discover they have sliced us through the heart with their final disappearance.

We let our love die. Perhaps, a good solid love was planted and grew strong but we forgot to tend our garden. The years dragged on until one partner simply crumbled under the boredom.

Its time to stop repeating the past.

Our unique blueprint for love is shaped early in life. It is our individual schema or model in our mind. As adults, we seek out partners to play the familiar roles we need to feel again?to match a secure mothers love or to create a conflict that we aim to right this time around. Early attachment theorists believed that we all come into the world with an attachment style that can blossom or die, depending on how it is pricked or prodded by our environment. And our most influential environment is our primary caregiver.

Some babies are born simply needing more care, attention and contact. Indeed, some children stay drunk on separation anxiety, weaving against mother or daddys trousers long after others have bounded off in search of frogs or flowers. And how parents react to their needy baby is crucial. Patience and kindness can program even the most anxious to trust love and later seek out gentle lovers. But a too-early push or a failure to console when a bumpy playground fall sends a child running for arms can be a prescription for excruciating longing. For these people, love becomes a journey of rebounding between familiar losses.

But what about those other babies, the ones who are born happily sailing from womb to toddler bed with barely a whimper? All goes well if the rocking arms respect the need to wiggle free. But if Mommy or Daddy have unmet needs of their own?needs to over bundle, stroke intrusively, force a bottle on an already full tummy?then baby might learn that love is smothering and engulfing and must be avoided at all costs. These are the girls who hook up and run from beds, the boys who hide behind the safety of texts. For the avoidant, love demands that one must stand sentry against an invasion and defend or vanish when love gets too close.

Finally, what of the baby of any biological ilk who faces a damaged parent, one with wild emotions (chemically induced or not) who treats a child like a punching bag or a pet or a giant burden to ignore? What of that child? What of that version of love? Sadly, this too becomes a blueprint for attachment issues.

The bad news: We seek out our familiar childhood conflict in adult lovers, some hoping to right a wrong, others playing a painful game of repetition compulsion.

The good news: Attachment injuries can be healed!

As conscious, aware, thinking adults, we can do the emotional work of changing our patterns of love and loss. We can deliberately and thoughtfully date a different kind of lover, one who doesnt give us the familiar thrill of a rocky roller coaster ride. We can find an understanding therapist to walk with us through the uncharted territory of safety, gentleness, care.

But when you are in the depths of despair, when the future looks bleak, it is important to recognize this as a gift. It is an awakening. Heartbreaks are a special opportunity to meet your complicated inner world, to make peace with old paths, and forge a new journey. The most important relationship you will ever have is one with yourself. This may well be the year that you learn to be a tender mother to your own psyche, offering forgiveness, consoling and new awareness.

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