The Power of Heartbreak
A universal emotion that can unite us all
Recently, my car rolled to a stop at a stoplight and I happened to glance to my left. The small shop where I had my first date with my most recent “situationship” stared back at me. The neon lights bearing the business name were shut off for the night. It’s funny, due to COVID, when we stopped at this place, I never even got out of the car. He left me there, engine running, while he went in to get the cookies I had been craving. Yet, the location winked at me to let me know that it was somehow a significant part of my human experience.
This wasn’t a colossal heartbreak. I wouldn’t categorize it as the worst pain I’ve ever felt (I’ll reserve that for the boy who first broke my heart when I was 23), but it was the pain of knowing I had, once again, fallen for someone that didn’t feel the same way about me. That kind of heartbreak is unique. It’s different from the screaming fights and all-or-nothing ultimatums of my younger years. This was a slow fade, a dull ache that began at the onset of the relationship. I knew it was ending before it had even gone anywhere. Every text that took days to get a reply, every excuse, every plan that didn’t include me — they were all right there, evidence of what was to come. Whispers that echoed louder and louder, bouncing off the walls, that I chose to ignore. The kind that flooded my ears when it was finally over.
Heartbreak is a raw emotion. It stings and singes your insides, your organs curling at the edges like burned pieces of paper. You try to throw water on the fire but that only pitches the flames higher. You search for anything that will help you feel better, calmer, like yourself again. And then you realize, nothing will. You have changed; you now include a vital organ that’s an entirely different shape. One with wounds and scar tissue and memories that you cannot erase, no matter how hard you try.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve witnessed my own heart shatter for many reasons. Romantic interests (in my case, men) letting me know I’m not the one, friendships that have been lost throughout the years, familial issues, the death of pets — and those are just the personal ones. As an empath, my heart breaks for the world around me every day. Heartbreak is something that every person experiences in one way or another. We all know what it feels like to have our center get ripped out of our chests and beaten with a stick, stomped on, run over by a truck, or just left out to dry. Heartbreak is central to the storylines of our books and movies because it is at the center of the human experience.
And why is that? Why is something so painful such a big part of our existence? I’d like to think it’s because a broken heart holds a kind of power that an unbroken one does not. The resilience that accompanies a heart that has been through trauma is significant. It’s a force, a foundation, the blocks that we then build ourselves on top of. It’s near impossible to see at the time, but these experiences are so consequential to who we are and who we become.
The first time I had my heart broken, and I mean really broken, by the first boy I ever loved, I broke an iPhone with my bare hands. I had never even thought to do something like that up until the moment that it happened. Something came over me and I just snapped. The metal shifted in my hands like it was made of putty. I destroyed my own property to prove my love for someone else. The next day my phone was bent in half, I had tiny cuts and scratches etching up my fingers and palms, and he was gone.
That experience forced me to ask myself who I was and who I wanted to be. I had lost myself in that relationship — I had expected someone else to deliver happiness to me like it was a takeout dinner, never having to work for it on my own. I had to collect the pieces of myself that I had neglected, the ones that had been lying dormant for the past year, hiding in my apartment and cowering in the shadows. She crawled out when I finally decided it was time to move on.
Each time this has happened to me I’ve lost someone important to me but gained a part of myself that I didn’t know was there. I can credit that first heartbreak to my first time attending my favorite music festival with my little sister, a tradition we’ve kept up with ever since. I decided to finally learn to play the piano after I had my heart broken for a second time. I have wanted to learn an instrument since I was like, eight years old, yet it took a disruptive life event for me to make it happen. And that’s what makes me grateful for all of these experiences, no matter how painful they were at the time. Every time my heart changes shape, I dig a little deeper and discover something new. This constant uncovering has allowed me to grow more than anything else.
Romantic love is not the only thing that causes the heart to fragment. Loss of any kind can cause the same intense reaction. It’s that feeling that hits you in the deepest part of your soul, stabs at you, and twists the knife. The ache persists, even when you lose something that you needed to rid yourself of. Loss of family, friends, pets, time, nostalgia. We all feel it. Some of us try to ignore it and push it away. Some of us lean into it and feel every second of it until it dissipates. Others find someone or something to fill in the shape of where that love used to reside. It’s an emotion so powerful that when you talk about it, people listen. When you write about it, people read. We are all curious about everyone else’s perception of it. We want to compare and contrast. We might feel the need to make sure ours was worse, even though we know comparison doesn’t work that way. Once we realize that it’s all relative, it makes things a bit more palatable. Or, rather, it makes us a bit more palatable. Have you ever tried to tell someone a story, only to have them interject with their own experience, insisting they had it worse? I think we can all agree that we’ve been hurt in different ways, and hopefully that will allow us to learn from each other and maybe even change the way we act moving forward.
Love matures over time. The way we love our families and friends changes as we grow. Our first love will probably look a lot different than the love we fall into long-term, should we decide to take that path. There is no one way to love. We all give and receive it differently. There are a million examples of families, relationships, and friendships that are all loving in their own way. That’s part of what makes each experience we have so unique.
Despite all of the hate in the world, I like to believe that we have a fascination with love and love stories because we know how important it is to our existence. Where would we be in the world if love didn’t exist? It can be untraditional and chaotic, cheesy and cliché, but love will (hopefully) always be a way to unite us.