Introduction To Heartbreak

There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from living with a captive heart. Nothing that happens to us, even the most terrible shock, is unusable. A heartbreak is a master teacher: it can show us not only the way to avoid the very serious medical consequences of a loss of love, but it can also force us to recognize the deepest and darkest aspects of human love, a most valuable lesson if one wants to remain a person capable of loving. When something in us creates darkness, it sometimes radiates a somber serenity, like the night sky. That which brings darkness also offers the possibility of wisdom, if we do the work.

The psychic pain of mourning and heartbreak is truly unbearable, with all of the neurobiological evidence of a stress similar to being submitted to torture. There seems to be only one way to end that agony and limit the somatic damage: neuroscientists call it an evolutionary jump, while psychologists call it an increase in consciousness. What, one might ask, am I supposed to become conscious of? The answer is simple: you must look into the face of that irrational but very real fear that equates the partner’s abandonment with death. It does not matter if what you fear is psychic death or physical death because the brain does not really differentiate between the two: psyche and soma are so intimately connected that psychic numbness inevitably leads to physical symptoms if you don’t find the way back to joy.

To become conscious of the irrational fear (the “don’t leave me or I’ll die” kind of feeling) poses a logical challenge, because to get rid of the fear you must learn to survive without the partner, which is precisely what you are terrified of! You are like a patient who has been shot by an arrow, but is afraid to let the doctor pull it out; living with an arrow sticking out from your chest makes life impossible.
What neuroscience calls an evolutionary jump defines the process that needs to happen for you now, to limit somatic damage.

Whenever an intense effort of adaptation is required, following a radical and threatening change in our environment, either we “jump” to use the jargon of neuroscientists, or we regress and get sick. Just as early humans had to adapt to changes in climate and diet, today’s humans constantly have to adapt to changes in the culture, crisis in the economy, storms in their psychological environment and, from time to time when the crisis is severe, a whole group will jump a rung on the ladder of evolution and invent something that will help them survive. Heartbreak qualifies as a major disruption to your psychic environment, and if you shut down instead of evolving, you’ll suffer the repeated biochemical assaults that wear down the body/psyche connection. That is why the word jump combined with evolutionary, is just the right wording to define the healing process of heartbreak-through. Recovery is not, as so many are tempted to believe, a simple decision to “move on,” which too often leads to an emotional shutting down, the closing of the heart. The evolutionary jump, paradoxically, happens only if the heart continues its painful expansion, and stays open until one learns something crucial about love and relationships.

There is a terrible waste in not harvesting the fruits of a devastating heartbreak. We know that the brain’s fertility lies in its capacity to create new neuronal pathways, but the brain obliges only in response to situations that threaten; if your brain doesn’t feel the threat, it won’t bother to evolve.

Human evolution seems to follow common sense: if it works, don’t fix it, but if there is a threat, get to work, fast and focused. Abandonment by, or death of the partner is one of the most intolerable threat to the human heart, and it is interpreted by the brain as a situation that asks for urgent re-alignment of neuronal activity. Your pain, if you can tolerate it without acting out in fear, will force you out of your dangerous psychic inferno.

Having survived the crossing of that desert, I wish to communicate my surprise and delight at the following discovery: when the heart is in prison, the mind can open a window! In my own situation of heartbreak I felt there was not much of a choice, as the torture was so intolerable that something had to happen. In my experience of grief, when my body could no longer endure the repeated biochemical assaults, I immersed myself in the study of the neuropsychology of heartbreak; I needed to understand what was the mess in my brain that made me cognitively impaired, depressed and panicky, with suicidal ideation and bouts of uncontrollable anger.

This book, as well as the bibliography at the end, summarizes my intellectual and emotional trajectory through both the science and the psychology of grief. Neuroscience showed me how and why my painful loss was forcing me to evolve, while the depth psychological perspective offered me a map for figuring my way out. I did not have much of a choice: either I found something interesting and worthwhile in my story of heartbreak, or I remained stuck in the same sad lost-love song, like a CD on repeat mode. I feared the fate of someone living with a closed heart, a fate that would have robbed meof the wish to live.

I am writing from three different points of view:

1) First, as a teacher and researcher in psychology, I have spent most of my adult life studying the symptoms of lost love, tortuous love, smothering love, condemning love, controlling love, insufficient love, betrayed love, compulsive love, fusional/codependent love. I have studied and taught the theories that present themselves as antidotes to these poisons. This book is my summary and report from the field, at a time when scientific psychology is merging with neuroscience. I find it timely: neuroscience is debunking the pseudo-scientific claims of egomaniacal psychologists whose primary aim is to sell their copyrighted approach to the psyche.

I mistrust those who sell recipes for conflict-free relationships and easy recovery, as if heartbreak were easy to fix with a few sanctimonious admonitions to “move on” and “stop being a co-dependent,” promising recovery in ten easy lessons! Neuroscience invalidates those theories that have cheapened a true psychological approach, while it validates some crucial ideas from depth psychology, the branch of psychology that has historically allied itself with the humanities. Depth psychology, which means a psychology that takes into account the unconscious aspects of our brain, (what neuroscience calls implicit memory), comes in many flavors: Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian and post-Jungian, analytical psychology, archetypal psychology, existential psychology, imaginal psychology, transpersonal psychology, eco-psychology… the brand name does not matter that much, for what I am interested in is how well psychological intuition will offer what science can never deliver: an initiation into the darker aspects of love and love-sickness.

2) Second, I am writing as a therapist, listening to the stories of courageous individuals free falling from the summit of love, crashing down into the relational desert of mourning, grief and loss. While witnessing their despair, I admired the courage it takes to survive heartbreak. Love, its presence and absence, quality and quantity, form and essence, its nurturing and toxic effects, its bitterness and sweetness, is at the core of every therapy, because love is fundamentally liberating. Yet love is also easily corrupted.

Love develops the brain, but a heartbreak transforms an otherwise functional adult into a cognitive dimwit. Love attaches itself to our neurotic traits, which then develop like barnacles under the hull of a boat. For this book I interviewed patients, students, friends and colleagues to collect their stories of heartbreak and mourning.

In collaboration with them, I wrote short vignettes, editing, pruning, condensing their narratives, offering a repertoire of metaphors (“is it like this, or like that…” ), trying to reach a formulation that skips the details of their heartbreaks while communicating the archetypal essence of this torture. My project was to translate the inchoate moaning of their broken hearts into a minimal form of literature, finding the right symbol, the right image for their misery. This was time spent formulating, which means finding the right form, the right fit between their emotional experiences and my limited literary capacities.

Once we reached the point where the patient, friend, student, colleague, would say: “Yes, that’s it, this is
a good picture of my experience…” I pushed “command/ save” on the keyboard. Call it ‘literary-therapy’ if you will, the basic idea of those vignettes is to get at the depth of feelings, in order to reveal the archetypal core common to all heartbreaks, thus relieving some of the guilt associated to a failure of love.

3) And last, I am writing as a woman who has suffered her fair share of heartbreaks. As a young woman, I plunged into the cavernous mouth of that mythical beast we call Love, like a frog jumping into the path of a lawnmower. My heart was shredded, devoured, digested by the other, its substance giving him the energy to spit me out like the pit of a sweet date, and giving myself an excellent first lesson about the difference between the sweetness of love and the tragedy of remaining innocent about its power. As an almost old woman now, having lost some of my innocence and with a life-time of witnessing courageous individuals outwitting that same cruel beast, I am convinced that the person suffering the torture of heartbreak can, and should, be helped by all possible means: neuroscience and literature, medication and meditation, people and films, massages and humor, friendship and therapy, deep thinking and depth psychology.

I have experienced the unbearable pain of heartbreak, and was not surprised to discover that it has all the neurobiological evidence of traumatic shock. Yet, my grief was also an extraordinary chance for an initiation into a deeper level of the reality of love.

The good news is this: if you love, your heart should and will be broken at some point or other in your life. If not, your love may remain the innocent love of a child. Don’t brag that you never experienced heartbreak; it may indicate that you have no heart to break!