In Defense of the Messy, Melodramatic, All-Around Shitty Breakup
Alison was in a relationship with an asshole for about a month. The asshole belonged to her then-boyfriend, Dale*, who she had been dating for a while, after he had tailbone surgery one summer. During Dale's weeks-long recovery, Alison changed his bandages daily, which involved shaving his ass cheeks and cleaning out a wound that happened to be located directly above his anus. Then, about a minute after Alison changed the final bandage over his asshole, Dale broke up with her.
"At the beginning I'd say I was pretty much 100% a puddle of sadness," Alison told me in an email. "I was definitely most frustrated with him, mostly because of the way he broke up with me. After having the conversation, he gave me his key to my apartment and wouldn't talk to me in person again. Two weeks later he was back with his ex — so that helped the rage train along."
Alison was pissed. What followed, she said, were a couple of months of "reveling in the humor of cliché breakup behavior": She devoted more than one night to ugly-crying while she sang along to "Nothing Compares 2 U" and made a list of things she didn't like about her ex, which she referred to whenever she missed him. She also wrote him a long angry letter she never meant to send, but after drinking a few glasses of wine one evening, she popped it in the mailbox.
Even when embracing fury that borders on melodrama, Alison leaned in. Generally speaking, this is not how grown-ups are supposed to handle their feelings — but maybe it's exactly how they should handle breakups.
No matter how it happens, ending a romantic relationship objectively sucks. It almost always hurts, and it almost always involves some level of rage; anger is, after all, a natural part of the grieving process. Yet it's a feeling we're often told to tune out or "deal with" during breakups, so we can focus on the positive and move on with our lives. That's not the worst advice, according to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute.
"When you get into ruminating about an ex-partner, you're like a mouse on a wheel; you just can't stop doing it. You want to distract yourself," Fisher said in a phone interview, suggesting people pursue novel experiences, exercise and even hugs from friends, which can work wonders for the brain chemistry of the brokenhearted.
But she also noted the emotions sparked by losing a romantic partner — especially when they've rejected us — are more acute than other forms of loss, and lend themselves to a special kind of anguish. "Bottom line, [breakups cause] an extremely powerful brain response that you never forget," she said. "Either you feel intensely sad because the timing and circumstances weren't right, or you feel enormous fury."
That fury has its own special name, according to Fisher: abandonment rage. It also has its own special place in the process of healing from a breakup, whether it's particularly crushing or not. At the end of some relationships, like Alison's, feeling furious can be the key to feeling better, primarily because it turns us into human shipwrecks.
"You have to treat the relationship like an addiction — and if you're giving up alcohol, you don't keep a bottle of vodka on your desk."
According to Fisher, the emotional stress of losing a partner can make us indulge in behavior that might otherwise seem over-the-top, like blocking a phone number and filtering a person's emails — or throwing all the mementos we have into a trash bin and setting it all on fire. During a romantic separation, melodramatic behavior can not only be just right, but helpful in the long run. As Fisher put it, it's "a matter of healing yourself of a substance that is toxic to you," which means it's better to suck out the venom in one go (or maybe during the first handful of months after a breakup) rather than wait for it to slowly kill you.
"You have to treat the relationship like an addiction — and if you're giving up alcohol, you don't keep a bottle of vodka on your desk," Fisher said. "When you see someone, you're re-traumatizing yourself. All the things that trigger your feelings — get them out of your life."
Of course, you don't get people out of your life solely by deleting Instagrams and sobbing into your new, never-been-touched-by-your-ex duvet cover. Fisher also emphasized unfriending exes on all forms of social media, refraining from looking at old emails or texts, skipping songs you used to listen to together and, most importantly, not interacting. But, to put it mildly, that's super fucking hard.
"What probably held me back was that for a few months immediately following the breakup, I would obsessively check his Twitter, Instagram, etc.," Judith, who broke up with her ex-fiancé shortly before they were supposed to get married, said in an email. "It just made me more irate or sad and wasn't helping me move on with my life. He needed to become a ghost of my past and stay there."
Even when newly single people do totally disengage, though, the actual process of starting to move on can still be messy and frustrating and awful. As my friend Sarah* pointed out to me recently, it can possibly feel worse when a relationship ends badly: On top of feelings of loss and grief, there's also justified rage if, say, a partner cheated, or maybe was just an asshole like Dale.
Even after Sarah finally extricated herself from a toxic relationship with a known cheater, for instance, she had so many constant negative emotions she hardly felt functional. Her way of "dealing with things" included "a fair amount of self-medicating, a lot of depressing Spotify playlists, a few sobbing phone calls to friends [and] a constant battle over whether I'd done the right thing."
"I didn't have a moment when I put on a wedding dress and ran down the street screaming, or one when I showed up at his apartment wasted at 3 a.m. to demand a conversation," she said. "But I'm typically a fairly even-tempered, responsible person, and the episodes I had — sobbing in cabs, skipping important work functions, drinking to get away from things — weren't within the bounds of what I consider normal for myself."
But even though Sarah didn't feel normal, she felt whatever she needed to feel when she needed to feel it. That's crucial, according to Ty Tashiro, a psychology researcher and author of The Science of Happily Ever After. Research has shown that processing negative emotions, especially through writing, can be cathartic and help people cope during a stressful breakup, but Tashiro has also found having a controlled meltdown can contribute to personal growth.
"I don't think any negative emotion is necessarily maladaptive across the board. We have those emotions for a reason," Tashiro told me by phone, adding that anger is usually tied to situations we perceive to be unfair. "Going all 'Blank Space' on your ex-partner is probably not a good thing to do. But if there were unfair things about the past relationship ... I think people should feel angry."
"Going all 'Blank Space' on your ex-partner is probably not a good thing to do. But I think people should feel angry."
Dealing with that anger means figuring out what was wrong with a past relationship, which lends itself to figuring out how not to repeat the same hellish romantic experience in the future. That's not a guarantee: Growing from a garbage fire of a breakup requires work. As Tashiro put it, "anger can go poorly if it goes on for too long, like any negative emotion. If you're not making progress understanding why that anger exists, it's not helpful."
When you do work to understand why the hell you're so mad, though, it can be an opportunity for enormous growth. Alison, for instance, went through a period of feeling so angry she had to lock herself in the bathroom at work so she could "listen to that Sufjan Stevens album about his mom dying ... and come out feeling a little less like a ticking emotional time bomb." Eventually, those cathartic moments of releasing her rage started adding up, and she started feeling better.
"For me, the anger was very productive and I tried not to avoid it," Alison said.
Additionally, angry reflection on a messy breakup can help deter those who are simultaneously heartbroken and furious from re-engaging with exes who are bad for them. For Sarah, her rage at how horrifically her relationship ended was the only thing that squelched her nearly overwhelming impulse to fall back into bed with her ex.
"The final breakup was terrible — one of those battles that make you question your judgement, your instincts, your capacity for self-preservation," she said. "I was paralyzed by it at first, but in retrospect, I think it was probably a good thing: It made me realize that the split had to be permanent, and that if I wasn't careful, in a few years' time, he'd be referring to me in the same way he talked about one of his exes — like a worthless sack of human garbage."
Behaving like a sack of human garbage in the aftermath of a breakup, however, really might not be the worst thing. If you're mad because, say, the ex who let you clean the open wound above his rectal cavity for a month dumped you as soon as he was better, as happened to Alison — it's probably OK to lose your mind a little.
Doing so can make you realize you don't want anything to do with relationships like that again, which tends to bode well for future partnerships. After all, feeling like you're escaping a crevasse, then working your way out while feeling like a sentient garbage fire, isn't an experience most people enjoy ever — let alone more than once. But, as Sarah put it, "the further you have to climb back up, the stronger you need to be."