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Heart in a Black Box

Love is mysterious—heartbreak can be downright unfathomable

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I am, like so many of those who came before me, languishing through a particularly difficult break-up. We were not together for very long, only four to five months, but despite the fact that I have had two serious relationships end before, I have never wallowed through a split this hard. It’s been two, almost three months since he ended it, and I still obsess about it constantly (I do actually have OCD) and find myself crying almost daily. I’ve also been experiencing intense bouts of rage that have prompted me to pick up muay thai (a great cathartic release and workout) and seek non-temporary therapy for the first time. I try to keep myself distracted but at this rate, I’m ashamed I’m not even close to being over it.

Here’s what happened: I met him shortly after moving to a new city for graduate school. He works on the campus of my new college and is fifteen years older than me. I was crazy about him immediately. He’s smart, thoughtful, cares about social justice, and had no discernible baggage except maybe the fact that he’s almost forty and is still single. (This was more a red flag to friends and family than to me.) He originally told me that he was looking for a serious partnership, and I told him I was open to that.

However, after a couple of months, I realized that our relationship had stopped progressing at what I consider to be a normal rate. He was often overwhelmed with work and family (his father and uncle had recently passed away), but I also couldn’t tell how seriously he took me and our relationship. He withheld affection more than I was used to, but as a person who’s already well supplied with her own intimacy issues, I didn’t resent it. We had some minor disagreements over larger political and social issues, and he sometimes got frustrated that I am quite “ideological” (Marxist through and through) and he refuses to come down on a side on almost any issue. I also had noticed that he followed a lot of much younger, local girls he didn’t know personally (sometimes undergraduates at our university) on Instagram which was pretty strange to me, but I could never ask him about it.

Am I obsessing over a potential great love, or an emotionally unavailable man who can’t even commit to a worldview, much less a woman?

These things eventually prompted me to ask the question: Could you see yourself in a serious relationship with me? His answer was: Yes, but I have questions. One of these questions had to do with kids, but this conversation was put on the back-burner and we went on a trip out of the country together. The trip was great, but the distance was still there, and I felt like I was waiting for him to either decide if he could really be in a relationship with me or decide how much he liked me. It didn’t feel great, and I withdrew more and more everyday. After the trip, we had to spend a month apart because of holiday travel, and I got sick with the flu and fell into a depression spurred by bad health and being in a stagnant relationship with someone I was crazy about.

Shortly after we were reunited, without ever really finishing the conversation about the direction of our relationship, he ended it, citing many personal issues he was dealing with, involving work, family, and possible mid-life confusions. I was devastated. Fast forward to today and I am still a confused, angry, depressed mess of a person who cannot figure out how I fell so hard for someone who ended it so abruptly, and how the first person I ever saw a future with couldn’t reciprocate my feelings. Am I obsessing over a potential great love, or an emotionally unavailable man who can’t even commit to a worldview, much less a woman?


Obsessed and Heartbroken


Dear Obsessed,

During a particularly wild period after college, I subsisted entirely on a diet of Old Crow and Thai food. One evening, just before falling asleep in my boyfriend’s La-Z-Boy, I felt a searing pressure in my chest, as if my heart had been caught in a white-hot vice. I sprang up and gasped, “Something is wrong,” and described my symptoms to my boyfriend.

“That’s just heartburn,” he said, “I get it all the time.”

“No, no,” I insisted, “this is absolutely awful,” and I described the sensation in more detail, sure that I required hospitalization.

“Yeah,” he replied, “heartburn. That’s just what it feels like.”

I am so sorry you fell in love with someone who would not and/or could not love you back. You say you’re confused, and that is normal. People spend a lot of time trying to figure out if a relationship ended because someone was unwilling to commit to them—or simply incapable of committing to anyone (especially since they wrongly believe this information will give them some clarity on their own pain).

In short: you may never actually know, so don’t waste your time and energy trying to guess the contents of a black box. Insights may come to you over time, but they will appear in the form of spontaneous realizations, not as the product of introspection or recapitulation. This is not to say you should repress—just don’t dwell, and try not to criticize yourself for your involuntary feelings and thoughts. (And yes, I know this is especially difficult if you’re already struggling with OCD.)

Three months isn’t actually that long a time to grieve for a serious relationship, especially when you were blindsided by the breakup itself. I could tell you how common and normal your pain, confusion, and anger are, but that’s always cold comfort when someone is still reeling from heartbreak. All I can say is that you appear to be working through this in a healthy way—it’s just that “healthy” is not the same thing as “tidy.”

I’m a big believer in the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). But those stages don’t necessarily come in any order; they usually occur somewhat simultaneously, and they certainly don’t stick to any time frame. That you’re taking active measures to deal with your anger means you’re confronting your pain head on. It’s especially heartening that you’re pursuing physical hobbies like sports. What’s more, I think your anger itself is a sign of progress; very often, breakups leave people squarely in the pit of depression. You’re moving along, whether you feel like it or not.

You’re not doing anything wrong. That’s just what it feels like. It’s just going to hurt for a while. And then one day, I promise you, it won’t.