Breakups: Hold On to the Lesson, Not the Pain

I’m 39 as I write this. Almost 40, as my boyfriend jokingly and lovingly reminds me often. Even 20 years later, the events of my 19th birthday have never left me. I don’t think they ever will.

And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

The End of My World

My 19th birthday fell on a weekday, which meant I had to work. This wasn’t a big deal, because I just planned to go out and celebrate after work. I got up at my usual 5 AM to get ready for work, and that was the when everything changed.

The first thing I saw that day was an image of a very familiar car on the morning news. It was familiar, and yet not quite, because it had been hit by a train. A few seconds later, I learned it belonged to a dear friend of the family. Her name was Darlene, and she was funny, sweet, kind, and just all around great.

At the time, she was alive by in critical condition, and by that evening, she was gone.

Not knowing what else to do or who to turn to, I called my on-again, off-again boyfriend of five years. When he answered, I didn’t say hello. Instead, I told him what had happened through tears.

“Oh, that sucks,” he said. “Listen, I think we should break up.”

I thought I’d misheard him. So I asked him to repeat it.

“It’s just not working for me. I think we should break up. We cool?”

It was my birthday, my friend had died, and now my boyfriend was dumping me. And he wanted to know if we were cool?

Hell no, we weren’t cool.

Lessons From a Boy

I didn’t wait long before moving on. I dated a sailor stationed in Pensacola, a guy who later became a good friend, and eventually met my first husband. I didn’t sit around pining for the loser who dumped me on my birthday while I was grieving.

But I did hold on to it for a long time. The callous way he treated me, being so selfish and thoughtless, stuck with me.

It impacted my relationships. He’d been my first real boyfriend, my first real experience with thinking that I knew what love was. I felt like it was something personal about me.

But the truth was, it was about him. It was about the fact that, despite being 18, he was still very much a boy. He wasn’t mature enough to consider someone else’s feelings. He wasn’t capable of having an adult relationship, much less ending one appropriately.

But out of one of the darkest days I’d had in my life up to that point, I managed to find some good.

Holding On to Heartbreak the Right Way

It took me a long time to realize the right way to hold on to old heartbreaks. But there is a right way. And it’s simpler than you might think.

It’s about letting go of the pain and holding on to the lesson.

The mistake I made for so long was I held on to the pain. I latched on to the pain and twisted it in a little deeper every time I thought of him and that day. In fact, for a long time, the pain was the only thing I remembered.

And then I had another breakup. This one was many years later. I’d already been divorced. But it was the second relationship in which I’d been abused in some way.

And it was my eye-opener.

I realized then that the things these men had done to me weren’t about me. I just happened to be the warm body that they did these things to – but any woman could have been in my place and would have been treated the same way.

And that was when I learned the lesson I should have gotten from that first boyfriend: if someone doesn’t care about your feelings, it’s got nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

Learning From Past Mistakes

Every breakup has a lesson in it. The key is getting beyond the pain so that you can see it.

Some of the lessons I learned from breakups were:

  • If only one person is willing to work to fix the relationship, it won’t work
  • Sticking around when you know the relationship is over is a waste of time
  • The things people tell you when they’re angry are the truth

In most of my breakups, I held on to the pain for much too long and ended up missing the lesson for a long time. This has led to a lot of relationship problems that I might have avoided otherwise.

Taking the time to grieve a lost relationship is good. It’s healthy. It’s even smart – you can’t move on to be with someone else fully until you’re completely over the past.

But it’s important not to get lost in that grief. It’s important not to hold on to pain and suffering. Let it go so you can find the lesson and move on to healthier, happier relationships.

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