“A broken heart is not the same as sadness. Sadness occurs when the heart is stone cold and lifeless. On the contrary, there is an unbelievable amount of vitality in a broken heart.” ~Elizabeth Lesser
“I love you but I’m not in love with you” was the line my first boyfriend used when he broke up with me. I was twenty-two.
We were only together six months but I cried over him for a solid year, thinking a few parallel thoughts: “If I were thinner and prettier he would’ve been in love with me,“ “How could he not be in love with me, I’m HILARIOUS,” and “I’m never doing this love thing again. It hurts way too much.”
Even letting myself fall in love was a big deal. I’d always kept people at a distance—friends and family included—because I didn’t want to be that vulnerable and I didn’t want to feel that much.
Letting people in meant they might see things they didn’t like or see the things about me that I didn’t like. Being that open left way too much up to chance. I much preferred to control the situation.
And so, when I let myself fall in love for the first time, I did it with strong boundaries drawn. I monitored the nice things I did for him to make sure I wasn’t going overboard. I checked in with myself frequently to make sure I wasn’t “losing myself” and was careful not to give him “too many” compliments.
At the time, I thought my approach was very mature. I wasn’t going to be one of those girls who loses her mind and goes gaga for some undeserving dude.
I would let myself love him, just not too much.
Looking back now, I was in full-blown defensive mode driven by a deep need to protect my heart from any harm. I’m a mighty deep feeler and, like most humans, quite a sensitive soul, so loving someone just felt like way too much feeling for my delicate system to handle.
A few years later I met my now ex-husband. He was kind and generous and, as my grandmother said, “He felt like an old shoe.” And so again, I let myself fall in love. A logical, rational, “we make sense together” kind of love.
I was better with the compliments and did my best to love him through the little things. A home cooked meal, a hug and kiss every night when he walked in the door, a risotto tartlet from the farmer’s market to show I was thinking about him.
And yet, I didn’t let him in in. I chose him because he was safe to love. I chose him because he would never ask for my whole heart, for my fullest capacity to love. He had no need to see the deeper, darker parts of me that were desperately seeking light, and I had zero interest in showing him.
At the time, I really thought I loved him as much as I could. And I did, for the time and place we shared together. I loved him more than I had ever loved anyone, which felt enormous and vulnerable.
I’d often have this recurring nightmare where something would happen to him and I’d be left all alone, bereft and broken. I was terrified by the dream, scared out of my mind not by the thought of losing him but by having to feel bereft and broken.
And then one day, he left. And my heart, for the first time in my life, broke open and all I could do was feel.
In the weeks and months following our separation, my heartbreak brought me face to face with more pain and more love than I had ever known.
At times I thought I might break under the strain of their combined weight.
While shedding horizontal tears that ricocheted off my glasses and ran down my face, as I watched my marriage and home crumble before me, I was able to muster more love for myself and for my pain than I ever could have, for either of us, during our marriage.
When he left, the wall around my heart came tumbling down. The ice melted off the inner chambers of my soul. The doors to my ability to love swung open, inviting me to feel into those tender places so long ignored.
It is true. I did not love my ex-husband to my fullest capacity because up until my heart broke open, I could not love myself to such capacity.
I was too busy protecting myself from my pain, my needs, his pain, his needs that I walked right past the love that is possible between two people when they open their hearts to one another.
Know this: A broken heart is an open heart.
It is in the breaking, when our hearts are peeled back on themselves, that our truths have passage to come in and out.
If we’re lucky, our hearts will break over and over again to reveal new ways of being, of thinking, and of loving.
Each break allows our hearts to heal bigger than the time before.
Yes, there is pain every time we’re cracked open. Immeasurable pain. And with each break, each sting of pain, our hearts are able to expand and strengthen our capacity to love.
Sunset heart image via Shutterstock