“God breaks the heart again and again and again, until it remains open.” - Hazrat Inayat Khan
This is one of my favorite quotes. It might even top the list. I love it because it feels true and also because it acts as a salve of sorts. When I experience heartbreak, it can feel as though nobody loves me. Not God. Not the person who is involved in the feeling of heartbreak. And sometimes, not me. Those words remind me otherwise.
I also love this quote so much because it hints at an important spiritual lesson that I keep trying to live into. If I am able to approach the world with an open heart I will find more abundance, more joy, more compassion, and more love.
Men “Don’t Do” Heartbreak
But here’s a conundrum that exists in American culture: it’s not actually OK for men to reveal heartbreak.
You know why? Because it’s seen as being weak. The word heartbreak suggests a set of emotions and behaviors that our society has deemed unmanly. They include sadness, despair, and yes, crying.
So it feels risky for me to publish this article. It reveals even more of what I've tried to hide from the world for basically my entire life. There is a lot of fear that comes up. But besides pledging to myself to live by the mantra "just love more", I have also committed to not make decisions based on my fears. You know why? Because fear is the opposite of love. (More on that some other time...)
Our beliefs about men and heartbreak are so ingrained that we even have an old (and totally messed up) axiom about it - “Boys don’t cry.” In other words, don’t cry or be sad or vulnerable or upset or heartbroken, because that means you are being weak. And “real men” aren’t weak.
Although that expression - boys don't cry - is a powerful cultural norm, we tend to take those words at face value. It's simple and easy to apply. But what if we dug a bit deeper to see what's in the details? What if we looked at what boys (and men) are not supposed to cry about? Things like:
Having a partner end a romantic relationship
Getting cut from the basketball team
Receiving news of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis
Not getting the promotion at work
Shouldn't it be expected that we'd find heartbreak in all of these situations? Isn't that what's normal, rather than "toughing it out" or "sucking it up" - "being a real man"?
How Heartbreak Lets Us Just Love More
Let’s consider just one of those situations for a moment, looking at the expected behavior and its impact, compared to what a heartbroken response might look like.
Having a partner end a romantic relationship
“Real Man” Response
Go out drinking with the guys.
Talk shit about the girlfriend/wife.
Maybe do something to physically discharge the anger, maybe even hit someone or destroy something.
Hop onto Tinder to find “the next one”.
More anger is put into the world, possibly even violence.
That anger is carried into the next relationship because it hasn’t been processed in a healing manner.
A cascade of relationship harm is created by denying another person’s decision. (All the people in each person’s “camp” will feel the pressure to pick sides because of the angry narrative, pitting more people against one another.)
Deny that it even bothers you, saying things like, “It’s no big deal - I wasn’t really into it anyway”.
Stuff down the emotions that are actually there.
Just move on and never talk about it, unless it’s to trash the ex to other people.
The anger and other feelings stay bottled up, creating a reserve of dark energy inside you.
Eventually something triggers those feelings to come back up.
The shame of that unresolved loss creates a backlash that either causes further “emotion swallowing” or, eventually, an explosive reaction that causes emotional and/or physical harm.
The same kind of cascade of relationship harm happens because both “sides” feel the negativity of the story, even though it’s not expressed as outwardly as in the previous example.
[Note: Just to state the obvious, these are just a couple of many potential responses and are somewhat extreme. But I know they're real and that they are all too common.]
Sit with the feelings that come up, the first of which might be anger.
Stay with whatever feelings are there and get curious about them. Maybe do this by sitting quietly in solitude or writing about them or talking to a friend about them.
Perhaps see if there is something like sadness or disappointment or confusion beneath the anger. Ask yourself, “How do I really feel?” Pretend there will be no judgment of your manhood, regardless of what comes up.
Give yourself permission to be sad or disappointed or whatever genuine thing that comes up about you and your experience. Focusing on yourself here, instead of the relationship narrative/your partner's story, is key to getting at the true source of your pain.
Once you know what is going on for you, reach out for help from family, friends, a therapist, a coach, or other trusted emotional supports.
Be open to the loving support you receive. This can be hard, because it goes against the "go it alone" grain that is typical for most men.
Look to see what your part was in the breakdown of the relationship. Be vulnerable here. It's not easy, but unless we get honest with where we contribute to our own pain we are bound to recreate it in the future.
Ask yourself what you want to do about your part. Options might include asking for forgiveness or committing to doing some work to change so you don’t repeat the same behaviors that contributed to this loss.
See what kind of healing can be done with your ex, with an ideal of transforming the relationship into a different form that is still a positive force in your life.*
* - You might consider this the Bonus Round. If you are able to heal and move forward without repairing the relationship in a new form, that's still awesome! But if you can reshape the old loving relationship into a new form, it can make a huge difference in the amount of freedom you have in your life.
You acquire a deeper self awareness that helps you understand what types of things might cause you harm in a relationship. This will help you avoid the same problems in your next relationship if you pay heed to it.
By reaching out for help, you create opportunities for those who love you to demonstrate their love.
You become more able to express difficult emotions, which can help you deal them in smaller moments so they don’t build up so much and cause big issues.
You learn how to be in relationship with someone over time, gaining acceptance that relationships will naturally change.
You will become more open to how people can remain positive parts of your life even when your relationship with them changes.
You become a stronger, more capable, more open and loving human being.
Notice a couple of things here. The process of a Heartbroken Response is much longer. Why? Because it takes work, not to mention courage, that the "Real Man" Responses do not require.
Also, note that in that last bullet point I said “stronger”, not “weaker”. Yeah, maybe you cried. (You're not a sissy, by the way.) We cry when things are really hard. Those are the times when we’re doing the hard work that builds strength deep inside us - in our hearts. At the same time, we are building stronger connections. We have the possibility of keeping a long-term relationship alive - albeit in a new form - while also reinforcing the loving connections we already have by asking for and receiving help.
Real men allow themselves to experience heartbreak. They know it opens them up to greater possibilities. And they know, despite the awkwardness and the pain, that it is an important way to just love more.
A quick note on my “research” for this essay. I had a relationship come to an abrupt end recently. It was brief, but filled with hope. I didn’t see the “bad news” coming. So when I got word that the other person wanted to end our dating relationship, I followed those steps above. I had imagined this woman as a person I could love, which might even happen, just in a different form than I was expecting.
Jim Young lives in Western Massachusetts. He also lives in heartbreak from time to time, which is an entirely human experience. He has found countless deep relationships over the years by opening up to what life brings his way.
He has been able to grow important friendships out of romantic relationships that have come to a close over the years, though he still hasn't reconciled with his old baseball coach who made him wait until senior year to make varsity. (Jim's not perfect.)
When he's not writing - or processing his feelings - you can find Jim goofing with his three amazing kids, creating laughs with one of his improv troupes, trying to find that next great romantic relationship, bringing improv into corporate settings to teach relationship skills, and coaching people to help them lead more open and connected lives.
If you want to talk about heartbreak, or something else that eventually creates light, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.