Why "If You Love Someone, Set Them Free" Is A Good Adage To Live By

Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.
Brad Pitt got very poetic in a recent interview with GQ. In addition to comparing himself to a house without decorations and semi-quoting Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, and David Foster Wallace, Pitt also talked about his divorce from Angelina Jolie. He said he's been trying to live by the admittedly trite adage: "If you love someone, set them free."
To be fair, Pitt fully addressed that the phrase is a cliché, but he said that he now knows how it really feels. "The first urge is to cling on," he says about breakups. But instead of following his urge, he decided to let it go. What does that mean? "It means to love with ownership. It means expecting nothing in return," he says.
Advertisement
While that may seem like a nebulous explanation, he's not totally off, and his philosophy hits on some important points about selfless love, says Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. "The school of thought is that love is a selfless act, and if you really love somebody, you want them to be happy, whatever that means — with or without you," she says.
Pitt also said he felt like this approach was helpful in processing the breakup grief with his kids. And according to Derhally, this coping mechanism might make sense for parents, in particular, since they may already feel this sort of selfless love for their children. "Your first priority is [your children's] happiness, and you have to let them live and be who they are," she says.
So is letting someone go because you love them a good rule to live by? It can be, if it's approached in a genuine way — meaning: you're truly okay if the person doesn't come back — but that's not always the case, Derhally says. If you really care about a person, but your relationship isn't going well, your instinct might be to fight to keep the relationship together, no matter what. But oftentimes, it's better to emotionally free them from the situation, Derhally says. "When things aren't working, don't fight for someone, just let them go and let them do what they need to do," she says. That said, if you let your partner go, and then wait for them to change and come back, that doesn't always work.
Of course, people who break up for this reason don't always spend the rest of their lives apart. The rest of the quote that Pitt cited allegedly goes like this: "If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don't, they never were." There's always a possibility that someone can change or come back to you, and Derhally says it does happen. "If you hit a wall in your relationship, that's one thing you could do to break a cycle," she says. For example, if you're in a relationship with someone who's not very committed, but you're really committed, waiting around for a person to make a decision isn't very healthy, she says. One person has all the power in this scenario, so they would have "no incentive to change things, because they can do whatever they want," she says.
Ultimately, you shouldn't "let someone go" for the sole sake of getting them back, she says. In order for Pitt's advice to work, you have to do it because you care about your partner, regardless of the outcome. "The purist love is wanting the person you love to be happy, no matter what," she says. Who knows what will come of the Pitt-Jolie breakup, but if that second part of the quote comes true, you can bet we'll start listening closer to the advice Pitt's spitting. And Brad, if you need more ways to get over your breakup, we have a few tangible ideas that might help.
Advertisement