Stop Seeing Your Breakup As A ‘Failure’

Designed by Meg O'Donnell
The 'second arrow' is an oft-quoted Buddhist parable about human suffering. It is said that Buddha once asked a student: "If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?" Buddha then continued: "In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional."
This parable is often interpreted to mean that, in life, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Was Buddha referring to heartbreak centuries and centuries ago? If he was, the first arrow is the breakup itself — a brief conversation, a text message, a phone call — and the second is everything that happens after that. 
When a relationship ends, whatever the circumstances, the first arrow hits. It hurts but you stay upright. It’s in the days that follow that the pain of the second, lodged smack-bang in the middle of your chest, spreads through your circulatory system, infecting every part of your body. 
Breakups are not to be taken lightly. Recent studies have deemed the mental experience of a breakup in people who are not diagnosed with a psychiatric condition as akin to clinical depression. In 2011, a review of multiple studies found similarities between mourning the end of a relationship and grieving the death of a loved one: both breakups and bereavement can cause insomnia, intrusive thoughts, immune dysfunction and physical pain.
After a breakup, we carry our pain around with us in an emotional black box. We pore over events, attempting to understand where we went off course, how we failed. We torture ourselves with all the things we did and did not do. We examine our pain, hoping that it might provide answers. Looking over it gives us a sense of control and helps us find meaning. We run fictional alternate scenarios to see if the end destination might have been different — success in the form of happiness, marriage or children and not what society still insists on calling a 'failed relationship'.  

You cannot take human relationships and deem those that continue to be 'successful' and those that do not to be 'failures'. It is far more complex and nuanced than that.

If you can get past the fact that the company’s CEO has reportedly invested millions in AI defence tech, Spotify Wrapped always tells us something about the contemporary moment. This time around, it’s that 2021 was the year that people couldn’t stop listening to songs about heartbreak. Or is it that artists kept making songs about heartbreak? Because, though it feels like nobody has ever been through what you’re going through, it is, besides death and paying your tax bill, one of the few universal experiences we all share. Buddha may have tried to tell us that suffering is optional but still we wallow in it. We find it difficult to free ourselves from it. 
According to Spotify’s charts, Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour — a bittersweet drive down memory lane to the first time you had your heart broken — was the most played globally in 2021. Taylor Swift, who captures the emotional terrorism of relationship breakdowns like nobody else, was the second most listened to artist on the app. Offline, Adele’s new album, 30, which is "about divorce babe, divorce", sold more physical copies than any other this year. 
Like you, I listen in awe and agony. I can’t stop. Adele may as well have written "Easy On Me" about the breakdown of my seven-year relationship, which my friends jokingly refer to as my 'divorce'. She sounds guilty and apologetic; I relate. She justifies her behaviour and asks for mercy; I want to do the same. Adele’s colossal relevance comes down to the fact that, at their core, all breakups are the same. They feel like something inside you has broken apart into sharp pieces. The culture around them — from music to Instagram memes — exists to help us find ways to contort ourselves and prolong the pain
This is, in no small part, because the cultural framing of breakups is that they are a personal and sometimes even a moral 'failing'. You couldn’t 'make it work' and so you — as well as your relationship — are a 'failure' because 'successful' people stay together. 
Listening to Olivia, Taylor and Adele is as addictive as replaying that tape after a breakup. It feels like being understood. Reflection is healthy; it enables us to learn from past behaviour and decide how to move forward. But after a certain point, does it stop being cathartic — a way of purifying and purging pain — and become a form of self-pollution, a means of holding on to past suffering? 
Dr Linda Blair, a chartered clinical psychologist, thinks so. Rather than self-flagellate further, she believes we should consider breakup culture itself. As she sees it, part of the problem is the binary framing of a breakup in terms of 'success' and 'failure'. "It’s a hangover from the past in which divorce was considered 'bad'," she says. "If one or both partners are unhappy in a relationship, why would you stay?"
One of the quietly radical things about Adele’s album is her tacit acknowledgement of this. "I changed who I was to put you both first," she sings, "but now I give up." In an interview with British Vogue, she went on to say that she wrote the album to explain to her son why she "voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life" in the pursuit of her own happiness. 
In the future, perhaps she wouldn’t feel she had to explain herself. Right now, though, it seems that outdated ideas about what constitutes 'success' in our romantic lives might be causing us to ruminate on our flaws rather than learn vital lessons and progress with the knowledge they bring. 
It’s worth remembering that until the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, it was very difficult to get out of an unhappy partnership in the UK. The Act meant that, for the first time, people could end marriages that had "irretrievably broken down". This is recent history so it’s understandable that there is still shame and stigma attached to relationship breakdowns — if we are not blaming ourselves, we are blaming someone else for whatever has gone down. 
Language plays a role here too. "Consider the terminology," Linda says. "We say that a relationship has 'broken down' or 'failed' or 'ended'. It is negative and shaming." All of this speaks to the pressure we put on ourselves to succeed across the board, to optimise our lives and present something resembling perfection to the world.
"Nowadays we live so long that the old idea of forever, which was to stay together and have children until they were independent, doesn't work anymore," Linda continues. “We are living longer so, even though we have children later, we are not as old as we once would have been by that point. Things are very different and perhaps we need to reinvent and redefine the idea of the relationship — of how long it lasts, what it is for and what we want to get from it."

Consider the terminology. We say that a relationship has 'broken down' or 'failed' or 'ended'. It is negative and shaming.

She’s right. In 2020 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data which showed that marriage rates for opposite-sex couples were at the lowest level ever recorded. It also revealed that in 2017, the average age at marriage of opposite-sex couples was 38.0 years for men and 35.7 years for women, figures which have slowly been rising in recent years.
Data shows that society is changing. Today around 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. And over the last 50 years, the median length of time that a divorcee's marriage lasted for has fluctuated between 8.9 years and 12.5 years so, even if you get to the point of marriage, the odds are that it won’t be forever. (That data is only for opposite-sex couples, since same-sex marriage has only been possible in England and Wales since 2014.)
By acknowledging these shifts and engaging in the reinvention Linda talks about, might we be able to free ourselves from some of the unnecessary suffering that follows heartbreak?
The end of a relationship, Linda explains, does not necessarily mean it was a failure. It may have been successful in many ways — you have learned from a person, gained in rich experience — but for whatever reason it was not right for you in the long term. 
"A breakup is not a failure," Linda says. "You learned that something was not suitable for you, for the other person or for both of you. You learn from it so it’s not a failure because it didn’t go on forever. Very few relationships do!"
Indeed, Linda points out that you might learn more through a breakup than by staying in a relationship that isn’t working. "It could be that you gain more by separating than by continuing quietly and never challenging yourself," she explains. "If a breakup happens it is neither a success or a failure, it is just something that happens in your life, makes it richer and teaches you things. The questions you should be asking yourself are: 'What did I learn?' and 'what do I hope not to repeat next time?'"
In a world that feels more uncertain than ever, the idea that you can meet someone, live happily ever after and never experience the pain of loss again is an appealing one. Single or not, we are all living through the 'great accelerator' of a pandemic that has forced us to look closely at our lives and ask whether they are working. But Linda questions whether it is healthy or realistic to put so much pressure on relationships 'working'. 
Breakups will always happen, the pain is inevitable. It's how we approach them that will change; eventually, we might see that the suffering they cause is (at least somewhat) optional. Perhaps we will even develop a new language for them.
"The old model of what a partnership looks like," Linda adds, "cannot be stuck on top of what younger generations are experiencing now – it doesn’t work anymore. You cannot take human relationships and deem those that continue to be 'successful' and those that do not to be 'failures'. It is far more complex and nuanced than that."  
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