Breaking Up Is Hard To Do… But Sometimes Unexpectedly Good For Us
Comedian and author Rosie Wilby has been studying breakups for years for her podcast ‘The Breakup Monologues’ and for her forthcoming book of the same name. Here she shares just why she thinks breakups can sometimes have a very positive impact on us in the long run.
It’s February. We all know that what that means. It’s a terrible time of year to be single. Nobody wants to be alone… on Shrove Tuesday. So went one of my daft old jokes. Of course, I really mean Valentine’s Day. The hype surrounding all the cutesy cards and gifts, saccharine songs and swoony films can make us feel pretty lousy if we’ve been rejected, ghosted, breadcrumbed or just plain old-fashioned… dumped.
However, it has often been in the periods of recovery after a breakup that I have really found myself thriving.
After the initial chaos has dissipated, breakups can have very good side effects. A 2003 study published in the academic journal Personal Relationships and co-authored by writer and speaker Ty Tashiro and Patricia Frazier found that a group of ninety-two undergraduates who had experienced a recent romantic breakup reported, on average, five positive types of personal growth they thought might improve their future romantic relationships. These ranged from boosted self-confidence to learning how to be a better partner and, perhaps most crucially of all, how to choose a better partner. Women reported more growth than men did.
In a recent Diva magazine interview, star of the film ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, Adele Haenel said, ‘Maybe it’s not a failure when a love story ends. Maybe it lives within you and changes you forever.’ Meanwhile, ‘How to be Hopeful’ author and podcaster Bernadette Russell says, ‘breakups can bring with them the discomfort of uncertainty but also the exciting possibility that something wonderful could be on its way’. And Stanford University post-doctoral fellow Lauren Howe, who has studied relationship endings, says, ‘By seeing breakups as opportunities, people can harness them for self-improvement’.
This transformative power of a breakup is often very apparent in the way that somebody embraces life afterwards.
After she got dumped from a nine-year partnership, one of my Facebook friends started a ‘breakup list’ of daily new challenges, all the sporting activities she’d wanted to have a go at and places she’d wanted to visit but had become diverted from by the cosiness of commitment. Journalist Kate Spicer says, ‘breakups can be very cleansing, like a psychedelic experience. With hindsight, they’re magical… an idyll, where you can get yourself back’. Mia Levitin launched her dream career as a cultural critic in the wake of her divorce, finding that being single motivated her to dig deeper for her inner resilience. Writing in Red, she says, ‘Sometimes we’re better off not getting what we think we want’.
Comedian and podcaster Sam Baines describes having an explosive post-separation reclamation of her sexuality, feeling ‘astounded and thrilled that people fancied me after so long out of the game’. It coincided with the ‘empowering and uplifting’ experience of performing in the West End show Magic Mike and ‘speaking to three hundred women every night about loving your body.’ And famously, Sarah Millican embarked upon a stellar comedy career after her divorce, discussing in interviews how she needed to ‘hit the bottom in order to bounce back up again’.
Meanwhile John Robins and Sara Pascoe both wrote about their 2016 Christmas breakup in their 2017 Edinburgh Fringe shows. He went on to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award for The Darkness of Robins, in which he pedantically found comfort in the tiny victories of newly single life (a twenty-five percent single person’s council tax discount and knowing where the iPhone charger cable is), and she had five star reviews and acclaim for her show LadsLadsLads, in part inspired by an awful breakup recovery yoga retreat in Costa Rica.
What if a breakup is a vital piece of the grand puzzle of discovering our sense of self?
It’s almost as if these people have all harnessed the intensity of their emotion, the very same primal hurt that can push us towards destructive acts of revenge, and repurposed it as a force for good. This is the opposite narrative to the one we so often hear – that staying together is ‘good’ and breaking up is ‘bad’. Around the world, across cultures, a separation is seen as a shameful thing. So much so that photographs of a woman carrying a ‘Divorced and Happy’ sign at an International Women’s Day march in Pakistan caused a global ruckus on Twitter. But what if that narrative is wrong? What if a breakup is a vital piece of the grand puzzle of discovering our sense of self?
When something has hurt us we feel rearranged, as if our limbs and vital organs are in different places. This rebuilding can sometimes be a truly wonderful thing. I describe this type of liberated happy-sad rebirth as ‘breakup energy’, an idea that podcaster and author Dolly Alderton sums up really well: ‘When you’ve been dumped, it engenders this odd freedom. You make yourself your own project because suddenly you only have yourself to worry about. You’re creating a fun new story for yourself. That kind of fury, outrage, sadness and humiliation can be converted into something.’
Journalist and author Helen Croydon thinks that we often seek out something in a newly single life that is the opposite of the thing we didn’t quite like in a relationship. When her partnership with a pub-loving ‘bon viveur’ ended, she was propelled into doing something a bit more ‘worthwhile’ with her weekends than extended boozy lunches. She joined her local running club, the Victoria Park Harriers. It was a dramatic lifestyle change for a former party girl who admits that she had once ‘loathed the outdoors.’ She entered the London Triathlon and kept up a gruelling training regime through the rain and hail, eventually qualifying for the World Championships.
Similarly I have embarked on my greatest new adventures in those times when romance has faded. In the fleeting, liberating gaps after each of my first four big, serious relationships, I respectively recorded a music album, began a comedy career, wrote a book and started up a podcast.
If you have been through a breakup recently, hang in there. Reach out to friends. Be kind to yourself. Try to eat, sleep and keep to some gentle routines around exercise and being outdoors in nature where possible. If you have a pet, give it a cuddle. If you can borrow a pet, give it a cuddle. You will probably feel awful for a little while. Ugh. I’m sorry. But a time of sadness may just lead to better things in the end.
Rosie’s brilliant book ‘The Breakup Monologues – The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak’ is released in May but you can pre-order it now here.