My boyfriend ended things out of the blue. Here’s what I learned about heartbreak and how to live | Relationships

Illustration of box of tissues

‘Whenever anyone tells me they’re going through a breakup, it makes me feel sick,” I told my dad, sitting in his kitchen one weekend, during a trip home to Leeds. “It takes me right back to how much he hurt me, like I’ve got PTSD or something. Do you ever get that?”

He shook his head. “I have to say, I’ve never been heartbroken.” I went to challenge him because, at first, this concept seemed impossible. But then I remembered my mum saying that he was a bit of a player once; that he had always been the one ending things. I thought about what that might mean. No bad haircuts or drunken phone calls. No walking through a world where everything reminds you of them, from the blue of your coffee cup matching their eyes to an advert for Jet2 bringing back memories of them wanting to go to Venice. No listening to Taylor Swift songs and finding it impossible to believe that she didn’t write them specifically for you. No thought games where you imagine everything you’d do to get them back: drink a cup of toilet water, cut everyone else out of your life, sit in a room with James Corden for an hour – except you wouldn’t think that, because it’s a joke, and you wouldn’t be making any of those.

I was 25 when my ex-boyfriend ended our five-year relationship outside King’s Cross station in London. It was a normal evening; we’d just been for a pint with my brother, and as we set off for the tube, my ex pulled me aside and said, “I want to be on my own.” At first I thought he was joking, and then I thought he was telling me he was moving out of our flat. The idea of him actually leaving me felt like an impossibility.

When I saw he was serious, I didn’t know what to say, so I just said what a dumped person might come out with, which was: “You know that means you won’t get to see me any more?” He nodded, and I walked alone to the station, wondering if it might have been better to throw a drink over him the way they do on reality TV. I thought about ringing my parents, but what if he changed his mind and it was awkward the next time he came over for dinner? On the tube, I stared at a snotty-nosed kid opposite and a grey-haired man looking at the property section of a paper. I felt my life had just split into two: before this happened, and after it.

There’s no point in trying to describe the pain I felt when reality finally sank in, because even the best writers can’t do that. They begin the story once the characters have had a few weeks to settle, or they leave big gaps in the text that the reader fills in with their imagination. No words can grip on to it, everything slips off, turns pale. All I can tell you is what I did in response to that pain. That I cried so much I looked as if I had an eye infection. That I spent whole days watching things I wasn’t enjoying because the act of lifting my hand up to the keyboard to change the programme felt like too much effort. That I didn’t eat meals but staggered, zombified, to the fridge where I’d eat cold pasta straight from the Tupperware and glug a mouthful of apple juice, before finding another soft surface on which to think about all the things I did wrong. Instead of making an effort, I’d wandered around the house with spot stickers and flannel pyjamas on.

At this point, I hated the idea I could learn anything from my pain. Comments such as, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and, “We’re only given as much as the heart can endure” enraged me. They felt akin to telling me that all the pain I was feeling was justified; that I should be thankful for it even as it tore me apart. In quieter moods, I reasoned that the idea that we grow from suffering was just dumb. A way for people to explain the random cruelty of the universe.

Illustration of box of tissues
Illustration: Tom Humberstone/The Guardian

But after that conversation with my dad, I thought about how all those hurtful things I went through had moulded me into a different person. One so much more confident about what she wants, so much happier with who she is. And in that moment, I was surprised to realise I wasn’t actually jealous of my dad for never having gone through heartbreak because, in enduring it, I changed so fundamentally I barely even recognise the person I was before. I found myself weirdly thankful for the worst thing that ever happened to me. How could I not be when I learned so much?

The hardest thing to accept about getting over someone is that in order to do so, you must forget about them as well. Their skin turning the colour of milky tea in the sun; the back of their shaved head feeling like the soft underside of Velcro. When the crying stops and you go out in the world again and friends say, “You’re looking well”, it won’t feel good, because it means you’re doing it – you’re learning to live in the world without them, and that’s the last thing you wanted.

But you must do this, because if you cling on too tightly to your memory of them you won’t be able to heal. Instead, you’ll be like a goldfish, continually hitting the side of its tank because its memory spans only three seconds, which is to say you’ll drunk-call them all the time, or turn up at parties you know they’re attending just so you can get their attention by laughing loudly at jokes that aren’t funny.

Over time, there will be moments when they become this formless image like the ones you see in dreams. At this point, you will think you have forgotten, until sometime later when you do something so unbelievably them, so typical of who they were – such as stopping outside an estate agent’s and looking at the houses you can’t afford or making a neeeeowwwwww noise when a bike speeds past. And you will realise you cannot lose them even if you wanted to, because they’re part of you for ever in the way that you walk, talk, sleep, breathe.

I learned you shouldn’t waste your time wishing parts of them away. Thinking things such as: if only they’d stopped putting so much emphasis on work; if only they’d stopped sending flirty texts to other people. There’s no point imagining it could have been different, because if that was the case, then they wouldn’t be themselves but another person entirely.

I learned that everything you are feeling, they are, too. It’s a shame you can’t talk to them about it, because you would have a lot in common. Problem is, you’d just end up sleeping together.

There’s a moment in Stag’s Leap, the poetry collection Sharon Olds wrote about her divorce, when she describes the first time she feels anger towards her soon-to-be-ex-husband: “I imagine a flurry of tears like a wirra of knives thrown at a figure to outline it – a heart’s spurt of rage. It glitters, in my vision, I nod to it, it is my hope.” I didn’t think of anger as something hopeful until I read these lines. But Olds is right – the force of this emotion can give you the strength to walk away. Often the anger will emerge in response to small things, like the fact that they’re still logged into your Deliveroo – not using your card, but just the account. Or the way they still like your friend’s pictures on Instagram. You probably don’t care much about either of those things, but because you can’t get angry at what you really want to – that you can’t be with them any more – you’ll go insane over them. Lean into the force of this emotion, because it will give you the strength to get where you need to be. Clearing their stuff out of your room, blocking them, completing the Couch to 5k.

Illustration of woman with her feet up, reading
Illustration: Tom Humberstone/The Guardian

I learned that gaining “closure” won’t heal anyone as much as you want it to. It’s a chance for the person who did wrong to unburden themselves of guilt. Finding out why either of you acted the way you did will probably only make the one suffering feel worse. And, again, you’ll just end up sleeping together.

I learned the power of fantasy. A few weeks after the breakup, I told my mum that I couldn’t stop hoping we’d get back together and was surprised when she nodded along as if that might be an OK thing to do. “As long as you’re not thinking of getting back together next week or anything,” she said. “If you’re thinking in a year or so, then that’s fine, because by the time you arrive at that future you’ll likely not care as much whether you do get back together or not.”

The point is, when you go through a breakup, reality is too painful to endure, so you’re going to end up having to believe in fantasies like the one I had about us getting back together. There were others, too, like the way I told myself it “came out of nowhere”, even though we’d been arguing for months. Believing he’d just made this nonsensical decision hurt less than accepting something was fundamentally broken. Or when he got with someone new and I kept saying that I was just “too much” for him and he needed an easier, plainer woman because he was too cowardly for me. Even though she was probably very lovely, probably went out partying until daylight cut through her blinds, probably ran into the sea even when it was cold. These lies will have consequences in the long term, but you will need to allow yourself the kindness of ignorance in order to get there.

Self-love sounds wank, and a lot of it is. But I understand now that it’s not just a way for skincare companies to sell you sheet masks. Prioritise your own pleasure. Make intricate meals that involve laborious steps. Know you’re worth the time to make that meal even if it’s eaten in minutes. Light candles before you masturbate even if it makes you feel weird, and spend ages doing it rather than just shuddering away at the end of a vibrator. Spend whole days in bed reading, not answering your phone, because – let’s be honest – you’re probably not that capable in a crisis anyway. Spend hours making things that you could buy cheaply, like scented candles, cushions and pesto. Do things for yourself that you normally do only for other people. Be kind to yourself in all these hundreds and thousands of ways and all those cliches about loving yourself will start to feel true.

Society teaches us that love should be romantic, but it can come from friends, too. Friends bolster me and build me up, and being with them is like being in a support group. I already knew how great these women would be at helping me to cope. Listening to me cry down the phone, smiling and nodding as I diagnosed my ex with various mental illnesses despite having very little understanding of the symptoms. And through all this talking, I slowly came to terms with the idea that my relationship was over.

I already knew that my guy-mates would be so uncomfortable with my pain that they wouldn’t do anything to address it bar a borderline aggressive hug. What I didn’t know was that their nonchalant attitude would turn out to be just as essential. In making absolutely no concessions for your pain, male friends will allow you to spend whole evenings pretending it’s not there so, for a short time, you can remember what it’s like to move through the world without it.

When you’re in a relationship, all their problems become yours and all your problems become theirs. For every article I wrote, my ex would proofread it for errors, tell me which metaphors to take out and where I needed to signpost. But then he left, and I had no one but myself. I would be ashamed to be as demanding with friends as I was with him. So now I just suck it up. I get done what needs to be done, and I’ve realised in doing it that I didn’t need his help all along.

I learned there’s no point in anyone giving you advice, because nothing will make it better. Any sentence beginning with, “When me and my ex broke up …” is infuriating. Even worse is when people criticise your ex, because you’re still in love with them and feel it now more than ever. The only thing you might be slightly receptive to is hearing, “You will be OK.” There’s something soothing in the certainty of it, even if you don’t yet fully trust it.

I learned that pain isn’t linear. Years after it happened, you might find yourself crying after seeing them like a meme on Instagram. That doesn’t mean you’re going backwards. It’s like my friend said to me when I was upset about finding out he was dating someone new: “If you plotted progress on to a graph, it wouldn’t be this straight line up towards happiness. It would wiggle backwards, then forwards, up and down, but that doesn’t mean you’re not healing. It just means we all experience emotions at different times.” And then she promised me something that turned out to be true. “You’re going to feel really good soon – I can feel it.”

There will always be things only your ex would get, such as how typical it is that your parents have rearranged the living room so it “feels more open” even though now none of the sofas point towards the TV. You could try telling them but, for the third time, you will just end up sleeping together.

A breakup is meant to be a sad thing, and it is. But I learned it can be an act of kindness, too. We weren’t right for each other. We wanted different lives and in letting each other go we’ve been able to let each other live those. He lives somewhere where he can eat breakfast on a balcony overlooking the sea, a place I would find boring. I go to exhibitions and take pictures of the descriptions by the pictures knowing I’ll have time and space when I get home to think about those thoughts in more detail.

I learned that you have so much to look forward to, even though it doesn’t feel like it. The first time you touch a different person’s body it will be completely fascinating. The knot of muscles on a stomach compared with the soft press of another’s. Bones under a shoulder lining up in ways you never expected. This curiosity will carry you through several sexual encounters until you start to long for what you knew so well. The long seam of a back. The freckle under a shoulder blade. Just try as hard as you can not to compare people to your ex, because no one will get even close.

I learned that at some point you have to snap out of it, tie up your bootstraps and march on. Otherwise, you’ll be one of those people who begins sentences with: “My boyfriend, I mean ex-boyfriend.”

I learned that you will, like everyone told you, be OK. When you speak to people going through breakups, repeat that same phrase to them: you will be OK. Don’t repeat any of the other lessons you’ve learned, because they won’t listen. They’ll just end up sleeping with their ex again.

Notes on Heartbreak by Annie Lord is published by Orion on 23 June. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.