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It was 20 years ago.
But, much like a traumatic car accident, I remember where I was when I was told that my first child would have a step-father.
In fact, every time I pass that particular strip mall, I can remember that conversation—which took place over the most primitive cell phone ever—in all of its horrific detail.
“You want us to be happy, don’t you?” my ex stated.
I use the word “stated” because, although it was disguised as a question, it wasn’t really a question. It came across a lot more like, “This is what is happening, so adjust.”
It was difficult. At that age, it seemed far too complicated for me to separate my feelings for my child and her mother, even though my more experienced friends suggested I do just that.
I was confused. For a couple of years after we separated, my ex would visit with my daughter, and there were no clear boundaries. Our relationship just seemed to grow an on and off switch.
But there, in that strip mall, I was being told that those days were now over. My daughter was going to have a different male figure in her life. One who would kiss her goodnight—every night. One who would possess the affection of her mother.
It was debilitating for me to consider.
Today, I think about the ensuing years, and I have nothing to be proud of.
My reaction was to pursue every beautiful woman I could and bring them with me to pick up my daughter for visitation.
Not a good look.
They were growing pains.
If I observe my former self in the most uncharitable light possible, I can’t help but regret all the collateral damage: the girlfriends I dragged through emotional mud, my daughter who grew up thinking I was a “slut,” and even my ex who experienced a myriad of various feelings through all of this.
I consider myself lucky that I am still in contact with my daughter, her mother, and even most of those girlfriends. Luckier still that they have all watched me become a different person over the years.
Broken hearts change us in different ways—some immediate, some over time.
Here are five ways that stand out more than all the others:
1. We Become Guarded
I feel like this may present differently from person to person, but it happens just the same.
In some, it manifests as the inability to fall in love with anyone for a protracted period—sometimes years.
For myself, it looked as if I fell in love with someone different every month (which is basically the same as never falling in love). That’s serial infatuation.
But whether we are hopping from bed to bed or volunteering to be alone for the duration, we are guarding ourselves against getting hurt.
2. It Can Lead Us to Our Purpose
Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” can appear as a path toward our calling.
My college breakup led me to the Bob Dylan catalog, which led me to my first coffee house gigs, which led me to a lifelong passion.
The strip mall breakup indirectly led me to recovery, which led me to write my book and my first book deal.
I really didn’t think I would survive either of those heartbreaks, but I did and became a more three-dimensional man in the process.
3. We Become Mature
My first breakup in college aggravated my obsessive nature; I couldn’t think about anything else for years.
Who was she dating? Where was she living? How could I get her back?
My second breakup, though not an overwhelming success, looked much different. With each heartbreak, I came into my own as an adult.
4. We Become a Better Friend
Empathy is a skill that anyone can acquire, but there is no truer empathy than the kind we get from those who have experienced our exact pain.
When my friends are hurting, I have no problem calling up those old emotions in a visceral way and remembering how raw I felt. This informs my ability to console.
Where others might pay lip service to the idea of “holding space” for someone who is suffering, that level of empathy gives us the ability to really listen and respond.
5. We Often Experience a Spiritual Awakening
The human brain, rascal that it is, can’t seem to differentiate physical pain from the pain of a heartbreak. The same neural pathways are involved.
So, just as we try to find something to relieve a migraine, we are practically compelled to find a way to relieve our emotional pain.
This often leads people to, almost unconsciously, seek spiritual relief. The faith we build as a result will sometimes stay with us for life. This doesn’t have to be organized religion, either. It can be more nebulous and more spiritual.
A broken heart is a serious malady, and I would never intimate that we are the better for having gone through it.
However, it does make sense if we are going through it regardless, to be aware of what we might gain in the process.