I Devoted A Full Year To Studying Heartbreak – This Is What I Learnt

Image may contain Hair Human Person Clothing and Apparel
Albert Watson

My worst heartbreak followed a relationship that never quite happened. Joshua and I met through a friend. I was 24 and, as we tend to in our mid-twenties, I hated myself. With him, though, I found I hated myself a little less. In his company, I constructed a narrative in which my life was wonderful – the kind of life you’d want to get closer to. Perhaps it was never even him I was interested in. I just liked the version of myself that came to life sitting across from Joshua at a bar, telling stories like I had any, and holding back my shoulders as though I knew who I was.

I can vividly remember every date – of which there can’t have been more than half a dozen – the cologne he wore, the waiter who kept interrupting, the nights we spent at his house, me discovering pieces of him on bookshelves and nightstands, an addictive glimpse into a world I wanted to live in. I was certain he was falling in love with me. He said as much. Plans began to unfold, with an imagined future as exciting as the present. The colour of my life changed.

And then he cancelled a date, right after I’d washed my hair. Then the messages became more sporadic – he was busy, but maybe not; actually, never mind, let’s do next week – until he stopped replying altogether. I am envious that my grandmothers never knew the pain of being heartbroken by an iPhone that stopped lighting up. Eventually he did call: he was back with his ex-girlfriend. I will remember her name until the day I die. I was polite, and then after I hung up I cried myself sick.

This was not my first heartbreak. Perhaps it hurt the most because I had invented a future I never even got to touch. Love – or whatever that was – doesn’t make any sense. It is magic, and heartbreak is the price we pay. Five years later, I would publish a book called Heartsick. For 12 months I closely studied heartbreak through the lives of three subjects. This is what I learnt.

Heartbreak, the kind that shatters your sense of self, and makes you realise the world offers promises it can’t keep, never really leaves you. I once spoke to a man well into his sixties whose heart had been broken at 14. When he recalled her name and the colour of her hair, he sobbed into hands that had weathered the decades since. For some of the subjects I interviewed, years had passed. Some were currently in love, but they still thought of that person who they had once designed their lives around. It had affected them deeply.

I learnt that heartbreak is not a brand of grief we respect. Our cultural response to heartbreak is vastly insufficient, and we offer meaningless platitudes in an attempt to wish it away sooner. We need a better vocabulary to describe a pain that has existed for all of human history, and better rituals to process romantic trauma.

And finally, there is profound value in heartbreak. The more we allow ourselves to feel romantic rejection, and let the grief pass through us, the better use we are to others. And isn’t that the point of it all? The language of heartbreak becomes a gift we are able to offer those currently experiencing it. The irony is, it is when we feel most alone that we are at our most human, and therefore our most connected to everyone else around us. Perhaps there is nothing more beautiful than that.

Heartsick by Jessie Stephens (Pan Macmillan, £17) is out 3 February