When The Love Of Your Life Doesn’t Love You

Photo: Lance Shields

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about a particularly painful breakup he’d gone through recently.  His girlfriend had decided she no longer wanted to be with him and had summarily cut him out of her life.  Naturally, he yearned for an explanation and some closure, so he confronted her.  She explained to him what she perceived to be the problem, that he wasn’t focused enough on her and their relationship, and that she wanted something it had become apparent to her he couldn’t or wouldn’t give.  In response, he told her he could and would if she would only give him the chance.  This was the first time he was hearing all this, he argued.  It was unfair of her not to give him a chance to respond to her feedback.  Her answer:  no thanks.

Often, of course, the reasons we get (and give) for ending relationships are less than truthful.  Sometimes, the truth is avoided because it seems simply too harsh.  At other times, it’s because the real reason isn’t grasped even by the person doing the ending, coming as it so often does from a place of dysfunction (e.g., insecurity, fear, etc.).  Whatever the reason, by the time someone has decided to end a relationship, they’re usually committed to that course, and nothing the other person does or says will change his or her mind.  Even when the relationship proceeds from that point to end slowly, in a series of recurrent reconciliations and breakups, eventually the relationship does end for good, leaving the person who was left devastated.  As was my friend.

WHAT IS LOVE?

Artists, writers, philosophers, and psychologists have been attempting to understand love for as long as people have been feeling it.  And while the debate over its precise definition continues to rage on, like art, most people seem able to recognize it when they see it (that is, feel it).  What’s most interesting about love, however, is that how it feels seems to vary not just with the phase of the relationship in which it’s felt, but with the phase of life in which the feeler finds themselves when they feel it.

Most of us currently involved in long-term romantic relationships remember the obsessive nature of what we felt during our relationship’s early stages, a love that caused all other concerns to recede (sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically) into the background of our lives.  We remember just how fun, pleasurable, intoxicating, and all the other good things the songs all say love is quite vividly.  But most of us involved in stable romantic relationships now have also experienced romantic relationships in the past that failed and remember how much embarrassment, heartbreak, and angst (and every other bad thing the songs say love is) are involved.  To have love yanked out from under us in the early stages of a relationship is dramatic and devastating, often leading to suffering far out of proportion to the actual event.  For all sorts of reasons, when we lose a love that’s freshly minted we often feel as if our lives are falling apart and that we’ll never be happy again.

But people who lose love when in a different stage of a relationship than the beginning—perhaps several years or even decades on—or in a different phase of life from their youth (when emotions generally run to extremes), tend to experience suffering over the loss of love in a slightly different way.  When we lose love through divorce in middle age, for instance, there are often other things lost as well:  children, homes, lifestyles, and dependable companionship.  Though the loss of these things compounds our suffering, often the suffering we feel is less tinged with a sense of dramatic tragedy.  Most people in this circumstance are better able to glimpse through their suffering the truth that life will go on, that they will be happy again someday, as studies on the set-point theory of happiness have now begun to demonstrate.

When we lose love at the end of life, however, most often due to the death of our spouse or life partner, recovery tends to be just as hard as when we lose love at the beginning of our lives as teens or young adults—but for different reasons.  It’s not that our emotions run as hot as they did when we were younger.  It’s that we know our own demise is coming sooner rather than later and our constitution and confidence are often not what they once were.  Our scope of interest and involvement in the world has often narrowed so that without our life companion in it we often have little else in our lives to return to after we recover from our loss.  And then, of course, we have the entire history of the relationship looming large in our minds like a movie playing over and over, which retrospectively seems like the fuel that was keeping us going all along.  Without it, we often feel our forward momentum stall.

HOW TO GO ON

So how do we recover when we lose a great love?  As with any loss, we must look upon it as a challenge and an opportunity.  I say this without in any way attempting to downplay the intense suffering the loss of love brings.  No matter what stage of a relationship or stage of life in which we find ourselves, dealing with the end of love is often overwhelming.  But whether we’re sixteen and feel as if life is about to end or sixty-nine and know it actually soon will, within that ordeal resides the opportunity not just to survive but to thrive—to alter the very way love functions in our lives by becoming stronger for having lost it.

We can love and be loved from a position of strength or weakness.  Even the strong suffer when they lose love—but are proven strong when eventually they emerge from their cocoon of suffering and re-engage with life enthusiastically.  The strong know the true meaning of the Buddhist phrase “suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy” in a way the weak do not.  They know that romantic love, especially the obsessive kind, is essentially grounded in selfishness.  That they craved it because of how it made them feel, not because of how it made the person they love feel.

THE LOVE WE ALL WANT

In Buddhism, the term jihi is used to denote the mercy, or love, that a Buddha feels for all people.  In contrast to romantic love, jihi represents the kind of love that requires nothing from the person toward whom it is felt, the joy that we experience from feeling it having nothing to do with any response we receive in return.  If our children rebel and cease to speak to us, do we stop caring about what happens to them—in effect, stop loving them?  No.  This love we bear our children, then, represents the closest thing to jihi the unenlightened can feel, actually becoming jihi when it expands to include all beings.  Romantic love may provide the spark that gives birth to it, but jihi romantic love is not.

Jihi is the kind of love toward which we should all strive to feel for others, whether we’re romantically in love with them or not.  If we feel jihi toward another with whom we’re also romantically in love and they take their love from us, they cannot take our feeling of jihi for them unless we allow it.  And if we don’t allow it, though we’ll still hurt—even a Buddha has an ego to contend with—we’ll find ourselves far better positioned to recover and eventually flourish again.

Developing the capacity to feel jihi represents the greatest benefit we could gain from a broken heart.  If we can use the suffering we feel at losing romantic love to break through the shell of our smaller selves (the selves that might even hate the person who once loved us for hurting us by taking their love away), we just may find ourselves in a place where we can genuinely wish for their happiness whether we’re a part of it or not.  And if we can accomplish that—well, then we’ll have gained something of far greater value than the love of another person:  the indescribable joy that comes from the ability to love everyone.

Next weekThe Illusion Of Expertise

18 comments to When The Love Of Your Life Doesn’t Love You

  • dana

    Very timely post. You’ve captured many of my own recent thoughts as I struggle to process the loss of love, the suffering, and let go of the hurt gradually. It is overwhelming on many days, but the gifts and learning that have accompanied the grief have certainly helped me find my footing again as well as my smile. Love is all around me and in me…I have much to give and have been blessed with receiving it from many. Thank God.

    I will never be the same. I’m fine with that. Change in life is inevitable. However, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. Given time and purposeful reflection, the layers will fall off and I will find myself in a place where mercy and goodwill sit waiting for me to find them.

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  • Jeann

    Alex, what a great article…again. My heart was broken 4 months ago when the romantic relationship I was in ended abruptly, and I felt devastated. Friends (including you, Alex(s)) helped by reminding me pain heals in time and others told me it comes in waves. I promised myself I would feel the loss, hurt, humiliation, pain, pity, anger, rage, despair and sadness with as much conscious awareness as I could, “no stone left unturned,” to heal. I particularly grieved the loss of the friendship within the romance, the loss of knowing, of good will, of caring about, independent of my romantic hopes and dreams. Recently, an appropriate friendship is taking new form, and our communications of mutual good will in the present astonish me, and bring confidence and esteem in myself as a loving being—that I am capable of creating this! I think it is similar to the jihi you describe.

  • Awesome article, Alex. Amazingly clear and coherent discussion of a topic which is by its very nature often confusing and clumsily explained due to the raw emotional nature of the event.

    Off-topic, I have a question for you. I’m wonder *how* it is you come up with your weekly posts. Is the topic something you identify ahead of time, and then reflect or meditate on? Just admiring the depth and objectivity with which you investigate your topics, and communicate them in a heartfelt way, yet unclouded by convention or unbridled emotion. And wondering what the process is, or at least, how it begins.

    Thanks again for the gift.

    S-

    Steven: Deciding what to write, as I’m sure you’ve found yourself, is one of the the hardest parts about writing. I draw heavily on my daily experience in medicine, in my discussions with Buddhists and friends, and on my Buddhist practice. I reject far more ideas than I accept. For a post to work for me, there needs to be one or two central ideas that resonate for me and that I think others will find helpful or interesting. Sometimes, these ideas come fully developed and I’m writing as fast as I can just to keep up with what’s flowing out of my head. Other times, ideas only suggest themselves in a title that intrigues me so much I decide I’ll just go with it and see what comes out. And then, frankly, I chant about it, often writing the posts while I’m chanting. I pick the title/topic of my next week’s posts once I finish the current week’s and then spend a number of days letting it percolate before I attack it.

    I appreciate your compliments and can only say that whatever wisdom manages to come through does so as a result of decades of my working to improve my understanding of life and myself. Other than craft (which is critically important) in my view continuous self-development is what keeps writing interesting and fresh. Writing, after all, is nothing more than a reflection of thinking.

    Alex

  • Brendalee

    Alex, what a wonderful article. I don’t have as much time as I used to have to respond, but this touched my heart enough to post. I remember when my soulmate, or who I thought was my soulmate, left. One day he was there, the next day he was gone. I have never felt the total emptiness and intense internal emotional pain that I felt then and to this day, have never experienced again, thankfully…it certainly made me gun shy to love that deeply again. I felt like if I could just touch the pain it would feel better but there was nothing to touch, which has always amazed me about emotional pain…it feels so physical and yet, there is nothing to touch. I survived but it took many, many years. I like to say that when I see him or hear him or get an email from him, it doesn’t rock my world any more. It does, however, get me to thinking of “what ifs” and I just can not go in that direction. In my job I strive to “love” all my patients and most of the time I get there, caring for them deeply and saddened with their passing. I don’t, however, feel this “love” toward everyone and I struggle with that as everyone deserves to be loved. Life is hard at times and the pain is sometimes unbearable. However, when I come out the other side I have more strength for the next round.

    I do so enjoy your writings. Thank you so much.

    Brendalee: Thank you for taking the time to make this comment.

    Alex

  • Jill MacGregor

    Oh Alex,
    How annoyingly timely of you…I’m in a bit of a struggle myself so I feel like I was meant to find your words.

    I’ll say this, my state of mind does give me a lot to write about—whether I publish it or not. I have a motto: Why waste all that good pain.
    🙂

    Take care,
    Jill

    Jill: Sorry to hear it. But you know a thing or two about changing poison into medicine, don’t you?

    Alex

  • RG

    What a sad story, for both sides. I’m often baffled, when I’m ending things, about how oblivious the other party can be. It makes it worse to have to delineate the slow accretion of stresses, disappointments, compromises, as though I’ve been truly invisible the entire time. On the other hand, as the end-ee, it often feels like I’m dealing with someone deeply depressed, who has chosen to focus their attention on trivial, and solvable, issues.

    Speaking of depression, you may be interested in the two-part series on suicide from Sci Am:
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=being-suicidal-what-it-feels-like-t-2010-10-20

    I thought the real-vs-fake suicide note spoke to your story: Fake notes are vague and real ones reflect the concrete issues that are what life has been reduced to, which is why feuding couples are reduced to milk, dry cleaning, dishes. It certainly lends credence to your hypothesis that the gf is giving a less than truthful accounting.

  • cynthia

    I am in the middle of a divorce after being together for almost 10 years and this was a Godsend. You just don’t know how much this has touched my heart. Thank you.

    Cynthia: I’m so sorry to hear it. And you’re so welcome.

    Alex

  • Sandy

    Great post, Alex! I have a friend going through a rough time right now so I’ve sent her the link to read this.

    I really like what Dana wrote too:

    “Love is all around me and in me…I have much to give and have been blessed with receiving it from many.”

    Thanks,
    Sandy

  • This is a wonderful article, Alex. I’ve been with my husband for over 45 years and find it difficult to think about the day that one of us will be without the other. But I love the word and the definition of jihi. It’s a term I wasn’t familiar with. You say that jihi is the type of love that one person can’t take from another. You were referring to a break-up, but I’m now thinking of it as the love that will still be alive in the heart of the one of us who survives the other.

    Toni: Yes, that, too.

    Alex

  • John

    Thanks for a great article (again) Alex.

    I have twice been in the position of having long-time partners (both wives of many years) tell me that they wanted to follow their own new paths, and in each case of course, the marriage ended.

    While it was painful and somewhat challenging in each case, what has been remarkable an uplifting has been that in each case, we were able to maintain the state of jihi toward one another. Sure, there were prickly difficult issues to deal with, but they were short-lived (anicca, annica, annica… 🙂 ) and the sense of loving kindness to one another prevailed, despite ending of the romance.

    Interestingly one of those former wives was a habitual meditator and follower of Buddhist principles (as do I), the other wouldn’t meditate if her life depended on it…but she “got it” instinctively, and kept her heart open throughout the whole process, bless her.

    I guess my main reason for mentioning all this is that when reading your comment (which I agree with) …

    “If we feel jihi toward another with whom we’re also romantically in love and they take their love from us, they cannot take our feeling of jihi for them unless we allow it.”

    …that I would also like to point out that it is possible to end a romantic relationship where both partners maintain a state of jihi toward one another. When this situation exists, love isn’t actually being withdrawn—I guess it’s only romance that is.

    While it’s not the norm in a typical separation I’m sure I’m not alone in having experienced this.

    Thanks again.

    John

    John: Very nice point.

    Alex

  • Wow. Like most of the respondents here, I found this just at the right time, when I’m staggering from a painful breakup. Something I’ve done in past breakups—but that I’ve been having trouble doing with this one—is to chant: “I send you all my love, I send you all my love” to my ex- whenever I feel in a particularly painful spot. It helps ease the pain somewhat. I’ve always known that true love is when you want their happiness regardless of your own, but I’d lost sight of that recently, getting caught up in blame (of him and of myself). This article reminded me to keep my heart in a place of love for this man, no matter what happens, in the end, to our connection.

    Thank you!

    Melissa

  • christian

    Alex,
    I went through a divorce a year and a half ago. I was the one who left after 17 years of marriage because I could no longer deal with the sense of emptiness the relationship left me. When we broke up I wished for my ex wife to find some sense of happiness and that this was not the end of the world; partly to assuage my guilt I suppose but also because as a very novice Buddhist, I believed it was the right thing for both of us. But in the year and a half since the divorce, there has been very little jihi and much acrimony from her. She is filled with anger still. It’s unfortunate. I can’t say that I feel jihi for her only small sense that I do not wish her harm. I’m certain she feels nothing near jihi for me. Maybe in time.

    However, I do believe in sending lovingkindness out to the world and attempt, now that I am in a much better place emotionally and psychologically, embody that ideal with everyone I encounter. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Christian: Indeed, as you say, maybe in time.

    Alex

  • Mary Ellen

    Every relationship ends either in a break-up or death. It’s astonishing to me that we enter into them at all, but we do.

  • Kimberly

    Six months ago my partner of 8 yrs told me she still loved me but for her own spiritual well being needed to travel a different path. It was totally unexpected. On a certain level I am aware that it really was to our mutual spiritual well being and am conscious that we had developed codependency issues. I am well aware that I was largely to blame for her having made that decision, which was agonizing for her as well. I was and still am broken. The separation process lasted close to a month and a half. My first reaction was despair then the anger started to creep in. Thankfully I was able to make the monumental effort to keep my ego at bay, with the exception of the occasional flare up, to make it a loving farewell. We agreed to stay in close contact so as to mend and strengthen mentally, emotionally and spiritually as individuals to allow for a healthy, strong re-union in 1 yr. Not to recapture the past but to create a new beginning. We each went our separate ways with 4 thousand miles distance between us. Recently the correspondence from her end has become sporadic with overtones of friendship only. It is clear that she has moved on in her heart. It opens up the old wounds that were just starting to heal. I found myself falling into a clingy codependent behavior. I made and communicated the decision that for MY well being I needed to suspend the occasional supportive ”friendly” contact for a while because I am not in a friends-only place in my heart. I don’t know how long a while will be. She was the only person i had ever envisioned spending the rest of my life with and growing old with. She is the romantic love of my life. Letting her go was the hardest for me to do. But I do know I would rather run the risk of losing her forever than than torturing and losing myself forever. I actually googled how to recover from losing the love of your life and the infinite universal intelligence directed me to this website. For which I am grateful. I found elsewhere a simple yet powerful description that shed a ray of hope to light the path to recovery. It made me laugh and cry! Hope it can be of use to another grieving and wounded soul-mate:

    You grieve……… You cry……. You yell and talk to yourself……… You can’t eat…… You can’t sleep………. Then you walk…….. And talk to yourself some more……… And you let the “denial” stage pass along with the “anger” stage…….. It may take months………. Sometimes one step forwards and two back…….. Time moves on……… The crying is less……… You don’t wake up in the middle of the night as often……… You start to feel a bit better……. You’re ready to socialize again……….. You’re at the “acceptance” stage……… You’ll always miss him or her but you’ll move on………. And then, out of the blue, you’ll cry again…….. But that too will pass……… And it might take a whole lot longer than you thought!

    Remember: “Don’t be sad that he or she is gone, be glad that you had the opportunity to be together, and cherish the memories.”

    Kimberly: So sorry to hear of your suffering. It will get better, just like the quotation you provided says.

    Alex

  • Tonya

    I am not familiar with what is said jihi as I am Christian. I enjoyed the terminology about how love should be as we love our children. Interesting.

  • Kristin

    He says, “I didn’t get a chance to fix it.”

    She thinks: What I want is someone with enough emotional intelligence to understand when I’m unhappy and the desire to fix it without the threat of being left.

    In my opinion—which is ever so humble—they both have good points. And whether one or the other is correct is up for debate.

    But it’s a very Renee Zellweger moment: “I want you to *want* to do the laundry.”

  • Shelley Lewin

    Hi, Alex,
    Thank you for this post. It is well-written, helpful and provides a fantastically different perspective.

    As a relationship coach I have a special interest in dating, marriage, love, etc. and am always looking for articles/blogs to share with my clients. I think this could provide considerable relief to many of them..and of course I will send them on to your site for further enlightenment. Thank you.

    Shelley: Thank you.

    Alex

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