Advice Column: How To Handle Yourself When A Breakup Gets The Best Of You

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Dear Chelsea,

I was dating this guy for the past six months and he decided to drop the breakup bomb in the middle of a dinner date. We were at a restaurant and I really felt blindsided. I was so upset that he didn't deliver the news in a more thoughtful, intimate, and sensitive manner. He didn't give any real reason other than something like "I think it's best we both move on." He was also very cold and businesslike in how he presented it. It almost felt like I was on an exit interview after getting let go by a company. My emotions got the best of me and I really lost control. I gave him a stinging slap across the face that was widely noticed and then walked out. It was in the city so I took a cab home. While I'm still resentful of how he handled it, I feel like I should do the mature and responsible thing and apologize for the slap. I don't really feel like calling him so would an apology note via email or regular mail be appropriate?

Dear Oh No You Didn't,

If men know one thing, it's that women love to talk. Women love to be in the know. So when a man leaves her in the dark, it just feels so hateful. So measured. So enjoyed.
There were times in my life where I wanted to reach across that silent chasm (read: dinner table) and get my hands all over a man too. Shake him. Shake him the f-- awake. I never could. And so I would tremble and sob, on display for him to watch me through all that hateful, measured, enjoyable silence of his.

Oh boy. My sadness was so sloppy back then. It felt like a punishment too, like what happens to a woman who forfeits her own peace.

For three and a half years, I was in a relationship where I was uncontrollable. Unconsolable. You know how you said your emotions got the best of you? For three years, my pain got the best of me. I was unrecognizable. My gentleness, a distant memory to my rage.

It's what you hear some other woman confess and think oh, well, that would never happen to me. I'd never lose sight of myself. I'd never stay in something that was that bad for me for that long.

But then, you do. Somehow you do. Somehow you stay. You get caught up in the search for something, something like worth, like your worth in a man of silence, as if he were suddenly your mirror. Then you wonder how, you wonder when, you let love become the exact opposite of you. You let love become a man who knows his silence hurts you. Kills you.

It can feel this way, right? Like a man will use his silence to hurt us. Will use his silence because he knows we hate it. Maybe the one thing he doesn't know is that he must hate something about us. There must be something within us that he fears. Or, is it something within him that's been destroyed, that's been shut down? I wonder if women forget that this can happen for a man, too. That he can die a little inside, feel destroyed, and intentionally unheard. I wonder if women forget that grown men shut down in their own way. That, while they may hurt us with their silence, we may be hurting them with our words, our frustrated expectations, with our jittery plea to hear more, to know everything, to have a man confess all his answers and all his heart and then some.

You see, if a man's Gandhi-like silence is enough to make a woman's heart snap and her arms swing, I wonder if there's not something that a woman might be doing to make a man recoil, to turn him cold and methodical, to provoke him to treat a dinner date like an exit interview. Follow my train of thought. If that stinging slap of yours was an out of body experience, what's to say that your ex's robotic, insensitive breakup bomb wasn't an out of body experience too?

What if it isn't malice at all that provokes the worst in us but a sadness that we fail to pinpoint? I mean, is that not what's partially motivating you to apologize? You don't want a man you had a romance with to forget your beauty and now only think of you as that angry b*tch. Or, one heartbreak away from abuse. An awful word, I know. But anger is never pretty, especially when it's portrayed by a woman.

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Listen, I'm not here to shame you. We shame ourselves enough as it is. Please know that you're not alone in this either. I was never proud when I learned how loud my voice could get and, to this day, I'm ashamed of the anger that became me. It scared me, you know? And sure, even though the boyfriend who bared witness to my "passion" said he was never scared of me, it's scary enough that I even had to ask. The bottomline is I was scared of me. I was scared of those out of body experiences. I was scared that I was letting my own anger break my heart, and that it was all playing out in front of another human being's eyes.

I'm telling you all this because when I first got your letter, I read it and couldn't relate. I've never slapped a man, I thought to myself. And, anyway, I don't do yes or no questions. I don't write about manners. I figured I'd just respond to you in an email, encourage you to mail him a letter, and even give you a few store names in the city where you could go shop for cards. That's what I decided.

But then, I stepped in for a midnight shower and suddenly, as most traumas will, it all came back to me. My tears. My hysteria. His silence. Our cold, transactional dinner dates. His sudden change in character. The betrayal in that alone. I began to remember it all. The night when he was talking in a way that felt like he was letting me go. Or, more accurately, that felt like he had already let me go. The night when he again couldn't offer me much emotion or any reasons at all. The night that made me shoot up from my chair. That made me lunge at him. My fists clenched.

I don't know what I thought I was going to do. I think I wanted to pound on his chest and bawl in his arms. I think I was hoping he would take me in and soften around my drama. Maybe I was hoping to shake us both awake, to ask what's become of us? Maybe I was looking to ruin us once and for all. And ruin us I did, because now when I think of us, I think of how I made him flinch, and this one memory overshadows years of our sweetest ones.

I don't know whether he lives with this memory or not. But I do, and that's enough to make it not okay.

Even if it sent a rush of relief through your body, the slap you inflicted should not be celebrated. Not by you. Not by your girlfriends. Certainly not by me. I can't think of one good reason for you to be proud. Even if your ex did do something terrible, God gave you legs, you can use them to run or walk away gracefully. If I had done so, my relationship would never have gotten to the point where I had to shoot out of chairs and go lunging for my ex's lukewarm love. Best of all, we never would have had to discover that side of myself.

Maya Angelou said, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." This is where my advice is coming from. A place of now knowing better.

I know now that our relationships, and the meaning we attach to them, are the stories that live within us the longest. (It's wise we make a solid effort to not make them so awfully dramatic.) We don't outgrow these stories, you see. We don't get to just shed and leave them behind. We either get stuck in them or we grow through them. We either repeat the same patterns and love in the same way, or we evolve beyond our patterns and come to love in better ways. Deeper ways. Freer ways. Taking responsibility for the way we love and lose people, for the way we take them in and let them go, is how we grow through our relationships. It's how we move into a place of knowing better.

Writing your ex a letter is a good place to start from. It's the perfect opportunity to begin taking responsibility. Plus, writing down what you know is a great way to heal and offer healing. It's what I should have done.

I never acknowledged my anger with my ex which is probably why it can pour out of me if someone so much as scratches the surface. It's what they call an open wound. It's what they call shame. Does my exposing it now make me seem weak to you? I'll tell you what's definitely weak in character: It's weak how I wrote my boyfriend so many love letters but never could acknowledge all the anger and pain and confrontation, the way I blamed him and how unconsolable I became. I was too ashamed of myself back then. And, you know what? Now I'm ashamed that I didn't step up and initiate healing for us both. Because we did deserve that.

Regardless of right and wrong, we deserved to look each other in the eye and speak to all that had happened between us. All that had been beautiful and all that had gotten out of hand. I'm ashamed that I was too consumed in my own drama, in my own side of the story. I was too consumed with how I was being hurt which evidently didn't leave much room to wonder how I may have been hurting him also. Reading a small bit about you makes me wonder a lot about myself, about whether the intensity of my tears didn't shut my boyfriend down over time.
I bet they did. I bet my expectations crippled him too.

I recommend you leave room to wonder how you may have hurt your boyfriend, how you may have shut him down accidentally, how your slap may play over and over in his head and what that could do to him over time. How that might even challenge the way he perceives women and their propensity to lash out when they are hurting.

It's not easy to make room for thoughtfulness. Not when heat and romance turn into anger and heartbreak, and it's much more pleasurable to fixate on the details of our stories. The context of our upset. Why it made sense to slap him. Why it made sense to slam doors and shut each other out. Today I see how little those details matter though. What ultimately weighs heaviest on our heart is simply that it happened. The reality that you stood up over dinner and slapped your boyfriend. The fact that I made mine flinch.

As time carries us forward, it begins to matter less and less why we did these things. What persists, more than anything, is the reality that we did. What remains are the facts. That he broke up with you. That you did slap him.

The "mature" thing to do next, in fact, the only noble thing to do, is acknowledge exactly what happened. And not because you have any expectations of him and receiving a response but because you have higher expectations today of yourself. Because now that you know better, you do better. Acknowledging what happened will lessen the chances of either of you getting stuck in the details and will provide a gateway instead for you both to individually grow through.

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So, start from there. Focus first on the facts. Something like: "I slapped you. This shocks me. I imagine it also shocked you." Then, you could move into your own awareness of those actions and where they may have come from. The best case scenario is that through your awareness, he will recognize or develop his own awareness about his actions and ultimately how they can provoke anger and pain in someone like you.

You might say: "Why I would do this, how I could do this, are all valid questions I have to answer for myself. What I know for sure is that, in the moment, I wasn't doing much thinking. This is where I went wrong. All I was doing was hurting and I wasn't prepared for that. That's why I reacted so quickly. I must have slapped you because you hurt me and I wanted to hurt you. In retrospect, I can't think of a more childish way to tell you that the news you sat me down for was breaking my heart."

Of course, whatever your version is, write that. Write what's true for you.

What I've come to know is that people won't hear us when we are shouting, and often justification sounds a lot like shouting. It makes any apology feel passive and any delivery aggressive. I now know that people tune in when we speak from the most honest place of all. And, that when our body tells us we are angry, the most honest place we can go to escape our anger is into our heart, to go there and speak out from our sadness. Because when we react from a place of anger, we only punish ourselves more. But when we come from a place of sadness, we are able to slowly relieve ourselves as well as those involved with us.

Remember how I said that for three years my pain got the best of me, that my sadness felt like a punishment, like what happens to a woman who forfeits her own peace? Well, that's because I never actually let myself be sad. I let myself be angry. It wasn't my sadness that was sloppy, it was all my anger.

What's changed in the years since then is the way I handle my pain. Instead of fighting to be right, I've learned how to let myself and others just be, especially when the way we are is so different. Relationships still test me. That's the point, after all. They're here to challenge what we think we know about ourselves. They're here to show us how strongly we feel and remind us of all we are still afraid of. Instead of learning that I'm right or entitled to my anger and the behavior it provokes, I've learned how to do something even better. I've learned how to be sad, and now I know that sadness is the more peaceful place to be. (I imagine Maya would say "much better, Chelsea" and smile.) Because of this, I do better when me and a lover clash. I now know how to stay seated, how to unclench my fists, how to not demolish a man with my accusations and intimidate him into silence.

Most effective of all, I've learned how, in the face of my disappointment, to let myself be sad in front of a man. Thanks to this I've learned that sadness can improve the connection between people. I've learned that sadness can be beautiful and brave on the face of a woman in ways that anger will never be. I'm telling you all this so you can learn and know better, too. So you can hopefully do better sooner than I.

If beauty and bravery are important to you, you'll need to remind yourself that strength doesn't come from a slap, it comes from your capacity to remain soft in the face of heartbreak.

When you write him your letter, now that you know better, take the route for those who do better. Show softness. Sadness, even. Show sensitivity for his side of this, too. If you can pull this off, you will have shown him strength. Let that be the last image he holds of you in his mind. One thing is for sure, it's a prettier image than the one you've left him with now. Don't let that be your last act.

You know better, go do better, and then forgive yourself.

Always with love,

Chelsea

PS: Pink Olive, McNally Jackson, and Greenwich Letterpress have wonderful card collections. And online, People I've Loved, Near Modern Disaster, and Hat Wig Glove.

PPS: Thank you for helping me begin to tell a story I've never told.

A Breakup Coach trained and certified in Solution-Focused Life Coaching, Chelsea Leigh Trescott writes for publications such as Thought Catalog, Elite Daily, and Mend. Her three-and-a-half-year relationship inspired her to breakout on her own as a Breakup Coach. Now she helps her clients turn their sob stories into silver lining breakups, too. Seeking advice? Send situation and question to Breakupward@icloud.com for a chance to be featured.

Photography by (1) Ryan Moreno (2) Rowan Heuvel (3) Averie Woodard.