It’s saying goodbye to all the good times you might have together if you didn’t have to say goodbye—all the fun, shared plans and dreams you had dared to believe in, building a future on the shifting sands of your hopeful, fragile optimism. It’s all gone now, and forever, and it is unutterably sad.
We have to say goodbye for lots of reasons. Someone has died or they are dieing. Or they don’t want to see you anymore. Or you have woken up to the fact that, though you really love them, you can’t love them in the way they need you to, or vice versa. Sometimes you’ve just had enough: the pain outweighs the gain—or you realise you have been in denial all this time about the pain and/or the gain you imagined was just a fantasy.
Perhaps there has been abuse, betrayal, dependence, mixed messages, games, wasted time, passivity, boredom, endless conflict (often over minor things that represent major things—in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magnificent Love in the time of Cholera, the two protagonists’ differences were distilled and crystallised into an argument about soap). Your same old tired, unhealthy pattern, yet again. All kinds of hurt. You want different things. You have irreconcilable differences. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s not me, it’s you. You hate each other or, worse, feel completely indifferent. Sometimes it just comes down to choice between you or the other person. You have to choose you. Go on now go, walk out the door.
If you both try, you might be able to navigate through your turbulent waters, and find a way back to each other, and start over, perhaps with some new and different rules of engagement. But of course you might not be sure you want to--whether to stay or go is one of life’s toughest questions.
Perhaps this time, however, it really is the end. You might discover you can end this relationship without a moment’s hesitation, without a single backward glance, and you realise you only thought there was love. You were in love with the idea of love. But other times it is hard to say goodbye to love, and you are heartbroken. The amount of pain is proportional to the amount of love. If it hurts, it means you are human. You are alive.
It remains unopened. He can’t bear to say goodbye.
Another client kept all the letters from a former partner that he still hankered for. One day, he decided to burn them all, and he was astonished how intense the flames were—the old love letters produced a great deal of heat and light. It was a symbolic experience: he realised how much energy his continued infatuation took from him. After the bonfire, he was able to reclaim that energy, rouse himself from his post-break-up doldrums, and move on in his life with vigour and confidence and a renewed sense of love.
• “A Doll’s House”: Ibsen’s play—written in 1879 but still highly relevant and much-performed—tells the story of Nora, trapped in a stifling bourgeois marriage, characteristic of so many traditional pre-feminist heterosexual couples of yesteryear. One piece of research from the 1970s showed generally elevated levels of psychological distress in single men—and married women. In many old-fashioned partnerships the man holds the power and control, while the woman is subservient, obedient, repressed. The union—controlling parent “ego state” meets submissive child “ego state”—has a dysfunctional kind of equilibrium that can last for years, decades even. Until—with or without therapy—the latter finds their voice, their power, and wakes up. (Or, in fiction, comes to a sticky end, punished for the temerity of wanting to shake off their shackles, eg. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and other desperate housewives.) In the last scene of Ibsen’s play, Nora rejects her enslavement to the marriage, motherhood and the tightly constraining, stereotypical role that she has been assigned. She slams the door on the Doll’s House and walks free.
What do these endings have in common?
• A decisive, dramatic finality
• An action taken with a great deal of courage
• A sense of wisdom prevailing over convenience
• Style, and some good lines. Yes, we’ll always have Paris.
But fiction is easy. Real life is messier and far more complicated.
Our time is up
How do you say goodbye to your therapist? Do you just stop coming without warning, despite the fact your therapist may have a termination clause in their terms and conditions (I ask for a notice period of at least two sessions). Such a clause may sound self-serving for the therapist but it’s really for clients, who are denied the benefits of a proper ending if they don’t show up. It’s an opportunity to review and consolidate all the work you've done, to say what you’ve been trying to say all these weeks, to offer up feedback, to have a sense of direction going forward. To say goodbye.
“Many clients come to therapy with issues about unsatisfactory endings or losses,” write Emmy van Duerzen and Martin Adams. “It is important that the client does not experience the end of therapy as something else that ended unsatisfactorily.”
A recent article in The Guardian—“Breaking up with a therapist”—quoted a 28-year-old woman from Seattle, who has ended three of her relationships with her therapists by “ghosting” them: “The whole point of having a therapist is not being emotionally invested in them, [and] they aren’t emotionally invested in you if they’re doing their job right,” she said.
I disagree with this point of view. Therapy without emotional investment is like decaf coffee—nice enough but missing the key ingredient. Without some sense of understanding, acceptance and connection, without feeling anything, the potential for lasting change is limited.
Clients often wonder how important they are to their therapist. “You must have a lot more interesting clients than me”—I’ve heard that a few times. Or the other day a client stopped midsentence and said: “Don’t you ever get bored of listening to this shit?” There’s an assumption that for the therapist, saying goodbye must be easy, maybe even a relief in some cases. It’s never written about, but for the therapist, too, goodbyes can be hard.
One thing about goodbyes between people who love each other is that they are never really final. Maybe the goodbye doesn’t hold, and you get back together. Or you keep bumping into each other, or you haunt each other on social media. Even if you stop seeing someone you love, they have become part of you, and you part of they—powerful “internal objects” that continue to grow and influence you. The love, the energy, the relationship—these things keep evolving even in the absence of any further refuelling by each other’s actual presence. Human connections can thrive despite a lack of geographical proximity. Or even a lack of the loved one being alive. Jung was 21 when his father, a pastor, died. His father appeared in dreams throughout his adult life. He became a much greater guide and teacher to Jung in death than he ever was in life. Death shall have no dominion.
On June 23, citizens of the United Kingdom are being asked to vote whether or not we should remain faithful to the European Union.
Should we try to patch things up and make it work? Or, perhaps citing “irreconcilable differences,” opt for a separation and divorce?
Stay or go? Such a stark, black-and-white choice in a scenario characterised by multiple shades of grey. Does it feel too good to leave—but also too bad to stay?
There are push and pull factors on both sides of the ledger:
Stay: pull factors
• We like Europe and the Europeans, and they like us. The way you wear your hat, the way we sip our tea. We learn from each other. Our doors are always open to each other. We’ve known each other such a long time. We’ve been through such a lot. We work well together. We’ve more or less kept the peace for decades and our joint finances are successful. Let’s stay together.
Go: pull factors
• We’ll be free without you. You’ve been holding us back all these years. Unshackled, a great deal of joy and energy will be released and we will surely do great things. We can become the person we have always wanted to be. And we can see other people! Already we’ve flirted with China, Brazil. It’s all very exciting! Unchain my heart.
Go: push factors
• For the xenophobes, anti-immigrant hysterics, little Englanders, Daily Mail readers, empire nostalgists and Social Darwinists, the decision is easy. They’ve never liked you, and never wanted anything to do with the arranged marriage. And they think they’re better than you—“we” are surely good, whereas “you” are surely bad, lazy, criminal, dirty, weak, perverted, bankrupt, corrupt, attracted to peculiar foods.
We don’t think those things, but we’re tired of being treated with contempt. We never get a say, our opinion doesn’t matter. We always have to compromise and do it your way. You are maxing out our joint credit card. You are too bossy, aggressive or passive-aggressive. You make the rules, we have to follow them. You’re just not very generous, and you're never going to change. And we’re just too different. We can still be friends, but if we stay married things will only get worse. Love will tear us apart.
Your relationship referendum
The EU referendum is powerful metaphor for your more personal, intimate relationships, partnerships, marriages. Are you unhappy? Should you stay or should you go?
Again, there will be a tapestry of circumstances. Some push factors foreclose any other considerations, for example domestic abuse. Others can be big but not necessarily insurmountable, such as an affair or betrayal. And there are always pull factors keeping you together: your shared history, the convenience of the status quo, and, above all, children.
And how will it be on your own anyway? The stereotype is that women feel the immediate emotional impact of a break-up more than men, but long-term fare much better on their own than men do. A piece of research from 1972 suggests that marriage is bad for the mental health of women, which given the power dynamics of some very traditional marriages isn’t surprising, although later figures show no gender difference.
You imagine a glamorous bacherlorhood perhaps, free of obligation and duty, exploring all those things you wanted to do but never had the time. Maybe the reality is you are home alone in an indifferent world. There are no invitations to dinner or weekends away. Just you and the deafening sound of the phone not ringing. Who wants to be lonely? But maybe some loneliness would be good for you?
• Jannah Walshe recommends a clear-headed assessment of the relationship—not so much the other person—first alone and then together, with questions like these: Is this relationship serving us both or just the other person? Do I spend more time questioning whether the relationship is right or wrong than enjoying it? Is there more to learn for me in this relationship, or can I best learn and grow outside of this relationship? Would leaving this relationship be an act of self-care?
• Similarly, Bruce Derman Ph.D. offers 7 questions to ask if you’re thinking of divorce, starting with: Were you ever really married? Was there a time when you has an us, with reciprocal, mutual intimacy? Or have you always been a bit like flatmates who sometimes have sex?
• Take Relate’s relationship MOT quiz.
It’s good to talk
The best advice if you’re not happy is to return once again to a simple, four-letter-word: talk. It’s not easy, especially if one of the problems in the relationship to begin with was not talking.
• Relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman claims couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before speaking out. You will never get those six years back again.
• Belgium has the highest divorce rate in the world, 71 percent, and the second-highest suicide rate in Western Europe. These facts are often attributed to “binnenvetter”—a characteristic Flemish personality who bottles things up inside.
• It is so much easier to talk with a mediator, referee, coach, guide—a couples counsellor. Find one online or through organizations like Relate or the Tavistock Centre. In “Hold me tight,” Dr. Sue Johnson advocates “emotionally-focussed therapy”: “seven conversations for a lifetime of love” that explore and promote each partner’s emotional responsiveness to each other. “Emotion comes from a Latin word emovere, to move,” she writes. If a couple is going to reconnect, they have to “let their emotions move them into new ways of responding to each other.”
Tough decisions can be made with compassion
• In his book ”I love you but I’m not in love with you,” Andrew G. Marshall says “the ILYB conversation,” with 100 percent honesty, can lighten the path to a relationship renaissance—or to the exit sign. If the latter, the ILYB talk will help you to make sense of the breakup. Having a clear, truthful narrative about why the partnership ended is crucial to the mourning process—to be left, cheated on or suddenly “ghosted,” without explanation, can cause months and years of misery.
• Whether you stay or go, it’s never black and white, and you have some control over what the shades of grey look like. In “Rewriting the Rules,” Meg John Barker writes that you don’t have to follow the old stereotypical rom-com/sitcom rules of a break-up which dictate it’s completely over, there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and the former will never speak to the latter again. Relationships don’t end, says Barker, they change. Breaking up with someone with love and respect can spare a lot of pain all around.
Stay or go? Or something else? Perhaps if you listen, you might just hear the generous, loving voice of your own wisdom. It knows it's not all your fault. It knows it's not all your partner's fault, either. It has compassion for you both. It knows what to do. Trust it.
To partners past, present and future—to Europe—let’s give thanks, and be grateful. We had some really special times together, didn’t we? We’ll always be there for each other, on some level. Things die, love lives on.
Forecast: Unexpected outbreaks of sunny spells in remote Scottish islands. Fair becoming good in Cornwall. Unending downpours in Liverpool and London.
The Office of National Statistics last week released its figures on the state of the nation’s emotional weather: happiness, anxiety, life satisfaction and how worthwhile life seems. It’s the culmination of three years of data collection.
• Liverpool and Wolverhampton are supposedly the unhappiest places in Britain (average happiness scores of 6.96 and 6.99 out of 10)
Wolverhampton also has the second-lowest “life satisfaction” score. The lowest life satisfaction—where life is also ranked the least “worthwhile”—is in Harlow, just off the M11 in Essex, famous for being the site of Britain’s first modern residential tower block and first pedestrian precinct.
• Derry and Strabane in Northern Ireland have the highest levels of anxiety in the U.K. with a score of 3.73 out of 10, closely followed by and Belfast, Liverpool and a string of London boroughs
Northern Ireland is however the happiest part of the U.K, followed by Scotland, Wales and England. Is it possible to be anxious and happy? It is. Chesterton wrote of the Irish: “All their wars are merry / And all their songs are sad.”
And the converse is true also: you can be free of stress yet really miserable—unhappy Wolverhampton has the lowest levels of anxiety in all of Britain (1.95 out of 10). This perhaps suggests that trying to eliminate stress from your life in order to be happier may not work—you may just get depressed instead. People who achieve their dream of early retirement often make this confounding discovery: six months down the road they are bored and fed up. A certain amount of stress sharpens the focus, motivates people, boosts the heart and immune system—it enlivens. Too much of the wrong kind for too long, however—you get fried rather than fired up. This is the principle of hormesis—a little bit of hardship is good. In one experiment, mice that were given a small dose of poison outlived those who were given none. We are drawn to our cities not in spite of their stressful demands but because of them.
• Top of the happiness table—and the “life satisfaction” and “worthwhile” rankings, too—is Eilean Siar: the Outer Hebrides
The sample sizes for various remote Scottish islands were too small to be statistically significant, yet places like the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney consistently crowd the opposite ends of these kinds of rankings from the likes of Liverpool, Wolverhampton and London.
The Eilean Siar tourism website says: “This is a lively and challenging place. It’s a place where community matters...The sheer diversity of the landscape is remarkable. Endless machairs and dunes. Mountains and stunning beaches. Vast expanses of moor and lochs. Vertical sea cliffs and stacks... Little wonder that visitors to our islands are enchanted by what they find here.”
Where incidentally should you be living? The BBC has devised a quick personality test which tells you where in Britain you would be happiest, and where you would be least happy. It’s nonsense of course but fun. You can take the test here. I was advised to move to somewhere called Craven, and to avoid at all costs relocating to somewhere called Spelthorne, where I could expect a life satisfaction score of only 32 percent, whatever that means.
• Women are slightly happier than men (7.41 versus 7.35)
Women are also almost twice as likely to seek psychological help than men, who are conditioned instead to do a Clint Eastwood impersonation if ever they feel anxious or sad. Men are more than three times as likely than women in the U.K. to be alcohol-dependent, or commit suicide. Plus, women in the U.K. live on average four years longer than men. The debate about gender equality quite rightly focuses on gross injustices in terms of violence and sexual violence, pay, political and corporate power, and cultural representation, but those four lost years—four summers, birthdays, anniversaries; a thousand nights to sleep perchance to dream—rarely warrant a mention.
• Married people are happier than singletons (7.67 versus 7.11); the divorced or separated are the least happy (6.89)
Does marriage make you happy—or are happy people more likely to get married? A review of the literature from the National Bureau of Economic Research claims that there really is a cause-and-effect relationship between marriage and happiness. Marry, live happily ever after, right?
The authors of the report suggest that this is especially true if you marry someone who, you know, you actually like: “We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a causal relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend.”
On the other hand, marriage is the source of much misery for many. Untold sleepless nights lie behind the fact that 42 percent of marriages end in divorce in the U.K. There is some old evidence that marriage is good for men and bad for women. There is other evidence that nowadays the happiness boost from marriage is identical for both genders—feminism has redefined married life.
For all its ups and downs, imperfections and frustrations, marriage for most is better than the modern-day scourge of loneliness. Humans need other humans as much as they need food and water.
• Life satisfaction and happiness on average are lowest in the 45-59-year-old age bracket; Those aged 65-79 tended to report the highest levels of well-being
This is in accord with the “U-bend of happiness” pattern across the lifespan, which I have written about before: one day you find yourself trapped in an unsatisfying job, marriage or town, struggling to pay the bills, stressed, sandwiched between looking after your kids and looking after your parents. You are miserable. You are at the bottom of the U-bend. “And you may ask yourself,” as the Talking Heads song goes, “how did I get here?” One study of happiness data in 72 countries reported that the global average bottom of the U-bend is 46 years old (though this of course masks enormous variety and individual differences). But then, after a midlife crisis or two, things get better.
Midlife is an opportunity to return to the changing room, review what went wrong in the first half of the match, chat with coaches, colleagues and counsellors, attend to any bruises, fortify yourself and then, renewed, refreshed and utterly changed, charge back out into the pitch for the second half. You might play a quite different game until the final whistle.
• The employed are quite a bit happier than the unemployed (7.42 versus 6.89)
This is hardly surprising—so much unhappiness is dictated by socioeconomic misfortune. Western governments tend to blame the poor and the unwell for their fate so as to divert attention away from their own policies that maintain poverty and inequality. Corporate happiness is top of the agenda. If you’re a divorced, unemployed, middle-aged man in Liverpool, with your dreams tossed and blown, it would be insulting in the extreme to suggest happiness can be achieved with a few sessions of CBT. It’s not his thoughts that need changing so much as his economic environment. The happiest countries, of course, are egalitarian, truly democratic and with high levels of social capital.
• The happiest religion is Hindu, followed by Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim (the happiest ethnicity is Indian; the least happy is “Gypsy / Traveller / Irish Traveller”). People with no religion are the least happy.
A conviction that you’ve been pencilled in for a good karmic afterlife or a place in heaven probably does make a lot of people quite happy. Atheists might regard such believers as deluded, cocooned in blissful ignorance. In the film “The Truman Show,” Jim Carrey would have stayed blissfully happy if he’d never discovered he was living in an entirely artificial town—an unwitting pawn in a reality TV show. Buddha became very unhappy when he left the palace to discover a world beyond the confines of his walls of privilege—a world that included poverty, illness and suffering—but thank goodness he did or the valuable philosophy, art and culture of Buddhism wouldn’t have happened. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is not that life is about happiness. It is that life is suffering.
Questions for you
What to make of all this?
Is it meaningless—just an example of “lies, damn lies, statistics”—and, worse still, happiness statistics? Or is this an opportunity to take stock and maybe make some changes? How happy are you—how “worthwhile” is your life? Do you have good stress to contend with, or bad? If your new year’s resolutions didn’t work out, should you come up with new ones today, the first day of the Chinese New Year?
Should you marry your best friend, join the Hare Krishna, move to Stornaway and find a job? Or stay exactly where you are but change your attitude—turn your own personal Wolverhampton into some kind of heaven on earth?
Should you talk things through with a therapist?
Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll live the life you imagined, or maybe your dreams will forever elude you. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Your glass is neither half empty or half full.
The existentialists believe life is not about the pursuit of happiness. It is the pursuit of itself—to live to the full. Nietzsche famously argued that “god is dead”—there is no heaven, no afterlife, so you might as well throw caution to the wind and live intensely, making brave choices, feeling deeply, fully present, right here, right now.
Get to grips with the ups and downs, advise Echo & The Bunnymen, "because there's nothing in between." Or as Anaïs Nin wrote: "I must be a mermaid ... I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living."
“A time when someone or something starts to seem less successful or important, because another person or thing has become more successful or important than they are”
The word comes from ekleipsis, which in ancient Greek means abandonment.
We are all celestial bodies, alone in space.
We are susceptible to each other’s gravitational pull. We can emanate tremendous heat and power. We can enlighten each other. We circle around each other admiringly, on incomprehensible, invisible orbits, a beautiful, cosmic dance that could surely last for eternity.
A great friendship, wrote Martin Buber, “breaches the barriers of a lofty solitude, subdues its strict law, and throws a bridge from self-being to self-being across the abyss of dread of the universe."
We look for those bridges everywhere. We cling to whatever makes us feel less full of dread, including work, alcohol, sex, sports, spirituality. More than three-quarters of Americans believe in angels. Because there is just so much terrifying space out there. When asked what humans are most afraid of, Kierkegaard would reply: “We are most afraid of nothing.”
We cling to each other. And inevitably at some point our shadows put each other in the shade. Our personal orbits clash, or one gets skewed by the strong magnetic field of the other. We lose our freedom, our sense of self. Maybe we even collide, or end up spewing smouldering, deadly meteors at each other in the divorce courts, or becoming engulfed in each other's flames in front of a live TV audience. Love can tear us apart.
Faced with either being alone or risking getting burned from being too close, many will willingly settle for some kind of cosy compromise midway between the two, half in relationship and half out, a standoff—somewhat connected, partially married, semi-sedated.
But perhaps it’s possible to have a different arrangement, one that involves learning how to occupy two polarities at the same time. And one polarity depends on the other: We can’t learn to engage with others deeply and meaningfully unless we are also prepared to learn to engage deeply and meaningfully with our very own self. That requires an encounter with our loneliness; a willingness, every day, to confront the unforgiving, ever-moving edge of our isolation. To step into the unknown.
Writes Irvin Yalom: “Each of us is alone in existence. Yet aloneness can be shared in such a way that love compensates for the pain of isolation.”
Friendships, partners, crushes, infatuations, hookups, one-offs—they all come and go. We give and we take love along the way. But your relationship with yourself? That, my friend, is for ever. Can you accept who you are, and who you are becoming? Can you live with all the light and shade, the self-criticism, the shame and the guilt and the awful memories? Can you love all the imperfections and faults and weaknesses in you? And in other people, too? And can you do all this knowing for sure that we will never really know ourselves, and never really know another?
The historic blood red moon last night is not an apocalyptic omen signalling the end of days. It is not a reason to get spooked, hesitate, and lose out, as Nicias did in the Second Battle of Syracuse in 413. It is instead a good omen.
Maybe you have been eclipsed. You feel hurt, betrayed, disappointed, unappreciated, abandoned, ignored, rejected, ghosted. The sun will rise again, it will be a new day, and you will see everything differently, as if for the first time. The red moon has already faded, but its message remains indelibly etched across the sky: never again will you allow anyone or anything to eclipse your relationship with you.
“If I am not for myself, who will be?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?"
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