How to Survive Heartbreak: An Animated Field Guide from Alain de Botton
By Maria Popova
All love is asymmetry. Since love is not a state but a skill to be mastered, not a noun but a verb, all loving is the skillful harmonizing of asymmetries across the scales of personhood and preference between those involved. Asymmetries — of taste and temperament, of habit and sensibility — are not evidence of incompatibility but a natural function of two separate consciousnesses, each with an incomplete knowledge of the other, each half-opaque to itself, trying to find joy and understanding together. Almost all asymmetries, faced with sufficient tenderness and mutual respect, can become complementarities that strengthen rather than weaken the bond.
The one asymmetry deadly to love is the asymmetry of willingnesses — one person willing (to forgive, to undefensively admit error, to do the dishes, to hold gentle space for imperfection) and the other unwilling. An asymmetry of willingnesses at the outset of a potential relationship, before the mutuality of gladness we call love has even begun, is what we term rejection.
Romantic rejection is among the most acute and all-consuming forms of pain we can suffer, for it is an unfortunate feature of our psyche — even the most considered and contemplative psyche — to extrapolate from every experience of unrequited love, in a particular situation by a particular person, the awful postulate that we are not lovable, in the essence of our being.
How to move through the pain of rejection with minimal suffering, without repressing the awful feelings but also without mistaking them for facts about the larger landscape of love and lovability, is what the reliably preceptive and soulful Alain de Botton explores in this animated survival guide to what can feel, at its worst, abjectly unsurvivable:
But the heart-savaging asymmetry of willingnesses is not something reserved for the dawn of love. One of our culture’s most dangerous romantic myths is the idea that rejection and the anxiety about it vanish from the psychic horizon as soon as the two hopeful parallel willingnesses entwine into an actual relationship. That myth, and how to live with the truth behind it, is what De Botton explores in a portion of his altogether wonderful book The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the source of his revelatory and redemptive take on emotional intelligence and what existential maturity really means. He writes:
One of the odder features of relationships is that, in truth, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, with frequently difficult consequences — chiefly because we refuse to pay it sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot its counter-intuitive symptoms in others. We haven’t found a winning way to keep admitting just how much reassurance we need.
Because it can be unbearably vulnerable-making to admit our own tender need for assurance, because pride is the antipode of vulnerability and therefore the great enemy of meaningful connection, we often find ourselves too proud to ask for what we need openly. Instead, we resort to those sometimes endearing but mostly infuriating childish tactics of scanning for and protecting against rejection — withdrawal as a means of manipulating the beloved into paying more attention, hyperfocus on their every move and every Instagram post as paranoid evidence-gathering to confirm our dread of their diminishing willingness, and the crown jewel of emotional immaturity: the sulk.
Whether we cope with the ongoing threat of rejection by growing avoidant or anxious, our coping strategies are ultimately more likely to damage the relationship than to protect it, to effect rejection rather than to ward it off.
The only real solution is greater courage of candor and vulnerability. De Botton writes:
If this harsh, graceless behavior could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection or indifference, but as a strangely distorted, yet very real, plea for tenderness.
A central solution to these patterns is to normalize a new and more accurate picture of emotional functioning: to make it clear just how predictable it is to be in need of reassurance, and at the same time, how understandable it is to be reluctant to reveal one’s dependence. We should create room for regular moments… when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation… We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitive term “neediness.”
Complement with philosopher-psychiatrist Esther Perel on our greatest misconception about love and De Botton on the psychological paradox of vulnerability, charity of interpretation as a pillar of love, how to be a good communicator, and why we read, then revisit Walt Whitman on overcoming rejection in creative work — which, for those of us wholeheartedly invested in the art we make, can feel as intimate and devastating as rejection in love.
Published June 2, 2021