Whenever love crumbles, we’re quick to extend a hand to the lover who got left behind. Watching them carefully, we offer them car rides in the sunshine, meals as darkness overtakes the skies, a shoulder to steady them as they mend. We connect to it, their hurting, to the sorrow and humiliation of having been the one still drawing a map for the future while their lover packed up. And so we stay with them, prop them up, and help them find the tools they need to gather themselves together again.
The lover who left, however, often faces the journey alone.
It’s harder to understand the pain of leaving, of being the first one to close a chapter. We’re quicker to see the cracks somebody left behind, the wounds aching freshly in the wake of their departure, than we are to notice what they’re carrying.
The end of love, whether we’ve chosen its ending or not, finds us walking on unsteady feet. At every turn, in the days following, we are reminded of what we have lost along the way. In the morning, we reach for our phones and find our inboxes empty of morning messages. At lunch, a song emerges in the background that reminds us, quietly, of the night we slow danced together, hands clasped, hearts thundering. Throughout our days, we stop ourselves from sending photos of the thousand things that make us remember. At night, we pull our blankets over ourselves and work not to notice the void beside us. Once love dissolves, we all find ourselves reassembling a self.
The lover who left carries these things, too, along with a litany of emotions unique to having broken a heart. There’s the tangle of shame, the mess of realizing their own recklessness. There’s concern for the person they’ve just shattered, paired with helplessness to provide that person any kind of comfort. There’s the uncertainty of having done what’s right, the worry of discovering they’ve made an irrecoverable mistake. There’s the discovery, in the aftermath of breaking somebody else’s a heart, that there’s heartbreak in the leaving.
I’ve stood there, in both sets of shoes, at the crumbling of love. I’ve been the lover left behind, scouring the story I’d been living for all the signs I’d missed, wishing away the embarrassment and the pitiful glances and the pain that won’t leave until it’s ready. I’ve been the lover who’s left, shedding my tears in solitude and searching in the mirror for a human in place of a monster. The experience of healing, of learning to stand after the fall of heartbreak, is deeply, definitively human.