Avoiding Heartbreak Means Avoiding Your Self

One of my favorite songs off of The Avett Brothers’ popular album, The Carpenter is “I Never Knew You.” When the album came out in the fall of 2012, I was one year out from my first ever “real” relationship – a relationship I wrote about in my book, Damaged Goods. “I Never Knew You” spoke to me, because although I was basically healed from the heartbreak, the song was helpful and soothing in capturing the anger in realizing that a relationship wasn’t what you thought.

Saying, “Well I guess it’s kind of funny how I loved you so, way back when. You say I wouldn’t know you now, but I didn’t even know you then” is therapeutic at the end of a relationship. It’s a way of saying that we didn’t really mean anything to each other because we didn’t even really know each other. It takes a lifetime to truly know a person inside and out, and most relationships don’t get to that point. “I Never Knew You” comments on the fact that we build up these ideas of people we loved and lost, that we create our own narratives around our own heartbreak, and we never actually knew the person we loved.

But this last weekend, my own narrative got a little bit more complicated. It’s been a healing process for me to think back on that first relationship and say to myself, “I didn’t even really know him that well and there are so many reasons we were wrong for each other.” It’s easy for me to sing that I never knew him, because in the years that pass, I don’t feel like I know him.

And then, on Saturday, in the middle of a swelteringly hot day in Sioux Falls, a day where I didn’t even bother to wear make up because it was just going to sweat right off, I got a flat tire on the way to my favorite coffee shop. I drove over to my car dealership, where they patched the hole and sent me on my way. I proceeded downtown, deciding that I might as well try to rescue some of the time I still had to write.

That delay put me on that sidewalk at the exact moment my ex-boyfriend was walking to his car. There was no avoiding him. There was no smooth way to pretend that this wasn’t happening. So we stopped and talked.

The last time we’d spoken, I was unemployed (again) and had just moved back to Sioux Falls. I was embarrassed to see him, and wanted to make myself look good. The conversation wasn’t great. This time was different. Instead of two ex lovers running into each other and trying to play it off like nothing had happened, we met on the street like two friends who’d grown apart but still cared about what was happening in each other’s lives. We talked for about ten minutes about what was going on in our lives, what had happened in the time since we’d last seen each other, and what our future plans were.

And I realized, as I told him with pride that I’m moving to England in the fall for graduate school, that “I Never Knew You” isn’t exactly true – at least not completely. I will never know this man in the way his future spouse will; I will never know him as family, as a best friend. But there are still parts of him and his life that I know and understand and care about. And when I told him about my mother’s passing and he responded not just with polite sympathy but genuine sadness for me, I realized that there are still parts of me that he knows and understands and cares about. There are reasons we got together in the first place and there are reasons we are no longer together, and it takes great maturity to look at that and understand it for what it is.

The whole “first love-heartbreak” is something that purity culture is pretty bent on trying to avoid – ideally, you should avoid dating altogether until you’re ready to marry, because then you won’t get your heart broken a million times and you won’t be “damaged goods.” We should avoid heartbreak at all costs because it allows you to present a clean and pure heart to your future spouse – only that person will know you; only that person will care that deeply about you.

But such warnings and cautions and, yes, fears prevent some necessary growth and grace and understanding of ourselves and the other person. Through having the narrative of my past and current relationships continually complicated by the actual presence of the other person, I am better able to love, better able to understand both myself and other people.

We can’t capture the complications of relationships in a catchy song, and we can’t reduce the complex nature of love into aphorisms and sound bites about courting versus dating. Life itself begs more of us.