Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column “Ask Leah” ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more How to be Human here.
I’m really hoping you can help me work some things out. I’ve just come out of a four-year relationship with a man who I still love and just can’t seem to let go of yet. But this isn’t what I need help with, although any advice on moving on would be helpful!
My question to you is this: is love worth it?
When I was 15, I fell in love with an 18-year-old boy who, when I didn’t give up what he wanted, dumped me for an older woman, and it broke my 15 year old heart to pieces. At the time it felt like my life was over, but in time I got over it. But not completely. I made a promise to myself that I’d never let it happen again. And I didn’t, by sticking to one simple rule — never love someone more than they love you, because that gives them the power to hurt you.
Well, flash forward fifteen years and many failed relationships and I met someone amazing, and threw the rulebook out of the window. We spent four years together. There were ups and downs, but through it all, I believed love would win out, until it didn’t.
So now I find myself broken hearted and wondering, is love worth it?
I’m not yet ready to move on, but when I am, what do I do? Do I stick with my tried and tested way of holding back and never being hurt? Or do I risk my heart again? Because I’m not sure I’ve got the strength to go through this again.
So that’s my problem, I hope you can shed some light on it. Because whichever I chose to do, it feels like I’m not gonna win.
The short answer:
I can’t tell you if love is worth it. That’s something each person has to decide for themselves.
The long answer:
The first time I ever had my heart well and truly broken, I was 24. I mean, sure, I’d heartache before then. I’d liked people who didn’t like me in return. I lost my virginity to someone I spent a decade being nuts about, someone who was very unkind, and who returned repeatedly to profess feelings for me — and then disappear. I’d also been the one to break some hearts. Worse I’d been thoughtless and careless with people’s feelings. Maybe it was because I was young, and maybe it was because I didn’t really understand what it meant to be totally devastated by heartbreak.
But that first heartbreak, man. When I got dumped at 24, I was flattened. I remember lying in bed feeling like the world was ending or maybe I was dying. I couldn’t get up because what was the point. My appetite was gone. No high was worth a low that awful, not even the magical high feelings of being in love and seeing the whole world transform into a brighter, sparklier, more vivid version of itself.
Then, of course, the heartbreak healed and I moved on and I fell in love again, the haze of happy-in-love hormones and dopamine and serotonin conveniently overriding any concerns I had about being hurt again. When the terrible heartbreak inevitably arrived, once again I thought: this isn’t worth it. Until the next time, when it was.
I spent a long time going back and forth like this. I spent a long time wondering about liking someone more than they liked me, about losing the upper hand, about risking too much and not protecting myself, saying over and over, “there’s no way in hell I can ever, ever go through this again.” By a long time I mean up until about this time last year, when I decided to hit the pause button in order to spend some time with myself and figure out what mattered to me.
Let’s look at the things I wondered about, the things I copied from your letter. They all have a common theme, which is fear. Fear is totally normal. Fear is worth paying attention to — not in the sense that you should listen to what fear tells you and follow it without question, but in the sense that fear is giving you information. The problem is that fear, like many emotions, isn’t always giving you rational or logical or even true information. It’s like when you get angry, and you feel totally justified in your anger, and then later when you calm down you think “Okay, I could have handled that a little more gracefully.” The same goes for infatuation, right? Many of us have ignored all sorts of red flags when riding the wave of infatuation, then later thought, “What the fuck was I thinking?” It’s hard to choose your emotions, but you can (learn to) choose how you act on those emotions. You can take a step back, breathe deeply, and try and get a sense of what’s really going on with you beneath the emotional surge.
Right now, you’re in a defensive crouch, and for good reason. You’re fresh from heartbreak. You don’t have the distance gives you perspective. You’re trying to build up a bunch of walls in order to protect yourself out of very normal fear. You’re also creating a narrative to help with this process. The narrative is, “I knew better than to do this again. I knew better than to put myself at risk. I knew better than to give up my power in a relationship. I knew better but I did it anyway. But if I never do this again, I can prevent myself from being hurt.” That narrative is one many people tell themselves, because it provides a sense of control or authority or even logic, which is kind of comforting in the face of awful emotions and uncertainty. For some people, it seems like having faith in control is an odd sort of religion, like a higher power that helps people make sense of what has or hasn’t happened, or what should happen.
Before I get too philosophical, I will simply say that I don’t think you tossing care to the wind and letting yourself fall in love without being “the person who loved more” is the reason you’re miserable now. Those are helpful stories that provide “answers” to one of the worst, most unanswerable questions, the question countless heartbroken humans have asked for millennia: Why the fuck did this happen?
You and your ex fell in love. You spent four years together. You had ups and downs. This is very minimal information so I don’t know what your ups or downs were like, or whether one or both of you were holding on to the idea of your relationship for too long, or whether “love will win out” was a way of avoiding some painful truths. But even with this minimal information, I’m going to guess you had some wonderful times and felt very deeply for each other. And then your relationship ended, as they often unfortunately do.
There’s no way to know whether, if you’d done all the things you swore to do, you wouldn’t have somehow gotten hurt. There are so many ways to get hurt. Your partner could have cheated on your or left you anyway, and you’d have been furious that someone you loved “less” than they loved you could do that. Your partner might have died. You might have dumped them, only to realize after they’d found someone else that you did love them deeply, no matter how much you tried to keep your distance. Or god, maybe you’d have ended up being very old, feeling full of regret that you closed yourself off to the amazing wealth and beauty of human emotion and connection, and that experiencing loss so powerfully is a sign of being able to feel deeply, which often feels like a curse but sometimes too feels like a blessing.
Focusing on maintaining power or distance will not keep you from getting hurt or from hurting someone else. You didn’t get hurt in all the relationships between your first heartbreak and this one, but who knows why that is. It’s nice to think it’s because you were a human fortress who didn’t allow yourself to feel anything, but for all any of us know it’s luck.
I can tell you right now that I know a lot of people who are closed off from other people and who try to maintain a sense of power in relationships. (I don’t mean consensual dominant / submissive relationships, I mean the kind you’re mentioning in your letter.) Some people are happy being loved more than they love, and some people are happy loving more than they are loved — or if not happy, then at least used to this sort of codependent-ish dynamic. Some of them are deeply unhappy, and are hurt just as easily as anyone else, but they don’t even get the joy that precedes the pain. A lot of these people hurt the people who love them.
Which reminds me: let’s not forget that possibility that you’ve hurt a lot of people while you were the one maintaining the upper hand in all your other relationships. When you open yourself up to the hurt you’ve caused others, you learn about a whole new form of misery.
Love is not a constant. It is not a guarantee. Love ebbs and flows, it shifts and morphs, flows from infatuation to being in love to being in deep love to being out of love to an altogether different kind of love. Just because one person loves the other person more at the start doesn’t mean it will be that way forever. Loving another person is wonderful, but it can also be hard. Sometimes the love goes away and never comes back, and we don’t understand why. Sometimes we get bored. Sometimes we don’t want to do the work to create relationships where love can deepen, and where we can try to weather the storms when we’re loving more or less than our partners, so we look for something new, for that transcendent-but-ephemeral in love feeling that very, very, very rarely (if ever) lasts. Sometimes love runs its course. Being a human and having emotions is hard and weird and makes a lot less sense than most of us would like.
When I hit pause, it was only partly because I was so heartbroken I never wanted to experience it again. Mostly it was because I thought, “Hang on a minute, what kinds of stories am I telling myself about love and relationships? How do I act in them? What kind of people do I choose? Am I mistaking ‘love’ for something else? What patterns am I repeating? What am I afraid of?” These are hard questions to ask yourself, but I decided getting hurt again was worse than asking hard questions. I can’t control whether I get hurt, and I certainly can’t control other people or the relationships I have with them, but I can start making different choices about who I date, how quickly I rush into being with them, how long I let trust build between us, and how I behave when we’re together.
You can’t control whether or not you get hurt any more than the rest of us can. All you can do is make the kindest possible choices that take your well-being into account while also considering the humanity of the other person. The unfortunate fact of life is that being a human means sometimes, someone is going to get hurt. I hear you saying “yes, but why should I be the person who gets hurt?” Because sometimes you are, and leaving a trail of destructed hearts in your wake isn’t going to protect you against that.
Give yourself some space to get over this heartbreak before you make any decisions. Feel your feelings and allow yourself to be hurt and afraid. It’s okay to let hurt guide you toward a better understanding of how to protect yourself in a healthy way, but try not to let yourself be ruled by fear. Deciding love isn’t worth it doesn’t mean you won’t fall in love again. You might! Anything is possible! Be careful with your heart as well as with the hearts other people give you. Think about what love gives you, what it teaches you and opens you up to, what choices you make around love. Recognize that part of being human means feeling incredibly shitty sometimes, but shittiness takes a leave of absence now and again. What do you want to be open to feeling when it does?