Reflections on Healing a Broken Heart
“You seem to have led a charmed life,” her words echoed uncomfortably in my ears. Yes, after twenty years of marriage all the visible markers of a charmed and successful life were in place: a healthy child, a thriving business, and a beautiful home. But something was wrong, and I knew that beneath the beautiful backdrop of my life was an inner hunger so strong it was boring a hole through my stomach. I had an ulcer, as well as a fiery passion that fueled my dreams. It was clear that my partner and I were developing different interests, but wasn’t that normal? Where once we had worked in tandem on so many projects, we now worked independently, and what fired me up, left him cold. Despite all my noble efforts to create ‘the good life,” a sadness seemed to be creeping in, showing me that the life that once seemed to be good enough, wasn’t enough. A slow fear began to envelop me—whether I plunged into my work or deepened my friendships, or quietly grieved with my journal, there was no relief. There were no Excedrins for my heart.
Because I own a metaphysical bookstore and have read many of the books on relationships, I expected myself to move quickly beyond this confusion. But this journey was moving in a manner and time far beyond my control. My mind obviously didn’t know what was happening, so my body began speaking up; anxiety attacks arose within me with no known cause, and I would wake at four AM with bolts of electric energy running through me. For months my sleep was disturbed.
As my body chemistry began shifting, I took myself to a therapist—a man who loved the books in my shop and who had a gutsy acceptance of the dark side of life. Because I believe the spiritual and the emotional are so bound up with issues around forgiveness of our humanness, I chose a man who was familiar with this territory. I didn’t want to do a spiritual by-pass on anything—I wanted to question myself, my partner, my spirituality, my expectations, and…to fix it!
The first issues to come up were not about my marriage, but were around my inability to forgive a betrayal in friendship and the constant pain of dealing with the suffering of my aging mother. Week after week I turned my attention to the work I was doing with the therapist, and I began feeling loved, heard, understood. I became more receptive and began seeing meaningful connections in my life. I learned how to hold and protect myself by aligning myself with a higher power, and soon felt “full” enough to forgive my friend.
I also noticed that the deep and intimate relationship with the therapist stood in sharp contrast to the lack of intimacy in my marriage, and I began aching for that type of emotional presence that I had with him. I tried to bridge the gap, but my partner and I had no common language; he didn’t like delving into an area which he had no words for. And he wasn’t feeling good. In his own way and without words, he was hurting deeply and grieving too.
I however, was not only in the process of discovery and healing, but of living an illusion of sorts: I had projected my soul, my “animus” (as the Jungians would say) onto my therapist and withdrew energy from my marriage. I turned to the therapy, to books, to God, to going back to school, to writing. My expectations of how it should all be were falling apart but I was going as fast as I could to hold onto something.
As the dependency and transference of love to my therapist slowly began to release itself, I felt the growing pains of my neglected marriage. I was plain lonely, and couldn’t deny that I was moving through hell, like Persephone, always struggling to get unstuck and up into the light again. But my partner disassociated himself from my hell, my pain, and withdrew himself into his work. I felt that I was holding all the darkness and pain or our life. I wrote poetry and yearned for a deeper love. As the denial fell away, we tried in all the old ways; we held tight to being responsible to our duties and we tried couple’s counseling, but it simply brought up more sadness.
Synchronistic events often mark transitions, and that winter the diamond simply fell out of my wedding ring and was lost. With a cold and poignant sweetness, my partner and I decided to try to give each other the only thing that was left: freedom.
Yet nothing changed our lives and the fluctuating denial we clung to—until my body demanded to be heard. I went for a mammogram and it came back undeniably questionable. After many x-rays, I was advised to go to
Someone once said to me a rather sexist comment about separations: women grieve, men leave. Perhaps it is the feminine in all of us that grieves, and the masculine part that takes action. That day, I clearly saw my self-imposed victim-hood and chose to leave. The masculine part of me rose up in anger, in freedom, and in the middle of a raging snowstorm—I moved out. I found a new place to live that very day, and summoned up all the courage I could to face the inevitable void.
It wasn’t so bad at first. My creative juices flowed into making a new nest for myself, and before long I began dating. Maybe I could just get over it, let go, and get on with life. No drama. But all the beautiful and sweet moments of our marriage kept creeping back into my psyche. The feminine grieving had a grip on me. I couldn’t let go and I found myself crying at every turn.
I’ve heard it said that suffering is a hard kind of grace that teaches us compassion. For twenty years I’d worked on a dream that was now shattered and I expected myself to just get over it. My persona of self-sufficiency hid my aching desire to be held in sweet surrender in a lover’s heart. I was just beginning a crash course in compassion—compassion for myself and for all others who have lived through great suffering. Is it trite to say I was finally getting in touch with my true feelings? That I was outraged, terribly sad, and pissed as hell that it might take a very long time before I could go for more than two hours—or two days without crying?
Dating seemed like the best cure—or was it revenge? And it did feel good to have those “highs” of being seen and heard and courted. Yet by the end of that summer I stopped my dating. And that’s when he began his serious dating. At this point all I could do was grieve and rage at our loss.
It must have been toxic right down to my gut, for when my body acted up again, this time it was with a serious attack of appendicitis that put me in the hospital for over a week. The toxicity had spread, and at one point I thought that death was not a totally unwelcome probability. My therapist visited me daily. My husband, who was very busy with his new love at this time, reluctantly went through the motions of getting me released from the hospital, but he wasn’t willing to sit and be with me in my fragile state. Twenty years of marriage sat face to face with twenty days of his new love, and she won.
I remember the night before leaving the hospital—I raged at his coldness, wrote volumes in my journal, and thought: “I don’t have to burn anymore—I can chose to let it go.” Nearly exhausted, but fueled by my anger, I got out of my hospital bed, turned up the music on my radio, and began dancing like a naked solitary spirit; moving my body slowly and rhythmically, letting it all go once again. I was being released. Something new was being born in me at that moment.
The next day I felt a great sense of gratitude for simply being alive. I knew I had to endure some suffering, but I didn’t have to be a victim. I didn’t have to shame or blame. And when my partner came to get me I had burned through to the place in me which knew that we were both doing the best we could, and that we didn’t know how to do it any better at the time.
“Letting go” is what I do now, over and over again. I realize how hard it is for me to let go to all the ways of thinking that trick me into believing that I am separate from the rest of humanity and special in my suffering. Yet it’s only when I feel that I’m letting go into ‘something’-- into a spiritual process that is greater than my small ego-- that it feels right.
Most spiritual traditions encourage us to accept the idea that we are held lovingly in the heart of God, and grounded in a Oneness into which we can let go. I’ve been looking at this-- testing it almost, and there does seem to be elements of grace and synchronicity that move me along when I trust and let go. The poet, Wendell Berry, put it well: “Willing to die, you give up your will. Keep still until, moved by what moves all else, you move.”
Poetry and prayer are powerful messengers and healers. When I’m feeling vulnerable, and being the earnest striving person that I often am, then I tell God what I need—one form of prayer. But when I live from the part of me that trusts, then I listen and ask, rather than talk—another form of prayer. And I’ve been wondering lately: what is God asking me to see or do at this moment? At these times I often find or write a poem that speaks directly to my heart. There’s often a question being asked or answered, and when I’m receptive, I get it.
Get what? The answer I get is to go on being a person worth loving, and to “cocoon.” That is, to process what’s happening by giving myself the time and space to do it without expecting too much too soon. And as I do this I tend to suspect that I --or God?-- have been orchestrating a release from a relationship that simply had run its course. And so I constantly choose to move from an attitude of victim-hood and blaming to one in which I own my power and responsibility.
Cocooning has its own rewards—while my heart waits to know one special love again, there is still grace and synchronicity everywhere, and I strive to be busy with the work I feel called to do. Sometimes I doubt myself, but mostly I have faith. I believe that as my heart was breaking, it was also breaking open and softening, rather than closing and hardening. I’m choosing to soften, and to honor the truth of my story. Despite the wounds I gave and received, I strive to look at this separation with spiritual eyes, sensing that there is a meaning and a blessing here.
Cocooning into a greater consciousness is the great work for me now; and it’s a daily job that brings not joy, but contentment. And when I feel the little unexpected graces—that surprise call from an old friend perhaps—then I know that while my heart heals, I am being held, and I trust.
Elizabeth Spring MA is a counseling astrologer, and can be reached for consultations at email@example.com or 401-294-5863
There I am in the café, sitting in front of the potted geraniums
wearing the straw hat I just bought.
I was writing a postcard to my mother
when I looked up to see the shadows
of the early autumn evening
dancing on the stucco walls.
Then you walked by—you were taking pictures of the light.
I watched you… trying to imagine what you were seeing there.
And then you turned your gaze on me
and shot this one here—
a little out of focus—but it was then that I saw them—
the tenderest eyes I’d ever seen.
Look. This is where we found ourselves standing later
by the edge of the river—the one Van Gogh painted.
We walked for hours feeling Van Gogh.
You talked apertures, lens and focus.
This was the hotel, Le D’Arlatan…
Do you remember wandering the back streets—
lost in the cobbled labyrinths—
till we found ourselves here?
The oversized antique bed held expectations. I felt shy.
You said—“Pull the curtains,” and I pulled the heavy curtains back.
I read you a poem by candlelight.
You smiled right into my soul—then served us farmer’s wine
in the opalescent glasses we’d bought that day.
I put the photographs down.
“It was so good,” you say.
“Like the wisp of a dream I can barely remember.”
I lean into your eyes; those milky apertures
transparent with the film of a lifetime.
Now, I offer you wine and pull the curtains open
catching the last dance of light on the peach colored walls.
You put on the old songs…
We sit in chairs by the window,
admiring the blue hydrangeas
our knees will touch, and we will speak about how
the quality of light makes everything different
and everything the same.
Elizabeth Spring June, 2008