Is there a date on the calendar more emotionally charged than February 14? I doubt it. Whether a woman is married or single, 18 or 80, Valentine’s Day often sets off a silent eruption of feminine remorse–secret reckonings of love gone awry, soulful sighs hidden behind the flowers, chocolates, and greeting cards. Or lack of them.
Glimpsing an old photo or dusting a sentimental talisman can evoke the same kind of sorrow disguised as wistfulness. In only a few seconds, your heart is racing, and you find yourself trapped in an old cycle of pain or even rage, as memory reassigns blame and reinforces guilt. I know a woman who bursts into tears in an elevator whenever she hears a piped-in rendition of their song–going back 25 years and two marriages.
These melancholy murmurs can be devastating. I used to dismiss them as fast as I could, and I suspect I’m not alone. We turn our hearts away from what feels like an accumulation of wrecked dreams and failed efforts, afraid that whatever killed our old love is poised, waiting to strike again. And we bury or discard anything that might trigger feelings of loss. I have one friend who threw out not only all the personal mementos collected during a disastrous love affair, but even the professional awards she received just to make sure there was nothing to remind her of her former pain. Another friend gave away every item of clothing she owned after she divorced, as if even her favorite sweater were contaminated with traces of bad luck.
But when we run and hide, we see the world through a filter of self-loathing. We assume that both the love and the loss were not only some terrible mistake but that it was all our fault. If the relationship was lonely and unfulfilling, it must have been because of something we did or said or didn’t say or do. After a particularly bitter-sweet love affair (made all the more bitter because of the occasional sweetness), I seriously questioned every choice I had made during the year I was with this man, convinced that if I’d been so wrong about him, I must have been wrong about everything else too. In my attempts to renounce anything even remotely associated with the source of my sorrow, I stopped going to favorite haunts and hanging out with mutual friends; I even moved from an apartment I adored, and seriously considered changing my professional path simply because my former boyfriend shared it. Thank God I didn’t because although this man wasn’t the love of my life, he did ignite my passion for writing, which became my life’s love.
So how do you change your perspective on abandonment and loss? Look for their hidden gifts. Why do you still wear red on your most important occasions? Because once upon a time you were his lady in red. Why do you speak Italian? Because it was his native language, and he helped you to learn it.
I know this sounds scary, and if the loss is a recent one, perhaps impossible. But with the hindsight of even a year, it can be reassuring and healing to acknowledge all the good a past love gave you. We can’t let go of a person or situation that caused us pain until we’re willing to bless it, and we can’t do that until we find something worth blessing.
When glancing back, stop assuming that all your past actions and emotions were wrong. There were precious reasons why you were first drawn to a former love, but also positive ones for moving on.
Look deeply, and don’t be fooled by superficial explanations. Perhaps you shouldn’t have been so understanding of his needs to the exclusion of your own, but now at least you know what your needs are. Instead of thinking you are a quitter for giving up the piano in favor of taking up one of his hobbies, or a loser for blindly following him to a strange city, admit that playing the piano never suited you anyway and that the city he brought you to is the one you now live in and love, even without him.
I’d be lying if I said I would live my life exactly the same way if I had to do it over. Still, I wouldn’t wish away a single past romance–despite moments of darkness and despair I thought I’d never survive. Great grief is only born of great joy, and what we fear most is that we will never love as truly, madly, or deeply again.
The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning believed that her husband, the poet Robert Browning, had loved her into full being. For most of my life, I thought that this wonderful sense of completion was found only in love’s reciprocal promise. But now I wonder if loss isn’t also an attentive suitor. Why? Because it was only during the lonely and bereft times that I really learned how to love myself.
So this Valentine’s Day, be willing to look back at the loves left behind with gratitude. If you can, you’ll discover that all you thought to be lost and lacking is really waiting to be found and cherished within you.