Some of the well-worn platitudes friends murmur when in the vicinity of a broken heart: “you’ll get over it,” and “we’ve all been there.” Whatever the specifics of a particular situation, the fact is that one is never alone in being alone.
To give us a little context on how true that is comes journalist Meghan Laslocky’s The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong Through The Ages. Not a self-help book, it presents an informative and entertaining exploration of the history, culture, and science of love gone wrong, and the shattered hearts left to mend.
I invited Meghan for a quick interview with me about the book and not only did she agree, she has also given me a copy to give away to you! Read on to find out more about the book and how you can get a copy of your very own.
Me: What motivated you to write this book?
Meghan: I’m a huge believer in “bibliotherapy,” and by that I mean that reading really good books can help you get through dark times. I set out to write the book I wish had been available during my times of heartbreak, a book that explained what was going on from a psychological and emotional perspective, but that also carried me away to unknown, unexpected territory. When I’m down, learning new things always makes me happier. Hence my motto for the book: “May every page make you feel a tiny bit better.”
Me: It was only after having a safe distance (and your marriage) from your heartbreak that you were able to write this book. There just isn’t a shortcut to healing from a relationship. What did you learn about the healing process when you revisited it for the book?
Meghan: Until I started researching it, I didn’t completely understand that the healing process is actually a physiological process as much as an emotional and psychological one. One social psychologist I communicated with was great at explaining what goes on in our brains in terms of attachment and, well, “detachment.” I quote him in the book: “In the case of a lost love, if the relationship went on for a long time, the grieving person has thousands of neural circuits devoted to the lost person, and each of these has to be brought up and reconstructed to take into account the [other] person’s absence…” I think it’s empowering to know what’s going on in your break-up brain on a biological and chemical level. I wish I’d known more about the science of attachment when I was heartbroken.
Me: I find that occasionally a women I work with will have a difficult time moving on because she compares how things used to be with how they are today. Any stories from the book that show men and women process breakups differently?
Meghan: There are some cultural clichés that maybe hold some truth (after a break up, guys will go out drinking with the guys, women might hunker down with a pint of Haagen Daz), but in the end, as you’ve probably found, bad breakups can be equally devastating for men and women. In the book, there are a few stories that shed light on how men process heartbreak that suggest it’s the same way women do: When Franz Liszt was a young man, he fell madly in love with a young woman named Caroline de Saint-Cricq, and when her father made her marry someone else, he was so devastated he became a virtual shut-in and became so ill he nearly died.
Me: I was fascinated by the part of the book in which you explored the science of our heartbreak experiences. In the course of my work, I’ve heard so many people describe the same feeling; I’ve found it to be almost universal. You call it “The Sensation.” What is it?
Meghan: Well, for most people, when they’re in the most acute phases of heartbreak, they feel a very powerful sensation in their upper body cavities. Sometimes it’s a piercing sensation, sometimes a crushing sensation, sometimes more of a dull ache. No one knows for sure what causes the sensation exactly. One hypothesis is two hormonal systems are triggered at the same time: the sympathetic activation system (the so-called “fight or flight” stress that accelerates the heart and breathing rates), and the parasympathetic activation system (commonly called the “rest and digest” response, slows the heart rate down, and is associated with social engagement). So it’s as if both the brake and gas pedals are being pressed at the same time, and the chemical confusion of that is what perhaps causes the sensation.
But researchers have also found that “social pain” – the pain of being rejected by someone, which of course is what heartbreak is – is rooted in the same regions of the brain as physical pain. As far as your brain is concerned, physical pain and social pain are the same.
Me: What is the “Miss Havisham Effect?”
Meghan: Ah, yes, the Miss Havisham Effect. Back in 2008, researchers studied people who suffer from what’s called “complicated grief:” they suffer a loss and the pain and grief doesn’t subside over time. The team found that these individuals’ brains basically get “stuck” because their neurons aren’t being reconstructed to account for the loss of the person. The reward system in their brains continues to expect the rush of interaction with the loved one, even though that person is no longer there. The researchers called it “The Miss Havisham Effect,” referring to the jilted bride in Dickens’ Great Expectations, who simply never gets over having been dumped at the altar and indeed obsesses about it for the rest of her life.
Me: You look at all manner of historical break-up situations in the book, from the absurd to the touching. Which example or story stood out the most to you, and why?
Meghan: I think one of my favorites, simply because it is so intense, is that between Abelard and Heloise, the 12th century French lovers. Part of why it’s so fascinating is because it’s so extreme and salacious – their romantic relationship came to an end not because one of them broke up with the other, but because her uncle flipped out and had Abelard castrated. But it’s also touching because their letters to each other a decade after that tragedy are so beautiful and so sad, particularly hers. She’s was so self-aware, so honest, so tormented. As I became intimate with their story, I just wanted to barrel back in time to her and share with her what we now know about what’s going on in our brains when we’re heartbroken.
Me: Finally, what can we learn from the history of heartbreak?
Meghan: While heartbreak has always been terrible, and likely always will be, at least in our culture it no longer has a few particular complicating factors. Now we can get out of bad relationships that are breaking our hearts, whereas just a few generations ago, if you made a mistake and married the wrong person, you were stuck. Moreover, in other eras and cultures, if a woman left her husband, she left behind her children. I often think about Marie d’Agoult, Franz Liszt’s mistress, who had to leave behind a total of four children when her relationships ended, and didn’t see them again until they were adults.
I think it’s also important to remember that we have incredible freedom now – we can fall in love, and out of love, with anyone we want, without regard to strict social boundaries, without fear of being completely ostracized for falling in love with someone who is from the wrong “class” or “tribe.” That’s a very, very recent development in our culture and something to be very grateful for.
Me: Thanks so much to Meghan Laslocky for taking the time to share her thoughts with us. At the end of this month I’ll be giving away a copy of The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong Through The Ages, and I’m also giving away a $150 Sephora Gift Card (!). To win, just leave a thoughtful comment on the blog or on my Facebook page anytime this month! I’ll pick my favorites, and send these fabulous goodies off to their authors. And of course, feel free to leave your thoughts, questions and own stories of healing from heartbreak in the comments section below!
And last but not least, don’t forget to get on the list for early notification when my transformative Smart Sexy Soulful Dating™ course opens registration. You won’t want to miss the exciting advance videos and tips you’ll get!