The truth about heartbreak

“No one has ever broken your heart.  They broke your expectations.”  

When I came across this quote about heartbreak in an ad for Kyle Cease’s new book, immediately, I loved it.  Yes!  I thought.  This lines up precisely with my exploration of male-female relationships and communications.  This is exactly what Buddha was talking about when he said expectations are the root of all suffering.  This encapsulates what I believe about the human heart and human experience.  We put so much weight on what we want others to be… to say… to think… to feel… and when those expectations go unmet, we hurt.  We feel disappointed, unloved, disrespected. So we should learn to love others for who they are, we should accept each other for what we are: and by doing this, we can minimize suffering and heartbreak. I shared that quote on my Facebook feed and other social platforms.  We all could learn from this message.

It just makes so much sense.

Until you apply it to your dog.

The very next day – less that 24 hours later after posting that quote on Facebook – I am rushing my dog to the emergency vet clinic for what, it turns out, was to be his final ride.  Leo was ten years old and had cancer – a growth that was inside his heart and literally squeezing the life out of him.  There was no treatment, only attempts to make him more comfortable. Leo was my youngest son’s dog.  The kids will tell you, I didn’t even like him. I think he was a little bit “off” in the head, quite frankly. He was what they called a Sato dog – a Puerto Rican street dog picked up as a puppy and shipped to the Boston for a better life.  My then six year old fell in love with him and home came sweet-faced, brindle-coated King Leonidas.

Leo didn’t easily shake his street roots.  He was a scavenger – anything that could possibly go in his mouth, did. And often came back out, mangled and coated with slimy body fluids.  Leo was loud.  He barked at every moving thing outside the house, and sometimes even those of us inside the house. Leo was sneaky.  We have lost multiple whole roasted chickens, pork loins and foot-long sub sandwiches to his lurking ways. Leo was fiercely protective – of the house, the kids, the blades of grass in the yard – they were his, all his to guard and defend. Leo was nervous.  He didn’t like grown men. He wasn’t fond of other dogs (except Sika, my chow puppy). He was easily startled and would instantly lose his mind in his maniacal barking. His eyes would roll back in his head and you could see he was lost in full blown reaction mode. I always said there were some broken connectors in his little brain.  After all, he was a water spaniel who was afraid of the water.

But you don’t live for ten years with any creature, man or beast, without developing some kind of relationship. Leo and I had rituals. Every morning, I was the first one up to walk him and he kept me company over the first cup of coffee of the day. Occasionally on weekends we went to the dog park to attempt some form of socialization.  Every meal time was accompanied by an “Out, Leo!” command and a pointing arm directing him away from the dining room table where he shamelessly nosed about for scraps.  For ten years. And let’s face it: his list of crimes were really just irritations.  At the core of him, Leo was sweet, friendly, protective, and only looking for a little bit of a pet and a few minutes of a free run. He didn’t ask for much.

And so taking him to the vet and realizing it was truly the last time, saying good bye to the faithful companion who was the first person to greet me every morning made me realize…

Your heart can indeed be broken.  And it has nothing to do with expectations.

I never expected Leo to be a different dog. I never expected him to stop barking at wafting leaves, to stop hauling roasted chickens off the stove or lurking under the dining room table for crumbs.  I figured he’d continue to growl aggressively at strangers and I fully expected him to tiptoe around puddles despite the inevitable peer pressure from Sika, as she bounded about and taunted him from the neighborhood pond.  I never expected anything of Leo except for him to be there, and be himself.

And guess what… there are more holes in Kyle Cease’s heartbreak theory.

Your children can also break your heart.

No, scrap that.  They will break your heart. Yes, we do have expectations of our children. We have hopes for them. We push and prod and then watch as they grow and learn. But what no parenting class can prepare you for, what no “expectation” can fix for you, is the utter pain of watching your son wracked with sobs over the end of his first real romance.  Or the wrenching disappointment your daughter experiences at not getting into her top choice university and suddenly doubting her own talents and entire life plan. Or the agony of watching your children grieve, each in their own way, over the loss of a nutty-but-loved dog.

The truth about heartbreak is that it isn’t tied to expectations.

It’s tied to helplessness.  It’s tied to empathy.  It’s tied to love.

Which means anyone we love can break our heart.

So we can look at our husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends and know without a doubt that we have expectations of them, and of our relationship.  And we can work on managing those expectations, trying to love more selflessly, asking for what we need and respecting what our partners need. And we may always have those fights, those disappointments, even as we work at improving our relationships.  It’s our human nature to love and want love in return, and then to start defining what are expressions of that love so that indeed, it looks like a series of met and unmet demands.  And because of this, perhaps we can argue that there is no such thing as heartbreak in our romantic relationships.

Perhaps.  But I don’t think so.

As you look at that person you love most in the world, no matter what role he or she plays in your life, you know without a doubt that expectations aside, you are happy when they are happy, you are sad when they are sad and you are angry when you know they’ve been faced with injustice.  When you love someone, your empathy in entwined in their well-being.  When you love someone, no matter what your expectations, your heart is bound up in their well-being as well as your own. When you love someone, you have joy in the mere fact that they exist.  Love is wanting the world for them. Love is acknowledging your helplessness in delivering a pain-free, perfect world. So expectations may indeed cause suffering, and we might misinterpret unmet expectations as heartbreak rather than disappointment.  But that doesn’t change the fact.

Your lover can also break your heart.

And what a beautiful thing that is. Because heartbreak is a part of love.


Natalie Hahn is a principal at Dirty Girls Consulting, focused on helping men and women tackle the challenges of communication and life transitions. We explore breaking free of traditional standards, how we communicate between the sexes and redefine the “midlife crisis” to accomplish professional and personal goals, creating an authentic, fully loved life. Read more Dirty Girl Consulting blogs here.

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