It was an old yellow Lab named Maverick that helped Tom Chiarella through the darkest days of his divorce. Not a soul-searching therapy session or devil-may-care trip to Vegas, but daily, ritualized walks with Maverick who, as it happens, didn’t even belong to Chiarella. “I told my friend, ‘I see you walking your dog by my house every morning and I’m always jealous,’” recalls Chiarella. “One morning he knocked on my door and said, ‘You wanna walk with me?’ Every morning for three months we walked with this dog.”
Chiarella, a writer at large for Esquire, is well versed in the nuances of human relationships. But his daily walks taught him a few things about friendship and the role it plays in healing a broken spirit. “The key is to be the person who shows up,” he says. “If marriage sometimes feels like a series of obligations, when it ends it can feel like freedom. But it also feels like a whole lot of empty time. The main thing was having a ritual every morning.”
Friends play a critical role in the getting-over-your-ex process. But once you show up, as Chiarella recommends, it can be tricky to know what your hurting friend needs. Should you play therapist? Social coordinator? Speaker of heretofore unspoken truths? Experts say a delicate smattering of all three – emphasis on delicate. “Romantic love is an addiction,” says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, a leading expert in the science of human attraction who uses magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain in love. “When you are rejected in love, you don’t stop loving the person; in fact, you can love them more. Any kind of barrier to getting something you want makes you want it even more.” Which is good to know, before you set off trying to help your lovesick pal.
“The whole point of knowing this is an addiction is to treat it as an addiction,” says Fisher. “People assume we’ve got enough control of ourselves to snap out of it, but in an addiction you can’t assume that any longer. You’ve got someone who’s deeply in love, deeply attached, experiencing intense craving and physical and emotional pain. That’s not a good combination for happiness.” It’s also why you should help your friend toss the old love letters, take down the photos and un-Facebook-friend the ex. “If you want to give up drinking, you don’t keep a bottle of bourbon on your desk,” says Fisher. “Get rid of all the stimuli that’s likely to trigger the intense craving.”
Even if your friend is the one who called off the relationship, he or she is still experiencing withdrawal and loss, and might need your permission to mourn. I had this incredibly amicable divorce where we went, ‘Oh, my God. This isn’t working. Let’s get divorced,’” says Sascha Rothchild, author of “How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage” (Plume). “I started dating immediately and pretended like I was having the most fun ever for a year, until I actually had a meltdown at someone else’s wedding.”
In hindsight, Rothchild wishes a friend had stepped in earlier. “If my friends had said, ‘It’s OK to cry and be pathetic,’ it might have given me license to get to those feelings sooner,” she says. “I wish someone had said to me, ‘You need to cry,’ and shaken me out of my, ‘Oh my God, I’m having the best time drinking and wearing clothes a 17-year-old would wear.’” Help your friend find his or her better self, in other words.
“You stand around playing a lot of pool and just being there when they need you,” says Chiarella. “And a lot of times that’s when the advice comes in. You talk about what to do better next time. I can tell my friend, ‘You know, all the anger and the yelling and stuff, that doesn’t play well with everybody.’” And ideally, says Rothchild, the togetherness and advice-giving take place outside of the house. “Bring them coffee and slowly ease them out the door,” she says. “It’s really important to not let your world get small.” All the better if you can ease them toward a new experience. “Take them to a place they would never go in a million years,” she says. “A monster truck rally. A museum. Not necessarily to meet someone, but just to look around and see, ‘There are so many people in the world and I owe it to myself to not spend too long pining over someone I’m no longer with.’”
And try to stay at your friend’s side as long as you’re needed. “The only thing I wanted to feel is (that) I wasn’t alone,” Chiarella says. “I didn’t need to feel like I was always right; I was wrong a lot. A lot of people go through a breakup and think, ‘What is my day without that other person?’ Your friends help you find that middle ground.”
Sascha Rothchild, author of “How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage” (Plume), has played counseled and counselor through various heartbreaks. She offers the following wisdom. Get a hobby. “I decided to stop being the kind of person who hated things I never tried. I started doing yoga. I tried snowboarding. I tried doing trapeze. Some of the things I liked and some I didn’t, but by becoming a more interesting person I ended up attracting more positive people around me, and dating quality guys became much easier.”
Stop comparing. “You need a clean slate. After a breakup you either find someone just like the person you just broke up with, or you know that person was wrong for you so you find the polar opposite. Either way, if you’re basing your next relationship on the previous one, the next one will fail.”
Get some exercise. “It releases endorphins and makes you feel better and more powerful and makes you look better, which makes you feel more confident.”
Don’t be a victim. “Once you’re a victim, you’re just pathetic. You get in this spiral where you’re not taking any responsibility and you feel like you can’t take control of anything in your life. You need to feel powerful to become a better person for next time.”
Chicago Tribune, APA