June 24, 2008

Falling Out of Love is a Long, Difficult Process

By Steven Kalas

He's not in love anymore.

When he says it, I think of Dorothy holding her scruffy dog and saying, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto."

He's dismayed. A little awed. Eyes wide. Unsure. But relieved. Ever so relieved. And maybe a little anxious, too, like, if he surrenders to the relief and enjoys it, then perhaps he'll relapse into heartsickness once again.

I'm not Jewish, but still I pantomime raising a glass of wine and I say, "Mazel tov!"

Almost three years ago now, his wife left the marriage of 21 years. Two kids, 17 and 12. He was devastated. Ugh. Unrequited love is a terrible grief. I think of the 1992 movie "Grand Canyon," wherein a female character in love with a married man says with stunned irony, "When you love someone, and they don't choose you, it hurts."

Oh, do you think?

Many people will tell you unrequited love is a grief more difficult than a loved one's death. It's like going to a funeral and trying to grieve the loss of someone who won't stay in the casket. The "deceased" continues to walk, talk and, in the case of divorce that includes children, interact regularly with you. Night of the Living Ex. Invasion of the Soul Mate Snatchers.

His grief required the simultaneous juggling of pain, humiliation, pretending, going to work, running a single household and learning to be a divorced single parent. All at once. A difficult journey. Nothing short of heroic.

And now he has popped out on the other side without his love for the woman he promised to forever cherish. He looks like someone who has misplaced his car keys. Hmm, I always carry them right here in my pocket. Where could I have left them?

How do you fall out of love? I think it starves to death. Death by attrition. Death because divorce detonates like an asteroid colliding with Earth, resulting in a dust cloud blacking out the sun. Nothing vital can survive. Only, in the case of an asteroid, all plant life dies in about four weeks. A rejected lover only wishes love could be extinguished so fast.

The man describes it more simply. He says his grief was like having a sore throat for almost three years. "You know how, when you have a sore throat, you start every morning by swallowing to see if it still hurts?" he says. "Well, last Tuesday, I was backing my car out of the driveway and thinking about a call I had to make to my ex. I 'swallowed,' and suddenly I realized it didn't hurt anymore."

I'm glad for him. It's not healthy to indefinitely extend an open heart into emptiness, and certainly it's no fun. Reminds me of Jesus admonishing his followers not to "cast pearls before swine," the moral of which is not that some people are pigs; rather, it's absurd to step into a pig pen with a handful of fine pearls and expect to find an appreciative audience. The pigs will sniff them, maybe try to eat them, but they lack the capacity to understand and enjoy them as pearls.

Yet, the man's victory begets one more movement of grief. A kind of reconnaissance. More accurately, the man's celebration is the next movement of grief. They are one and the same. Not a return to tears and anguish, but a moment of pause and sobriety. A necessary acknowledgement of loss. Like hearing "Taps" played at a military funeral.

"Wow. She did it. I wouldn't have thought it was possible," he says. "She managed to convince me to extinguish the most beautiful and powerful thing I have ever done - which was love her."

And now I think of da Vinci. What would it take to convince him to light a match to the "Mona Lisa"? How do you convince an artist to torch his masterpiece?

Maybe, in the end, it's a combination of self-respect and liberation. Terribly sad, but terribly necessary. Maybe if you sufficiently ignore or patronize or revile da Vinci's masterpiece, he will, as a function of self-respect, prefer its destruction to its dismissal. Maybe da Vinci decides it's enough that he understands its beauty, its power, its importance. So he commits it to memory. He hangs the only necessary copy in his heart.

And maybe burning it is the only way to liberate himself to paint again.

Yeah, that's it. Maybe he has one more masterpiece left. As yet unpainted.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to [email protected]

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