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Does Time Heal a Broken Heart?

Updated: Jan 1

Dear Soul,

Throughout the course of life nearly everyone has difficult, heartbreaking experiences. This sad reality is basically universally known and accepted as a normal, though regrettable, part of human life. Interestingly, in spite of this knowledge and experience, it seems many don’t really know, or have false notions of, how one ought to go about getting over that pain, how one ought to minimize the emotional damage caused by it. One of the false notions on this topic that runs rampant today is that time can heal your broken heart: all you have to do is wait and you’ll forget your dreadful experience, the emotional damage will simply vanish. This is a “nice” way of solving the problem of heart break that requires absolutely no work to be done. It seems like this method could be effective, however, there are some critical problems with this conception.

Some aspects of human memory are quite simple and can be understood easily without diving into any neuroscience. If you get stung by a bee, for instance, I can easily say that you won’t be very happy at the time and it could be a pretty nasty experience but, unless you are allergic to bees and have a very powerful reaction to the sting, you probably will completely forget about being stung within a year or so. The memory and emotions associated with being stung will, in all probability, be gone forever. If, however, you were to accidentally cut off one of your fingers with a jig saw (whoops, delayed graphic content warning) I can pretty safely say that you would never forget the experience. You would probably, with enough time, be able to get over actively fearing jig saws and be able to use them without a problem. In other words, you still remember the fact that you had a traumatic accident with a jig saw but the emotions, fear, pain, etc., are not actively being felt or remembered when you’re using the saw. This scenario nicely illustrates how time affects the way we feel after experiencing heart break. We don’t forget the concrete fact that we had our heart broken but the powerful thoughts and emotions that are associated with the memory are put some place in the back of our minds, inactive but possibly recallable.

If this is indeed true, is time a good solution for getting over heart break? To answer this question, I think it’s necessary to dissect what emotions and thoughts are associated with heart break and consequently what you still have in the back of your mind after time “heals” your broken heart. Let’s take a typical example of heart break: a messy break up with a partner in a romantic relationship. There are, no doubt, many different feelings that one would expect to experience in this sort of situation. No doubt it could be expected that one would experience anger towards your partner and even yourself, as well as hopelessness, intense disappointment, and a feeling of low self-worth. Though there are surely other feelings one would experience, for the sake of brevity, let us just consider heart break to merely consist of a very powerful experience of these said feelings.

Could having these powerful feelings towards yourself and your past partner deep in the back of your mind possibly be a problem in the future? It isn’t easy to say, without diving deep into psychology or neuroscience, whether it is detrimental to have such feelings in the back of your mind if they are never recalled. However, if they were to be recalled, then it would be far easier for us to see whether they would indeed have a detrimental effect on us or not. In order to see when these feelings could possibly reemerge it’s helpful to go back to our jig saw analogy. Would the traumatic feelings associated with the jig saw accident possibly reemerge? I think that supposing you were to narrowly avoid cutting your fingers again, or just cut them a little with a jig saw it would be most probable, indeed it would be expected, that all of your past terror of jig saws along with any other strong feelings that you had had at the time of your past accident would come flooding back in to your active memory causing you to experience an unnatural amount of powerful feelings that such an event would never have caused had it not been for your past accident.

Applying this analogy to our question of heart break, when could we expect our stored negative, powerful feelings to reemerge? Surely, anything that might clearly remind you of your breakup could be expected to bring those stored feelings into your active memory. Thus, if you, in the future, were to get into a new relationship or get married, then any argument or difficult, tense experience with your future partner could easily bring all of those long-stored feelings back. It’s difficult indeed to imagine a worse time for them to come out. If you want to be able to resolve an argument with someone who you love, the last powerful feelings that you want to have are anger, hopelessness, disappointment, and a feeling of low self-worth. These reemerging feelings coupled with whatever started your argument in the first place could easily be the recipe for another heartbreak, to put it mildly. This realization not only shows the possible problem of having such stored feelings but also points out the great danger of the other common way that people get over heart break: a new romantic relationship.

From what we have discussed so far it can clearly be seen how a new relationship could seemingly help us to get over a heart break. Relationships provide people with the precise opposite feelings that result from a heart break, such as feelings of love, hope, satisfaction, and self-worth. In other words, they provide feelings that directly contradict those emotions experienced in heart break, naturally canceling out the negative feelings. However, your happiness and security then purely depend on the love received from your partner. It’s hard to even imagine getting in a tense argument with this new partner; now, not only are the old feelings going to come back but also the foundation of your happiness and security is going to be shaken to say the least. Hence, it is possible that the idea of distracting yourself with a new partner could be the worst option of them all. It is good to know the dangers of not really getting over heart break…but is there really an effective way of eliminating the negative feelings brought on by heart break, and, if so, what is it?!

It's far easier to answer this question if we break it up into more manageable pieces by singling out the different feelings that we have to overcome. Naturally, it is also easier to overcome heart break if we try to dispel one feeling at a time. The way that you deal with a negative feeling is by using reason and positive feelings to convince yourself that you needn’t and, indeed, that you ought not have such negative feelings and thereby change how you feel. Take anger for instance, how do we get over anger? The way that you get over it is by completely forgiving whoever we are angry with, but how would you go about that? Use your old feelings, the love and understanding that you used to have for your partner, coupled with the knowledge that they too were hurt by the breakup to help yourself feel compassion for them. If the anger that you have is directed at yourself, remind yourself that you can’t expect to be perfect and that even if you really messed up horrendously you at least can learn from your experience and thereby become a better person: have mercy on yourself. The way that each individual can overcome anger is different. My specific explanation is not complete and might not necessarily work for you, but it hopefully can help you understand how to approach dispelling negative emotions.

This method of overcoming heart break can be a very hard thing to do indeed, however, I think that without an impossible amount of trouble you can find a way to tackle your negative emotions one at a time and slowly but surely actually get over your broken heart by completely dispelling all of the emotional baggage that it gave you.

Yours most sincerely,

Michael Audi

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