It’s 9 am on Valentine’s morning, and I’m sipping tea and caught in a quandary. I’m feeling the pressure to say something meaningful or witty, wise, and kind, and on this day, it ought to be about love.
I’m a couples therapist, so that would seem a reasonable aim. I work in the heartbreak trade. People come to me with bruised and battered hearts that range the gamut — a mild case of boredom, a discrepancy in sexual appetites, an emotional affair with an old high school flame rediscovered on Facebook. The couples therapy office isn’t so different from a confessional booth. I know after twenty years of this work that heartbreak is the norm, not the exception, and that if we are brave enough to love, inevitably, we will get our hearts broken.
I’ve also come to understand that heartbreak is a skill – one that few of us are taught. And, that it is only through mustering enough courage to show up and navigate the painful terrain of heartache that we can love. So there is an irony here. Valentine’s day, a day synonymous in most of our minds with love, is also a day that speaks of heartbreak. The two are symbiotic. Loss is a natural byproduct of love and adoration – and love can only manifest when the old makes room for the new. Children would not be born if parents did not die. Lovers would not be found if children did not grow up. We are the sun, and we are soil.
My center, the Northampton Center for Couples Therapy, has seen over 1000 couples in the last 10-years and was born out of heartbreak. I was a new mother with an eleven-month-old child when my marriage ruptured. Scraping to get by as a single mom, I built NCCT with a firm commitment to helping all types of couples. At the time, the couples therapist working with my spouse and I terminated the treatment. “My work’s done,” she said upon hearing the news of my husband’s desire to end our marriage. It was as if she perceived us as only existing as a couple if we had one aim – to be the married and in-love type of couple.
I left that final therapy session with a commitment to work with all types of couples. With a firm belief that couples therapy must be from “cradle to grave.” That families are still families when couples divorce or re-partner. That heartbreak is grief, and that our better selves, our best selves, are born of grief. Implicit in this stance is an inherent and deeply held conviction that life experience in all its complexities is valuable. That couples who have broken each other’s hearts (and their own in turn) are okay. That a therapist who has navigated loss and heartbreak with skill, grit, and grace is an asset to their clients – and perhaps most importantly, that we are all in this together.
There is a secret that I’ve learned that is not such a secret. If you are seeking couples therapy, you are navigating some form of heartbreak to a greater or lesser degree. If you are not seeking couples therapy, you are still navigating heartbreak if you have a beating heart. And so, on Valentine’s day, that is what I want to speak to – how we risk life and love and find it and lose it over the years. How by the hands of good fortune, we may, in time, have the opportunity to experience more of both. Love, whether it manifests in delight or sorrow, is nothing to scoff at, it is a blessing and a burden. Beauty in all of its complexity can be nothing less.
Happy Valentine’s to all the brave and brokenhearted who dare to love. I am continually amazed and honored, humbled, and oh so grateful for the opportunities to share in this full catastrophe of life with you.