In 2011, award-winning comedian, podcaster and ‘Queen of Breakups’ Rosie Wilby was dumped by email.
‘I did feel a little better about it after correcting my ex’s spelling and punctuation! But I’ve been obsessing about breakups ever since,’ she says and embarked on a quest to investigate, understand and conquer the psychology of heartbreak.
Rosie believes that as heart-breaking as breakups can be, they can also be an unexpected route to happiness.
In her podcast and book The Break Up Monologues: The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak, the self-styled ‘lesbian Louis Theroux’ puts her relationships under the microscope and interviews her podcast guests and friends about the ‘glorious benefits’ of breakups.
Below, Rosie shares her thoughts on happiness and heartbreak.
How are happiness and heartbreak linked?
I have always believed that happiness and unhappiness are connected. You can’t have joy without a little jeopardy. And as a comedian who’s been performing on stage for many years, I’ve become very acclimatised to the idea of risk and the idea of having to adapt if things go wrong – if the venue isn’t set up the way that you want, or if people are heckling or drunk. You need to harness adversity as a catalyst for change. The same applies to our personal relationships.
I often feel at my most empowered, enlivened and enriched when things have gone wrong but then I’ve managed to get things back on track. That’s the moment when we can really appoint ourselves sort of hero of our own narrative. There’s something very thrilling and liberating about that upward trajectory of that journey again, when you have been crying on the kitchen floor, and you put your life together again.
Feeling heartbroken feels so awful though!?
But there is a joy, too. There’s a self-knowledge in finding that inner strength and knowing you have it in you to survive a breakup. You think you can’t possibly pick yourself up again or meet anyone else or be happy again. It’s incredibly empowering and joyful to find out that you do.
Do you think that there is a set amount of time to recover from heartbreak?
There’s this idea of proportionality, which suggests that how long it takes you to get over someone should be proportional to how long you were together. I don’t think that’s true at all. I’ve spoken to people on my podcast, who were heartbroken even after a very short relationship. They were so convinced that the person they were with was ‘the one’ that they felt a profound sense of loss, because they’ve lost that imagined fantasy future. But whatever the length, there’s a real joy in liberating us ourselves from all of these types of heartbreak and sadness and loss because we will find other ways to be joyful and other ways to be strong in ourselves or embrace being single.
What advice have you got for someone who is has just broken up with someone and you feel like you will never be happy again?
Firstly, acknowledge that it’s awful when you break up with someone. That’s why I set up the podcast, The Breakup Monologues, and then ended up writing the book because I wanted people to feel less alone because I think that is the initial real sadness, isn’t it?
It’s the loneliness that the person who was so entwined in our lives is not there anymore. Perhaps we’re still in touch and somehow managing some kind of co-parenting or some kind of friendship, but they’re not there in the way that we anticipated, and we have this huge loss to come to terms with.
You talked to Oxford anthropologist Dr Anna Machin on your podcast, who said that a breakup can be like withdrawing from drugs. Can you explain this?
One of the major neurochemicals, which underpins love is a beta-endorphin. It’s behaves like an opiate – it’s like the body’s heroin! When you’re with the person you love, you have quite a high level of opiate in your body so when someone dumps you, you have a horrible shock, and you go into an opiate withdrawal. There are lots of chemicals involved in love – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and beta-endorphin.
Oxytocin and dopamine are the ones that are around at the beginning but not good for maintaining long-term relationships because we develop a tolerance to it. But then the beta-endorphins kick in with their high opiate levels when you’ve been together longer so that’s why it feels like your whole world is ending when you break up. So, it is not just a psychological challenge, it’s a physiological challenge too.
Is it a good idea to stay friends with your ex?
It has to be managed carefully. Because of course, if you just continue being in touch or continue living together, as many people do, but just in separate rooms, perhaps there’s always that hope that you are going to revive and rekindle things. It’s about finding clarity and being really honest with one another but being really kind as well.
If you’re the one breaking up with someone – what’s your best advice?
It’s about giving the person you are breaking up with as much agency as possible. So maybe stating that the breakup is going to happen, but let the other person have input on how it plays out – how you co parent, how you live, how it works practically. The breakup that propelled me into speaking and writing about breakups was when I got dumped by email. Even though when I read the email five years later, I can see there was kindness there, I just felt broken by the fact that the relationship had ended, and I felt my agency had been taken away.
How do we take responsibility for the part we’ve played in a relationship ending?
Obviously sometimes our partners are just cruel and unkind, and they’ve had an affair, or they’ve done something horrible, and there’s really not much we should beat ourselves up about. But sometimes when someone breaks up with us, it might be because we are closed off to hearing that our partner wasn’t happy. It’s good to be able to look back and reflect with some sense of your own responsibilities in relationships that haven’t been as successful as you wished. We’re all learning and growing.
What else might help you?
I know people who’ve have created a ‘breakup bucket list.’ I know people who’ve written the book that they’ve been putting off writing, or they started a comedy career, or taken up sailing or windsurfing, or water skiing or interesting activities that their partner just had zero interest in. I have spoken to so many women, who started their dream careers after a big breakup. A lot of women are juggling relationships, kids and so many different things. And then divorce or a breakup can be a catalyst to think: what do I want to do for me in my life? You can seek the things that enrich and reward you and start to make you feel really empowered and good about yourself.
How do we stop ourselves sinking into victim mode?
I spoke on my podcast to Rebecca Humphries, whose partner Seann Walsh was photographed kissing Katya Jones (his Strictly Come Dancing partner). Rebecca is a perfect example of claiming your agency and turning the narrative around so that you’re not a victim, because she not only had to do that for herself, but she had to do that in the public realm as well. The press spoke about her as the victim, the ‘poor girlfriend’ who had been cheated on. She tweeted ‘Hello there, my name is Rebecca Humphries, and I am not a victim’ and took charge of the narrative. (Go look the tweet up – it’s a masterclass in not being a victim!).
It went viral, and huge tribe of women rallied around her, offering their support. We may not have huge Twitter followings, but we do have our own networks and have platforms where we can speak up, even if it’s talking to your group of friends and saying: I don’t want to feel like this, how do I change it? How do I own it? How do I move forward? We can all do a what Rebecca did and find our own way of saying ‘I don’t want to be a victim.’
How do you love again after a breakup?
Breakups can be a healing and learning experiences. But my breakups that have been less gracious and kind were the ones that prompted me to go and speak to a therapist and become a bit more aware of my own behaviours. Many of us find love again by online dating. I was very sceptical about online dating, after I’ve had all kinds of weird experiences. (I once met a woman on a first date, and she brought a panel of her exes along.) I thought love only happened in ‘real life’. And then I went on internet dating site and fell in love with the woman who became my wife.
How to navigate life when you’re heartbroken:
In the early stages of heartbreak, do things that are easy and that you enjoy, be very kind to yourself, sleep and rest.
Reach out to coaches and therapists. It can be really helpful to process things with a professional who knows how to guide you through emotional turmoil and help you understand your own behaviours so you can grow.
Reach out to friends. You think you don’t want to bother people, but everyone has been through a breakup and you will be surprised by the huge empathy your friends and neighbours and colleagues and peers will have and the support they will give.
To buy tickets for The Breakup Monologues podcast tour dates, click here.
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