Falling in love is pretty much the most exciting thing you can do.
You can make music, create art, travel, or lose yourself in a cloud of drugs. But the simplest, most positive and transformative experience you can have is falling in love with somebody else. Stories begin and end with, "and then I fell in love." They do so because there's precious little else, beyond music and nature, that elicits a full-body yes like love does.
I live in Berlin. Half of the newcomers to this city moved here for techno and the other half moved for love, and then realized that techno (124bpm forever) was more stable than love. Because of its instability, love—real love—is super rare, and if we don't learn to be a little gentler with it and one another, it will get rarer to the point where we talk about it like we talk about clean air in urban areas.
The problem is not so much how we fall in love but how we fall out of it. How, as much as we want to be nice to one another, at the end of almost all relationships we turn into selfish, non-conciliatory, monsters. We're our best selves at the beginning of our relationships and our worst toward the end. And that makes it harder to find love again in the future. It's not that there's a finite supply of love, but there's a limit to the amount of times most people are willing to be that vulnerable and get that hurt.
Thinking about that got me worried, then that made me anxious so I called my therapist, Bojan Lapčević, in Serbia to ask for his breakup advice.
"Separation is always traumatic," he told me, "and some trauma is always inevitable, but you have to learn to integrate that trauma. You have to see the constructive side of separation and, most importantly, see the future."
From my own experience, integrating that trauma has normally resulted in non-decisions. If a strong, independent woman dumped me, then I'd run straight into the arms of someone weak, immature, and, now I think about it, with at least a drug or drink problem or both.
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If you're needy and if you venture out into the world looking for reciprocation, there's a strong chance you'll get battered. And if you get battered often and hard enough, you'll eventually only look for love in places where you can't get hurt anymore, and that means with people you don't really care enough about to hurt you. Or you'll just get a pet. Our brains are plastic, governed by an amygdala that soaks up trauma like a sponge. Break your heart more than just a couple of times, and there's a chance you'll just give up on love.
To this end, as much as you can be adept at starting a relationship, you need to be even better at ending one. The real courtship shouldn't come at the beginning but at the end, when you're cutting the person loose.
"There are big individual differences in the way people deal with separation," said Bojan, "and that depends on their past experience. You have to be careful with people who don't deal with separation well, and explain as much as you can that it's not related to the quality or the value of that person—that it's just a mismatch."
Imagine a world where you could sit your partner down and be like, Honey, no offense, but I'm going to leave you, but I'll give you as much emotional support as you can handle and promise to wait at least half a year before I jump on Tinder/post drunken club photos in the arms of other men. Sure you'd be crushed. But maybe, just maybe, you wouldn't feel so deflated. Maybe if we put as much effort into impressing the person at the end as we did at the get-go, people would emerge from relationships scathed but not traumatized to the point where they run far away from anyone who raises their pulse even a fraction. If love is a battlefield, then maybe the point should be to try and emerge from it still walking.
If you're lucky enough in this lifetime to meet someone who falls in love with you and has the guts to come out with those three small, big words, and they're not on blow or pills at the time—check, many people are—then you've got to reward their bravery by treating them well, pinning a badge of courage on their shirt, and letting them go as gently and softly as possible if the time comes. If you are going to break a heart, you should at least try and pay for the damages.
I had a great breakup once. Maybe even my very best. It was back when I was trying to do art. I painted huge abstract watercolor impressions of pigeons set against city backdrops. It was truly, truly awful, and I was very bad at it, only nobody told me. Nobody told me until I split up with my girlfriend, and, in the interest of limiting damage, we'd decided to speak only truth and kindness to each other. We were young and idealistic, but, as a result, we're still friends. All those years ago when we were breaking each other's hearts with the tiniest and softest of blows—beheading each other with butter knives, as she called it—she told me, "You're a wonderful human, a kind lover and a strong human, but you should really give up on the painting and concentrate on writing." She broke my heart, patched it up just enough, and then sent me out into the world with a piece of advice that may not have set the world of literature ablaze yet, but certainly saved the art world, and me, from a lot of explaining.
While I was writing this, I spoke to my mom, who is a relationship counsellor, and has had front-row seats to all of my dating nightmares since way back. "There's always a childhood connection, Conor," she said, "If there's something missing in childhood you gravitate toward it in another person and that will always make a breakup harder."
And then she sent me this quote from Dean Ornish:
"Our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships. As individuals, as communities, as a country, as a culture, perhaps even as a species."
And then she asked if I was ok, hon? And I said, yes, mom, I am.
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