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Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz answers your questions about healing heartache.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: Hi, everyone, I'm delighted to see you here. I'm Dr. Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington. I teach and do research on sexuality and intimate relationships. I am also the ambassador here for love, sex and relationships. I am looking forward to answering your questions.

See also: How to Forgive — and Why You Should

Question from Peggy: I dated a man for almost three years. We broke up amicably but now he's married and has a new baby. He keeps calling me and talking as if we were still dating. Is he playing mind games? I feel like I'm being used. What do I tell him?

Pepper Schwartz: Peggy, it's good to hear from you. But yes, he is playing mind games and no, he should not be doing this. Having a baby can be stressful for both the new mother and the father and I think he's probably reaching out to you because he's off balance in his own relationship. But this is no time for him to "use you." In fact, it's very unkind and you should tell him so. Perhaps, sometime in the future you can be friends again, but it's inappropriate for you to be his support system now.

Comment from Vince: Not so much a question but a plea for advice/help, I guess. I'm gay. My soul mate of 31 years died on July 30, 2009, at the age of 78. He was everything to me. I continue to be devastated and I am in a downward spiral that I can't seem to stop. I was John's full-time caregiver for 3.5 years before he died. Consequently, I couldn't work since he had no one else in this world to take care of him. We lived on what little savings we had after we lost mostly everything in the stock market crash in recent years and John's Social Security. That went away when he died. My unemployment has run out and I am living on what's left of the savings. I never hear from any of my family except for maybe a Xmas card at best. I have little or no friends. I have been so depressed since John died that suicide looks like a real option for me if I can't find work or get some sort of "identity" going.

PS: I am so sorry, Vince, to hear of your situation. I know how draining it is to be the total caregiver and how small your world can become, but you need to save yourself now. The way to do it is to go to a social service agency and get some help. They may be able to go over your finances with you, give you some job counseling, and even find some financial support for you while you get re-established. Even more important, they can get you into a discussion group with men who are in the same situation you are, and other people, to whom you will feel both a good bond and understanding. The most important thing is to get out of your place and get with other people because you need to talk and you need to remember there's a bigger life out there. I am not underestimating how dire your situation is, but I can assure you that other people have been where you are and by meeting new people and getting new support they can restart a new life.

Question from Trisha: Good afternoon, Dr. Is that your real name?

PS: Yes and no, my brother named me Pepper when I was 14 and, because other people had my other name, then I made it legal when I was 21. Of course, who knew it would be Dr. Pepper?

Question from Susan: We haven't split yet physically — we still sleep in the same bed — but we are not speaking. If I have to ask him a question he screams at me to get out. He sits in the bedroom all day. Won't let me cook, he just goes to fast food. He says he hates me, but when I offer to leave he doesn't want that either. He smokes an ounce of pot weekly and has for years. He insisted I retire from my job, sell my house, now what? I have no job, no money, two dogs I just don't know what to do. I am brokenhearted! I thought this was forever.

PS: I am so sorry to hear, Susan, that this man is being abusive toward you. You need to get a counselor and you can get some free help from the family services in your city or state to see what rights you have in this relationship so that you can get out and figure out a new life. Staying with him is a dead end. He is immobilized and he wants to do that to you too. You'd be surprised that you still have skills and there's a lot in your life that you have learned that you could apply elsewhere. It's hard to do all the things I'm telling you to do when you're brokenhearted, because it takes all the energy away that you need. But if you have any friends at all, and family that you can rely on, ask them for support in this period of transition. But definitely go see family services. They can not only offer you psychological support but they give you legal support as well. The fact that he doesn't want you to leave means that he's getting something out of this situation. And maybe it's just your powerlessness that he likes. But it seems to me that this is a downhill choice for you and you need to figure out how to get out.

Comment from d: Met my wife 11 years ago. We've been married for six. We were trying to have kids earlier in the year and then all of a sudden in June she says she no longer wants kids, nor finds me attractive. She filed papers two weeks ago. My heart physically hurts. I am moving across the country and know in a year I may feel better ... but now ...?

PS: Hi, D., The end of a relationship is always painful if you have any heart at all. It's impossible not to grieve. It's too bad when a relationship ends because all the dreams end with it, but it sounds like you are going to begin a new life very soon. My advice, for the present, is to get yourself as busy as you can be. Join a club. Take on a sport or do more of the sports you like. Figure out things to do at night, like night classes. Or call your friends and say "I need to keep busy now, help me." Do a run around those low slow times when all you have is to think about what hurts. Basically, you have to cheer yourself up each and every way you can. And you can do this.

Question from P.G.: Divorced twice; lonely. Why do I keep choosing the wrong men?

PS: Well, that's a great question to ask, P.G. And that's the first step to figuring out what's undermining your happiness. The first thing I would do is talk to my good friends and think out loud with them if there is a pattern of guys that I've been choosing, and there probably is, and your friends can give you straight talk about how they see it. Now, they may have done this before, but this time you have to listen. So, for example, if you've been going after guys that are not kind, not flexible, not employed, you're not their type — you have to go to the opposite side of the continuum. If you've only been interested in guys that are hard to get, go after guys who are more interested than you are. Look for somebody who's been married a long time and their partner left them. Look for somebody who believes in loyalty and being with a partner forever.

Finally, look to yourself. Ask your friends what they would change about you if they could and tell them to be honest. Because, not all of the problem is with the other guy. We are always part of the problem. And we need to figure out which part that is and then work on it.

Question from Mel: My wife died 5 years ago from breast cancer. I cannot move on, I know I should and she wanted me to but I feel like I'm cheating on her. How/when will I get over this? I'm lonely and sad and miss her so much.

PS: Mel, I totally understand how you feel. When you love someone and you lose them, especially to a brutal disease like breast cancer. There are not only feelings of loss, but feelings of "why am I the one to survive?" "How could I be happy when she had to suffer so much?" But we are meant to survive and go on with our lives. It would be a terrible waste of this gift of life that you have to let it whither and be unfulfilled forever.

I think that precisely because you did love your wife, you have love to give again. Opening your heart will not be disloyal, it will be the product of what you have learned and given in your marriage. So, you need to think about finding someone new as an affirmation of the gift of life we've been given, rather than as an act of disloyalty to your wife. If you have tried to do this and failed, then I would go to see a counselor and have that counselor help you understand that you have the right to live and love. And that, in fact, anything else would be untrue to the self, which is such a precious thing that it should not be locked up and wasted. There are many women out there who are good people, who would understand your loss, and indeed might have a loss of your own. And the two of you can honor your past lives and still create something beautiful together.

Question from Jenny: Hi, Pepper. After 12 years, I still love the same man who has long since married someone else. I'm happy, even though I'm still single, never married, but have never found anyone who makes me feel the way he did. How do I get over him once and for all?

PS: Jenny, think of it this way: Sometimes there are people that we love that we were never meant to be with forever. Loving someone is not always rational, it is what it is. But we can be rational about the way we live our lives. Because you loved him, you know what love is. But if you are attached beyond what's good for you, then you might think about what this attachment does for you that is unhealthy and, in fact, perhaps an escape from reattaching to someone else. You're probably in a hormonal loop, where, literally you are addicted to the feelings of love you get when you think about him. But, at this point, it's totally a fantasy, and it's not in your best interest. Think about it like quitting smoking, stopping using a narcotic, or if you were very heavy and couldn't stop eating. It's a bad attachment at this point and you need to break it. There's nothing good about it now, no matter how good it was in the past.

George: Pepper, much like Susan I am in a verbally abusive relationship I can't seem to leave. She is miserable and wants me to be too, but I love her and want to help her so we can be happy again. Then again, her behavior for months now has been hateful and cruel. I think she's with someone else, plus she has four kids and a dead-end job. But when I pull away she texts and calls repeatedly so I get sucked back in to do it all over again. Help?

PS: Hey, George. You know what's going on here, and only you can put a stop to it. You have to give her some boundaries and then stick to them. She can only do this because you fold when she comes back at you with "Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it, I'll be better." That's a fine apology if it hasn't happened 20 times before, followed by brutal language and perhaps even disloyal conduct. You have to make some rules that are final. So, for example, if she yells at you, you leave the room. If she is nasty to you, you start packing. You have to figure out a hard line and not be manipulated into the same old cycle.

You should also think about why do you love this woman if she's continually nasty to you? If you love her because she has many good points, then you should insist on those being the qualities that you get to experience and not abusive behavior. Someone said once, and wisely, you teach people how to treat you. Think about the education you've been giving your wife. It's not a good one. And you have to change it.

Question from C-line: Divorced husband of 32 years and thought I was done with men. Met someone 60 days post divorce and I think I'm in love. Could it be rebound?

PS: Hi, C-line. I think this is a great question and a lot of people will be interested in this answer because it's a common issue. The answer is, yes it could be, but no it doesn't have to be. Life sometimes delivers the right person right away and I wish we all could experience that. But of course, it could also be that you're lonely, that you miss emotional and sexual contact and that this person provides so much of what you need that you're not looking deeper at all the things you really need to see. So, my recommendation is enjoy it, but take it slow, and don't make any commitments. Don't move in. Don't get engaged. Just enjoy each other and get to know each other better. It's only time that will tell you what you really have.

Question from Rock and a Hard Place: My parents shouldn't be together anymore. They constantly bicker and sleep in separate rooms, sometime houses. But they both refuse to budge because of the money it costs to get divorced. And I guess there are the combined retirement accounts. How can I get these two people I love so much to go their separate ways? I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place.

PS: Hello, Rock and a Hard Place. That's a good question. You know? We're never too old to get some counseling. And just because they've been married for so long, doesn't mean they couldn't use a third person to give some feedback and advice. And they won't go out to see someone, maybe you could bring someone from family services into their home to talk to them. Sometimes, people get very thin-skinned in the latter years of their long marriages and they can get pretty nasty with one another — even if they had a good marriage up until now. I have actually heard stories where parents had to be separated for their own safety. So, you have to assess the situation and see what degree of anger and abusive language is going on and decide whether it's escalating or just staying at the same place.

It's also possible that maybe you could get one or both of them out of the house more. They might not be so nasty to one another if they had other things to do. Maybe they could go to a community center where they have crafts, exercise and continuing education. I think you can do something here and I think it may become increasingly necessary to do something, so if you start to help the situation now, perhaps you can avoid something even worse between them in the future.

Question from Susan: How do you know when it's really over? Relationship for 13 years and I've been sleeping on the couch for the last three. We've been in couples counseling for two years. How do you know the right thing to do, to stay or go? When does trying to make it work become insanity?

PS: OK, Susan, I think you are on the cusp of insanity. I'm using that word loosely, of course, but it sounds like enough time has passed ... so if this thing were to turn around, it would have done so. Sleeping on the couch for three years is way far down the road of a deteriorated relationship.

By the way, why is it that you're the person on the couch? You should at least switch on and off.

I'm thinking that you're boxed into a corner and you need to get out of this situation. It looks like you've tried very hard. But if things start going in the same loop and there's no change or progress, and it's an unkind situation, then you need to stop being in that loop and go in a new direction. I think, from the small amount of info you've given me, the least you should be doing is listening to a counselor on this and my guess is they're gonna tell you it's enough already.

Comment from Pete: This is the second time for me and it is like déjà vu. I just want to run but there is no escape. The things that used to make me happy don't matter anymore.

PS: Pete, I don't know what's wrong, but there's always an escape. However, if this is déjà vu, you're either very unlucky, or you've done something to help create the same situation again, which might just be picking the same person again. Or it might be that there are some things in your personality that lead you to feel trapped, angry or depressed. The first thing to do when you seem to be having the same experiences over and over again is to look to your part in this. This is exactly the circumstances to use a friend or family member or counselor to get honest feedback. If you get some insight, you might be able to make this relationship better — because you can change, too. Or maybe it will just help you know how to get of it and to do better the next time.

Question from Molly: My ex-husband is now dating someone much younger than me. We've been divorced for a while but still, this hurts. What's wrong with me? Why do I care what this jerk does? I was fine with the split but not anymore.

PS: Oh, Molly, you're just human (laughs). We all have egos and we don't like being displaced in a way that comments on our own beauty or attractiveness or worthiness. When an ex goes out and gets someone much younger, it often makes us feel much older.  

It can also make us feel unappreciated, to be replaced by someone who has the advantages of greater youth. But, it's only an ego thing, we've all got one. And ultimately you're right, you didn't want him, and he's just proving in another way that some of the things you didn't like about him then are showing now. And he's just showing a side of himself that doesn't suit your values. It may also be that, like other humans, it's not easy to wish good fortune to somebody who hurt you. It's very human, although not entirely flattering, to see your ex happy having new kids, having a lovely partner, and feeling ticked about that. The best answer to all this, of course, is go out and find someone to love for yourself and be deliriously happy. And then, you really won't care what he's doing or who he's marrying.

Question from Jamie: I was in a romantic relationship with a co-worker that ended on okay terms. It's been a year, and I still can't get over her. I know seeing her every day doesn't help ... what can I do?

PS: Well, Jamie, this is a tough one. This is why we don't like to fall in love at work, because it's like a stick in the eye when it ends. I know you don't want to hear this, but if you don't want to take a long time getting over the pain, the best thing to do is to either get a new job or find some way that you can avoid seeing her at this job. The truth is, every time you see her, it's going to reopen that heartache and that desire. Of course, you can follow the advice I just gave for a different situation and that is to work really hard at falling in love again. Because, once you do that, it won't be as hard to see your old lover.

Question from MD: Do you believe in love at first sight?

PS: I believe in lust at first sight. MD, I believe you can see someone across a crowded room and feel a huge attraction toward them and not just a sexual attraction but you're compelled by the whole package. But you can't really know what's REALLY inside that package. You just think you know. Now, you might be lucky. Your fantasy of who that person is might actually be who that person is. If it works, if your attraction is intense and the person just happens to be who you want them to be, then you can tell all these love at first sight stories to your children.

Question from Larry: My dad is still so sad since my mom died. How can I help him get through it?

PS: Larry, that's a great question and I think you can help him. Take him out, take him to a dance. Take him to a golf course. Take him fishing. Take him snowmobiling. JUST take him. Get him moving; get him thinking about new things. Get him happy in spite of himself. And the longer those periods of happiness, of walking the golf course or playing chess or joining a choir, the more his internal hormone system will start giving him endorphins instead of toxins. Depression creates steroids that undermine our energy and our happiness. So, get him into activities that create positive experiences and it will change his mind and his health and his happiness.

AARP host: Pepper, thank you so much for joining us today. Any parting thoughts for our viewers?

PS: First of all, I would like to thank everyone who asked questions. I know how hard it is to be in a situation where your heart is broken — I've been there, done that. So I want to tell you that I not only sympathize but I empathize. I also know that you can bounce back and you can, with some work, fall in love again, leave a bad situation, and begin a new life and a happier life. I know some of you are in very bleak situations, but please believe in a better tomorrow. Because there actually is one. And for those of you loving children who have called in about your parents, you can help them. And I am so grateful that you want to. Life isn't easy, love is a powerful emotion, and when it goes sideways, it can be powerfully destructive. But the same emotion that has hurt us can heal us. I urge you to look for that healing kind of love in your life.

AARP host: Thanks, again, Pepper. See you next time.

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