I believe that telling stories can bring meaning to history that may otherwise feel meaningless. Storytelling helps me put pieces together in order. I learned to love storytelling when my dad told me action-adventure stories before bed; now I love stories by ZZ Packer and Ernest Hemingway and, above all, those at breakfast provoked by the question “How was your night?” Telling stories about love, particularly about heartbreak, invites coherence to personal histories. Why did she do that? What did that bring him? What were the ways in which she gave herself to love? What can they learn? Storytelling is a celebration of the people who have changed us and who have changed the course of our lives.
For this project, I asked eight people to answer 15 questions about their experiences with love and heartbreak, whatever those abstract terms meant to them. I wanted to hear and share stories about all different types of love and all the different ways in which love manifests. When I asked the question: “What can you learn from your experiences with love?” Someone looked at the ceiling to think for a few moments and then answered, “I wish I knew the answer to that question … I feel like that’s something I need someone else to tell me.”
I believe that love and heartbreak are born from the same place; I also believe that sometimes they are the same thing. Everyone I interviewed answered questions about love in different forms — how they perceived love around them; how they express love; their memories of love and heartbreak; how they perceive their parents’ love; their best friendships; love in art and literature; self love; cringe-y romantic gestures; what they think others can learn from their experiences.
Who do we let into our lives, and why do we invite them? Why do we let them influence us? I think that in these stories, there are so many small lessons to learn: How can we learn from listening to others’ loves and heartbreaks? About the small divergences, the important convergences in all our personal histories?
“How would you describe the culture of love and romance at Yale?”
This question, usually the first one I asked, beckoned the same eye roll among a number of people I spoke to. My favorite knee-jerk reaction was “That’s f—ing hilarious!” One person I interviewed explained, after apologizing for her cliche given that “hookup culture has been written about a lot,” that she believed the culture of love and romance at Yale to be “deeply problematic and hurtful,” and that “love and romance is almost an alternative culture.” She elaborated that even when she does go on dates, she feels like everything all loops back to the hookup culture and expressed her fear that “love is never the ending.” Another person I asked answered that the first descriptive word that came to her mind was “guarded” and explained “that’s the opposite of what I’m about so it makes for a very frustrating time.” A third person, pointing to a reluctance to commitment, said “people are very focused on themselves and their goals and their work and their classes.”
While the responses to the first question were unanimous and direct, all others were diverse, nuanced and open-ended. I think that the process of storytelling can be used to learn from others and to celebrate something that can feel broken.
“How does someone express their love to you?”
A few months ago in my suite as we were consoling a friend, we huddled together around our couches in the dark and offered our tidbits of advice. My suitemate asked us something I had never thought about before: “What is your love language?” With this in mind, I asked the people I interviewed the same question.
I was interested in how different people communicate their affection, as well as what those gestures mean to different people. One person explained that most of all, she appreciates physical affection and people checking in on how she is doing. She explained the ways in which she values this: “It doesn’t take a lot but it says a lot when people ask how you’re doing and they do this every time they see you.” She expects those who love her to go the extra mile: bringing someone Emergen-C across Old Campus in the snow because their throat was hurting.
Head of Silliman College Laurie Santos explained to me via email the psychological insights into expressing love language: “One big thing we will learn in the course [of “Psychology and the Good Life”] is that healthy relationships take work. In our first few lectures we saw that marriages don’t always make people as happy as they predict, and that’s in part because we get used to them and stop putting the time in needed to make them sparkle. The message of the course, though, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. With effort, we can continue savoring a healthy relationship over time to make it feel new again. Basically the message is that like all good things in life, having a healthy relationship takes work!”
Another person mentioned, “It definitely means a lot when people reach out to me and are like ‘Oh this reminded me of you.’’’ She expressed her qualms with saying “I love you,” and explained that sometimes it feels so private a phrase that she has trouble telling her mom and her sister that she loves them. Another person had a more immediate, direct response: “If someone loves you, you know. I don’t think about it that much.”
“Have you ever been in love? And tell me about a memory in which you felt in love.”
I wanted to make sure that everyone answered this question by the definition that felt true to them. One person explained in great detail a memory of feeling in love — he remembered spending the day at the beach with his ex-girlfriend and exploring a different part of the city when they decided to look for food. He described feeling a sense of adventure and trust. Another person put the emphasis on her friendships at Yale. She feels like “platonic love is the status quo in a really wholesome and beautiful way.” She continued, “I have so many points of reference and points of platonic love. And what that means to me is like when you’re in your darkest hour when it’s 2 a.m., and you’re crying about a boy who didn’t like you or you made a really big mistake with a girl in your class, you can call them, and they will take you to Insomnia cookies and give you pajamas so you can sleep on their couch because TD is too far away from Old Campus. I’m really grateful for that.” Another person described feeling in love with another person at Yale — walking around New Haven from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. in the morning “making loops around the Green … walking around with no particular place … appreciating the silences.” Another friend explained that feeling in love “didn’t feel as concretely physical as feeling heartbroken because you feel very much not bound by your body. … It feels like you’re floating.”
“Have you ever been heartbroken? And tell me about a memory in which you felt heartbroken.”
What is the difference between feeling in love and feeling heartbroken? How do the two different feelings compare, as you feel them in your body and as they rise within you each day? One person explained how heartbreak and love feel physically and intellectually to him — “So I mean on a similar note falling in love is like there’s a very slow development of trust… And then like heartbreak can be a very instantaneous break of that.” To him, love and heartbreak feel differently based on the amount of time that each process takes. Another person admitted from personal experience that she has never been truly heartbroken. “And honestly I don’t think I’ve felt truly in love… When I associate feelings of love, I have associated those feelings with people I could never get.” One senior, after telling me the story of her first romantic heartbreak, explained to me that after enduring the sadness, she looked around to her friends and regretted that they had not felt the same heartbreak that she was experiencing. She told me that her feelings of upheaval were those that she wanted for her friends because she knew they indicated that she truly cared. Her first heartbreak went like this:
“I had started dating this guy, well, just about when I was in your shoes, in the second half of my freshman year. We dated all the way through October, and things were sort of as they were and I decided to sort of break it off, and I was incredibly heartbroken because I had shared some of the most classically romantic moments with this person.” To pile on the heartbreak, the couple are in the same residential college, sharing a similar band of friends. “That was a time in my life where I spent like a lot of time with my spiritual life. I prayed so much more than I normally would and met with religious advisors and I spent so much time in church because I really needed that kind of spiritual and emotional support,” she added.
“Who is your best friend and how would you describe your love for them?”
How do people experience best-friendships differently? Are these relationships sometimes romantic? What do we expect from friendships that we expect differently from romantic relationships? One person answered this question explicitly. After telling me the story of how she came to love her best friend, she explained, “I am very much of the belief that he was sent to me like in a religious sense… People ask us all the time if we’re dating… [He] has lifted my standard for a romantic relationship.” Another person told me how he recognized best friend qualities in another. “A best friend is someone who tells it to you straight and will be willing to get into a fight with you to do what’s right for you,” he shared with me.
“What works of art or literature or music provoke you to think about love most deeply?”
Why does art remind us of love that we feel? In what circumstances does this art provoke us to think about ourselves most deeply? Why do people turn to art to learn more about their own love or heartbreak? My creative writing professor, Adam Sexton, told me about one of his favorite works on love: “My Education”, written by his colleague Susan Choi.
Sexton said that Choi’s book dramatizes romantic passion more compellingly than other novels he has read. He found it “especially remarkable with respect to the feelings that one feels when a love affair goes bad. And I just found it remarkable and unprecedented.” Sexton encourages his students writing about love to be “original, fresh, to surprise the reader a little bit.”
One person said that a work of art that made her think most deeply about love is “Having a Coke With You” by Frank O’Hara. She loves this poem because it is about “infatuation but it’s not overblown and dramatic and crazy … It’s so dizzy and warm feeling and magical.” The poet writes about this intimate delicate experience: “It is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything/as still/as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in/front of it/in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and/forth/between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.”
Another person talked about the Before Trilogy by Richard Linklater, which tracks the relationship of a man and a woman from their first meeting through their marriage. The scene in which the man and the woman first meet influenced this person deeply. “There’s this one scene where they’re in a record store … and they go into the listening booth and they play this song and they haven’t heard it before they’re just testing it out and it’s the first time they’ve hung out and they keep glancing at each other but when one of them looks at the other one the other one looks away like they keep missing each other and it’s really sweet and so real and it touches me,” she told me. “They spend a whole night together and tell each other what they want most with love and it’s just the whole movie’s like dialogue. I’ve watched the whole thing twenty times but I would watch the same scene over and over again.”
Others were influenced deeply by books — one person loves “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro because it’s “honest about the fact that just because you love someone doesn’t mean it’s right or that it will work out.” Another person told me about the book “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which struck her because of the ways in which she found it to “frame love coming from uncomfortable and complicated situations.”
In terms of songs, a friend praised Taylor Swift. “Old Taylor Swift. You can’t beat ‘Love Story.’… That’s such a visceral experience to listen to old Taylor Swift when you’re wine-drunk,” she said to me.
“What is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you?”
“When I was grouchy my ex would order me chicken nuggets on Uber Eats.”
“What helped you to recover from heartbreak? Do you still feel heartbroken?”
Most people felt that heartbreak hit them rapidly and lingered. One person explained that she healed over time reminding herself that she and her ex were “working through this together.” Another person told me he needed to work to feel more comfortable with being single in a “steady state,” and that being social and being with his friends was the best means to feeling better, because “they’re very good about talking about stupid superficial things as opposed to super deep things.” Misery calls for company, and heartbreak demands a community. Someone told me, “I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to anyone for help besides my therapist. … I think most things I’ve just gone through on my own and had that experience and I can look back and say I’ve made it through that I can make it through this.” This person also noted, “I guess like being in love means being willing to surrender a part of yourself. … Part of the process of heartbreak is dealing with the repercussions of that. … You’ve created this softness and vulnerability and it’s not like you have to re-harden yourself but it’s just gonna hurt.”
“What can you learn from your experiences?”
What do people leave behind and forget? And what do people remember and carry with them? One person explained to me her frustration with the idea that after a relationship breaks “there’s just going to be so many men and women.” She believes that after a certain point we have to appreciate the people we are living with right now and make peace with the people in our past. She explained her need to appreciate every individual, not to take them for granted. With this philosophy, she feels she has matured and can better appreciate them whenever she meets someone new. Another person told me the many heartbreaks have not hardened her, but rather they have encouraged her to be more open. “I feel like most people if they’ve had the doozy of the love life that I’ve had they would want to be more guarded. But, honestly it makes me want to be more honest about how I feel about people.”
Storytelling brings honor to the lives of people who have influenced us. By recounting these narratives, I believe people build community around love and heartbreak. I think that in telling stories, in writing poems, in painting pictures, in dancing about our heartbreaks, they might be placed where they belong — they grow to be bigger than our bodies, they turn into spoken and written words — and so our great joys and traumas outlive us.
Annie Nields | firstname.lastname@example.org