Onto a more sensitive topic… As a serial monogamist, I spent almost all of my teenage and young adult years in a relationship, be it over short or long distances. Only recently have I finally had the chance to really experience what it entails to be literally single. Literally as in unequivocally: both de jure and de facto. Despite all the excitement I had built up, it was not nearly as fun as people made it out to be for so many years. While the upsides are very significant, ranging from losing weight and getting fitter to being able to watch lots of horror movies alone after midnight, the downsides weigh in heavier. The interesting thing, however, is that it is much harder to enumerate those downsides that are responsible for this feeling of heaviness and distractedness, than the upsides I can easily see.
An easy answer would be to label the unpleasant feelings as loneliness. Maybe it’s as simple as that, but as always I chose to analyze it further…
So, my pro-forma conclusion is this: The depressing feeling, which I dubbed post-breakup stress disorder, stems from a sudden loss of efficiency by having to in-source tasks that are suboptimal for one to do. The longer the relationship was, the larger the sudden drop, the more painful it feels.
To illustrate my point with some concrete, personal examples: The type of girl I tend to date is great at remembering names and faces; I am terrible at it… She creates beautiful ribbons with shoelaces; I long ago gave up on tying my shoes… She knows how to cook lasagna; I love eating lasagna.
Of course, it works both ways. I am a good conversationalist, able to extract a lot of information within minutes; she remembers all the details for future reference… I carry an umbrella when it’s going to rain; she never checks weather report… And I make a mean French omelet; both breakfast and dinner covered between the two of us! Complementarity is the keyword.
Now suddenly, it is me in yet another social gathering with a bunch of familiar-ish faces who address me with my first name. First, they take offense at my empty stare, then they notice my hobo fashion style. Embarrassed, I go home, only to cook me some plain old pasta. Subconsciously, I realize I am no longer me at my best, unless I can learn to get better at all those things I had very efficiently outsourced.
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I first got this idea last summer while reading The Tipping Point. The author argues for leveraging groups’ transactive memory as a business marketing tool. He sees it as a source of strength over time, as members of the group learn to trust each other. “[K]nowing someone well enough to know what they know, and knowing them well enough so that you can trust them to know things in their specialty” summed it up for me. In a long-term relationship, once you lose that memory, Gladwell argues, you “suffer depression and complain of cognitive dysfunction” due to having reached channel capacity.
I found this idea worth exploring. Channel capacity is actually an electrical engineering concept. It defines the “tightest upper bound on the amount of information that can be reliably transmitted over a communications channel.” Based on Gladwell’s suggestion, I would like to argue that an evolutionary benefit of a relationship might very well be to maximize one’s potential in life by creating a division of labor à la Adam Smith. Except this time in the romantic realm!
As I recently watched Annie Hall like I so often do (see my movies), agonizing over the emotions that hit me hard after a serious break-up, I could suddenly put it all together. Living overwhelmingly busy and complicated lives, many of us reach our channel capacity pretty often, and most notably in the emotional sphere. Being able to console my own self after the passing of a friend feels much harder than having my loved one —who is probably much better at this anyway— console me. On the same token, not being able to share a happy moment feels like a missed opportunity to amplify the joy I experience.
All analyzed and done. But does that resolve the post-breakup stress disorder? Not really. Just like my Sunday Night Syndrome didn’t disappear right away, a breakup, too, still feels heavy.
Yet at the very least, we can stop glamorizing this feeling as some sort of selfless expression of love and devotion. At the end of the day, we all want someone to help tie our shoes, tell us that life will go on when a misfortune happens, and cheer with us when we hit the jackpot. Don’t we?