My patient looked me in the eye. Tears poured down her cheeks.
“It hurts so bad. Why does it have to hurt so bad?”
I often sit in a room with another person in emotional agony. It’s part of my job. I sit. I listen. I don’t interrupt. I tolerate the feelings, and do my best to understand.
“Why won’t he call me? Why doesn’t he love me?”
I told her what I knew to be true.
“This guy isn’t worth your time. He isn’t worth these tears. This isn’t about him. It’s about you. And these are old tears – the tears of a heartbroken child. Your heart was broken long before you met this guy.”
A child’s first love affair is with a parent – and a little girl’s is typically with her father. She instinctively adores this powerful man who controls the world. She would do anything to win his attention, his delight, his love.
Sometimes things go wrong.
The father might be distracted by other things – his career, his marriage, something. His baby daughter adores him. But his attention turns elsewhere.
For that child, his rejection is akin to abandonment – which is akin, for her, to death. The resulting pain is cellular, and unendurable. It is a child’s heartbreak. She thinks she is going to die.
That’s what my patient was feeling now.
We talked about how it felt, attempting to physicalize the symptoms to make them more conscious.
A cold steel ball in the gut. A choke in the throat – like a cry rising up and getting stuck. An ache at her core. She cried all the time, and couldn’t sleep.
This was heartbreak.
We returned to her childhood, to see where this hurt began.
Her father sounded awful – a swaggering bully, who verbally and physically abused his wife.
Still, when my patient was little, he became the positive focus of her life. She recalled afternoons spent sitting on his lap, being fussed over.
That ended abruptly when she was 10. Her father left with a mistress, then moved back in a year later – with the mistress in tow. After that, her childhood was a blur of drunken rages. Her father fought endlessly with both wife and mistress. The little girl got lost amid the drama. She spent most of her time alone, wounded by his rejection.
Now she was repeating the pattern. She’d found a guy like her father – a swaggering, charismatic bully who paid attention to her for a few weeks, then lost interest.
An adult doesn’t waste time on someone who doesn’t return her care. But a child loves differently – without question. The child seeks to please. If the child’s love is rejected, she locates the fault within. She must be to blame for refusing to please.
This is the formula for heartbreak – the pain of a rejected child.
My patient was pining for a someone who never existed, any more than the father who made gestures at parenting before he disappeared into his own self-fascination. Both men constituted a promise, not a reality Both appeared when they felt like it, then left. Neither deserved her love.
The first step in recovery from heartbreak is to recognize that this is a child’s pain – and address it as such. This is a cry of need that you have to answer yourself, by bringing your child the parenting she craves.
Instead of assigning importance to someone for whom you are unimportant, start treating your child as important. If you are there for yourself, you will not experience solitude as a child experiences it – as abandonment. You will feel secure in your own care.
The message for your child goes something like this:
You are good and unique and important. I love you. You deserve my love. I’m never going to put anyone else’s needs before yours, because you are mine – you belong to me – of me, and with me, and rely on me for care. You are my special love, always first in my heart.
Those are words a parent should tell a child, each and every day.
No one should ever break a child’s heart. Or let a child’s heart stay broken.