Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Do people outgrow vulnerability to heartbreak?

So, here's a question for you: do people outgrow their vulnerability to romantic heartbreak? Can it strike at any time in one's life, or is it something that experience and shifting priorities defangs?

I honestly don't know the answer to this question, which is why I'm posing it.

Many psychologists who study "social pain" -- social rejection -- think that it exists to teach us lessons. The pain itself shares the same neurological pathways as physical pain, probably because both force us to focus on the situation and defend ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: for our ancestors, exclusion, rejection, or being alone could mean certain death on the savannah where saber-toothed tigers lurked in the brush. Any kind of pain alerts us to the dangers of being alone. Indeed, any pain, whether it is the crushing sensation in one's chest over the loss of someone you love or the sting of a paper cut alerts to the fact that in the end, we die alone. (And yes, I know that's dramatic...)

But if we unpack the line of thinking that pain teaches us important lessons, we arrive at two very different places:

1) that the lessons we need to learn are infinite, and we are forever vulnerable to the lessons we've not yet learned; or

2) that each of us has our own, private, and limited catalog of tailor-made lessons that reflects who we are as individuals;

If the lessons we need to learn are infinite, then in theory we are always vulnerable to heartbreak, and each romantic liaison potentially offers us a new risk of pain, a new lesson to be learned. But if each of us has our own set of lessons, then in theory once we master them, we're forever stronger.

Or is it simpler than that, and we simply reach a point in our lives where, as one song writer put it, we "haven't got time for the pain"? Fine enough to wallow in the pain of heartbreak when you're twenty-something, or thirty-something, and hanging out in your plaid pj's and listening to Aimee Mann and OD'ing on Haagen Daz and chardonnay doesn't really effect anyone else, but it's a different kettle of fish when you have kids to feed, entertain, and quite simply be healthy for? In a strange way, do our children armor us against romantic heartbreak? Are are our priorities so dramatically shifted by having children that our brains are rewired so that we don't collapse from the pain of romantic heartbreak?

This is not to say that someone who, say, goes through a devastating divorce and has children experiences heartbreak -- they do. I'm just wondering if it's a slightly different brand of heartbreak from the kind one experiences earlier in life.  

Or is it that you go through it enough times and it becomes such familiar turf that you don't have to spend so much time and energy on it? Yeah, you might feel like shit for a few days, but it's not the all-encompassing devastation of say, getting dumped by the love of your life when you're 25. Put another way, maybe heartbreak gets maxed out: everyone gets 3 to 5 heartbreaks, and after that, wearing your broken heart on your sleeve is just plain undignified. What kind of 50-year-old who just got dumped licks their wounds for months on end?

Please feel free to comment or email me privately if you have thoughts on this. I could really use some other brains on this...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Andy Whitfield and My Primacy Effect

Today, the bit of entertainment news that I've been dreading for a year: Andy Whitfield, star of the series Spartacus, died yesterday. He was 39, he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and damn, he was one of the few men on screen to really light my fire.

Sure, as Spartacus he was not just chiseled but principled; but I now know that for me, what really got me going was that Andy Whitfield -- specifically the two-and-a-half to three inches of his face including and framing his ever-so-slightly hooded, wideset grey blue eyes, his unmanscaped brows -- triggered in me was what's known among social psychologists as "the primacy effect." Just that slice of Andy Whitfield's face reminded me of the first man I ever loved and was loved by, of the first time in my life where passion and safety co-existed.

When I see an image of Andy Whitfield, I see someone else, I am somewhere else: on Ocean Beach together at dusk marveling over the miracle of falling in love, waiting for him to roll up his sleeve as he did every time he held my hand, the way he carefully wiped his shoes on the doormat. Time travel in the face of a stranger, if for an instant.

Thank the primacy effect for how vividly you remember your first kiss, your first heartbreak, your first sighting of your college roommate's shoes, your first taste of beer. First experiences sear our brains unlike any subsequent ones -- the intensity of the emotion and the novelty form "flashbulb memories" that will light our way until our deathbeds.

Strangely, I had a dream about this man from my past last night, probably just hours after Andy Whitfield -- let's face it, a stranger -- died, but many hours before I read that he had died. And it was a sad dream -- one in which I felt helpless, worried, and nostalgic.

I'm no mystic, but I wonder what to do with that sliver of coincidence, if one can even call it that. It's as if a perfect stranger, on his way to the great beyond, stopped by to say, "This is the last dream." This particular primacy effect of mine, the trigger linking one face to another's, a TV screen to some of the most meaningful moments of my life -- will now forever be overlaid with sadness that such a talented stranger, who by all accounts was a lovely person as well, died too young.

Goodbye, Andy Whitfield.