For those who play the game of erotic love, falling out of love is an important skill to have ready.
Susie, let us imagine, is a lovely, beautiful sixteen year old girl. Suppose John is smitten by Susie. Here’s the important question to ask: did Susie cause that? Well, no. John did it to himself; it wasn’t something Susie did to him.
In general, unless you give it to someone, nobody else has the power to cause you to react emotionally. There’s always a gap between events and their emotional consequences, if any. Even if I were to slap you in the face for no apparent reason, although you might instantly react with anger, you might not. It’s always your choice how to react to anything.
(Of course, since it’s easier to blame others rather than ourselves, many people actually believe thoughts like “He made me so angry.” These are nothing but lies that we tell ourselves to avoid taking full responsibility for our lives.)
Let’s further suppose that Susie likes John and they hook up. Later, though, for whatever reason, Susie leaves; she either leaves voluntarily by dumping him or she leaves involuntarily by dying. What happens to John?
He suffers, perhaps intensely. If he doesn’t understand how to fall out of love with Susie (or the idea of Susie!), his suffering may be prolonged. It might only last for a few days or weeks. However, it might last for months – or even for years or decades.
If John happens to have an immature but well-intentioned friend, that friend may give John the following advice about how to fall out of love with Susie: “Replace her as quickly as possible.” Even if John were successful in doing that, it wouldn’t solve the real problem. It’s important to realize why: whatever can be gained can also be lost.
Actually, instead of an obstacle, what John has is an opportunity to grow. If he fails to grow and simply repeats his mistake, he is only inviting life to teach him that lesson again.
Falling in love has nothing to do with love. Falling in love has to do with gaining something, with using someone else in an effort to make your life better. This is why falling in love is often called “falling in lust.” As some carnival rides never fail to demonstrate, the sensation of falling can be quite thrilling. Falling head over heels in love with another person can be intensely thrilling emotionally and very pleasurable.
However, even if Susie were to fall in love with John as John fell in love with Susie, that would still have nothing to do with love. It could be a mutually satisfactory emotional arrangement, but it wouldn’t be love, which is all about selflessly giving the beloved whatever is best for the beloved.
Once Susie is gone, John has a choice: he can wallow in emotional misery or move on. To move on effectively, he should figure out how to fall out of love with Susie and then do it.
John’s falling out of love with Susie is no more about Susie than his falling in love with her was about her. Because it means that he is in control of how to fall out of love with Susie, this may be really good news for John.
John’s rebalancing task is one of detaching from Susie. Since thoughts are attachments, his task is to let thoughts of her go. After all, if he never had the thought that Susie was desirable, he never would have fallen in love with her, and, as long as he continues to think about her in the same way, he’ll continue to suffer.
There are two methods available to John. Both involve detachment from thoughts, but one is more thorough and radical than the other. Let’s start with the more thorough one to imagine how to fall out of love using John’s example as our subject.
Like all other adults, just as John knows that all humans are mortal, John knows that all encounters are impermanent. Sooner or later, everyone dies and all love affairs end. However, there’s an emotional difference between understanding those two abstract propositions and knowing that “I will die” and that “This encounter is impermanent.”
The way how to fall out of love for John that will ensure his lasting recovery begins by fully admitting the basic ignorance that caused the problem. For thousands of years, sages have recommended confronting and going through a negative emotion to burn it up rather than trying to kill it by distractions (such as falling in love again).
For example, in many different ways the Buddha repeatedly articulates the underlying lesson: “abandon desire for whatever is impermanent” [The Connected Discourses of The Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 2000; Bhikkhu Bodhi, tr.), p. 1219.].
In John’s case, the way to cut off desire for Susie is to see her as impermanent. Would John desire to win her favor if she were 80, 90, or 100 years old, “aged, as crooked as a roof bracket, doubled up, supported by a walking stick, tottering, frail, her youth gone, her teeth broken, grey-haired, scanty-haired, bald, wrinkled, with limbs all blotchy”? [The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 1995; Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, trs.), p.183.]. The problem for John would certainly not be how to fall out of love with such a woman!
Furthermore, the Buddha continues, “one might see that same woman afflicted, suffering, and gravely ill, lying fouled in her own urine and excrement . . .” Is there any longer any problem about how to fall out of love with her?
Furthermore, the Buddha continues, “one might see that same woman as a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter.” Is there any further problem about how to fall out of love with such a object?
It’s foolish to attach to something impermanent in an effort to gain permanent satisfaction.
If John takes off his blinders about Susie, he will begin to see what is really there rather than what he only imagines is there. If he does that with his desires for all other entities as well, he’s on the way to enjoying emotional tranquillity.
If he merely wants to stop thinking about Susie, all he has to do is to imagine other enjoyable experiences that don’t involve Susie at all. A practical way for how to fall out of love with her is this: make a list of vivid thoughts like that and, as soon as a thought about Susie occurs, replace it with a thought from that list. If John were to do that without fail for a few days, he’d recover much or all of his emotional balance.
This method of thought control is less radical and less effective than the Buddha’s practice of dispassionately detaching from all thoughts, but it still works.
Since it is grounded on ignorance and delusion, no matter how temporarily thrilling it can be, falling in love is always a mistake. Understanding how to fall out of love is helpful for two reasons. First, it can get us to a much better place emotionally once we have made the mistake of falling in love. Second, understanding how to fall out of love points the way towards loving better, towards a life of selfless service, towards living as giving rather than taking.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended readings: my How to Survive College Emotionally, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha, and Phillips and Judd’s How to Fall Out of Love.