Heartbreak hurts the hardest of them all

If you’re anything like me, you too may be feeling rocked to the core, nauseated to the point of wanting to wretch, physically drained and possibly even sleepless. Intense physical reactions to the news and unfolding grizzly details of the horrificly tragic events involving the deaths of two dentists by apparent murder-suicide, stemming from a broken romantic relationship.

I don’t even know these people personally. I believe I’ve briefly met each at previous industry events, but many of my colleagues know them each much better than I: lovely people you’d never pick would end up in this situation. Yet I’m experiencing a strong visceral reaction to an event that has shocked, saddened and revolted me incredibly, stoked by distant association.

We now grapple with the knowledge a former respected, likeable colleague was possibly either a terrible killer or experienced a tragic brain snap and the tenth woman this year - in early March - has died at the hands of domestic violence in Australia. 

If, like me, you’ve ever experienced heartbreak at the loss of a romantic relationship, death of a loved one, passing of a beloved pet, you will recall the heaviness, emptiness, and physically intense pain that can be so debilitating and so all-pervading and unrelenting: invading every activity, often every thought of every day until the old adage of time begins to heal such wounds. New hopes, dreams and people in our lives begin to fuel us again in life and we move onwards and upwards, leaving the past behind.

Poets, writers, composers and creators have all expressed in various forms throughout history the feelings and associations with heartbreak and loss. We search for solace, meaning and expression in just the right example for our situation at a given point in time. These tools are welcome, helpful crutches and companions that understand where we are at that point. For me, when I stop crying to Adele and Sarah McLaughlin, I know my life is getting back on track. 

It’s well documented that a partner of a long-term couple may die soon after the other has died, having lost the will to live without the other. The Japanese have scientifically demonstrated cardiomyopathic changes to the heart organ tissue and function from emotional heartbreak dubbed ‘heartbreak syndrome’ that can cause a physical heart attack resulting in death. Suicidal ideation - and sadly completion - is not uncommon amongst those grieving heartbreak and loss.

You, like me, may have sought professional psychological help, prescription meds, energetic clearing, escapism to other locations, new activities like intense exercise regimes or work projects to help moderate and process the feelings of pain and loss that are everywhere throughout the body, yet nowhere tangible enough to hone in on to excise or remedy directly, to quickly and completely relieve the pain of heartbreak.

People swim channels, run across countries, sail around the world, climb mountains and more epic activities to help acknowledge love lost through legacy. Actor Samuel Johnson, currently on TV show Dancing With The Stars, has done this for his sister who died of cancer and yet by his own account, the pain hasn’t lessened for him several years later.

Others however seek comfort from attempting to numb the pain from alcohol or drugs. For most a short-term bandaid, but unfortunately becoming a long-term addiction for some, unable to otherwise process and move on from the emotional pain of heartbreak they’ve endured. 

I am not the first to say that the death of a loved one is easier to recover from than the break up from a loved one who is still alive, but no longer in our own personal life. Psychologists tell us we go through the same grieving process whether the person dies or lives - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Getting to a place of acceptance is hard regardless of the reason for grief. It is easier for us to rationalise death as a reason for permanent separation than rejection, betrayal and broken trust. It is the minority of people who can successfully go on to evolve a previously deep romantic relationship into a harmonious platonic one. Often it is easier to cut ex-lovers - who we were once so incredibly close to - from our lives completely for safety and sanity.

If you’ve caught any of the action on TV show Married At First Sight recently, appropriately described as a “train wreck” by the shockingly entertaining episodic reviews by Facebook blogger Rockstar Mums Drink Champagne, you’ll have watched in mesmerising disbelief the irrational behaviours these reality stars demonstrate. They have never before met, but in an incredibly short period of time manage to trigger each other’s deepest fears, past scars, hopeful longings and primal urges in all manner of mortifying ways. Arguably the women have been more vicious than the men on this show. The only adverse behaviour that hasn’t been demonstrated is physical abuse.

We have likely all - or know others who have - engaged in behaviours we are less than proud of or later regret in response to the pain we have felt from heartbreak: hurtful written or spoken words - sometimes spiralling into verbal or emotional abuse; gossip; friendship divisions; breakup sex - even months or years later; stalking - on social media or more disturbingly, physically; acts of vengeance and sometimes revenge that damage reputations, property or other people; body modification procedures such as piercings, tattoos, implants or augmentation; ghosting; and physical violence - some of these acts resulting in the need for police and legal intervention via an AVO (apprehended violence order) because one party or other fears for their safety.

As a late-onset lesbian, someone who came out at age thirty, I have been blessed and tormented with the love and loss of three significant relationships in my life to date: one with a man, two with women. Every woman who has ever felt love in a same-sex attracted romantic relationship will tell you the emotional love you experience with another woman is so much deeper and more filling than anything ever experienced in relationship with a man. This is certainly my experience. No disrespect to my first true love. The highs are higher. The lows of breakup much deeper and profound with a woman.

Women’s talents generally lie in our nurturing, emotional, communication qualities that have you feeling blissfully high on life when aligned - like a spiritual or cosmic experience, to feeling crushed and worthless like dirt in the street gutter when no longer. Men’s talents generally involve security, protection and provision - the more physical and survival aspects of Maslow’s heirachy of needs. The latter are more practical, pragmatic and tangible than the more ethereal, less tangible aspects women naturally bring to relationship that are often described by the pointy end of Maslow’s triangle, or the Yin to Yang of Chinese philosophy.

Weirdly, I have never asked my gay male friends who have previously been straight to describe the differences in their gay relationships. It’s often quoted that one year in an LGBTQI relationship is equivalent to seven years in a straight relationship as a guide to intensity. If the previous female partner is on board, gay men often maintain strong platonic relationships better than I’ve seen most straight ex’s maintain, independent of whether there are kids involved or not. Gay men have more sex, this I know! Both in or out of relationship, and with more people. But they are less likely to get into or sustain a relationship than lesbians (who stereotypically move in soon after the first date!) or heterosexuals. Does this propensity and liberalism towards sex help channel gay men’s feelings and emotions into an acceptable physical outlet they need?

Transgender people who undergo hormone therapy from either male to female, or female to male, describe the surprising changes in behaviour they experience during the process: females taking testosterone develop more agression, with an elevated libido and desire to act more physically in the face of emotional challenge; men taking oestrogen become more generally emotional to events, cry more and talk things through like never before. Archer magazine chronicals such stories.

It would be interesting to know the statistics of AVDOs (apprehended domestic violence orders) in the LGBTQI community versus the straight community. I’m aware it’s a recognised problem in the LGBTQI community yet domestic violence resulting in death is most commonly a pattern involving the death of a female at the hands of a straight male love interest. 

Heartbreak is without a doubt the worst pain a person can experience in life and perhaps the hardest to recover from and move on successfully. Lost love does harm in many ways: illness, irrational behaviour, abuse, violence, suicide. One is also murder.

In light of the presented information, it starts to make more sense why a heartbroken straight man might be more likely than any other type of person to end up murdering his love interest to resolve his pain: straight male with presumably heightest levels of testosterone and lowest levels of oestrogen; experiencing the highs and lows of female love, with less social skills, acceptance and avenues to work through the stages of grief effectively. This is by no means an excuse. It is however a very plausible explanation for a ticking timebomb which may better help to find a workable solution to this endemic.

Does this mean heartbroken straight men are evil or aggressive predators because their way of dealing with the pain of heartbreak more commonly leads to death of their love interest? Or does it mean that we as a society need to acknowledge that heartbroken straight men are at a much higher risk of murdering to resolve their heartbreak pain because of physiology, circumstance and society?

It seems such men can’t allow their love interest to move on and enjoy love elsewhere in the face of a failed relationship. I don’t believe it’s because of a desire for possession. I do believe however that unfortunately for some men, they can’t seem to resolve their heartbreak pain on their own, like most people do. They haven’t been able to process the stages of grief. They know that being with that person again seems to be the only thing that eases their pain. And perhaps in the irrationality that intense pain brings to all of us, murder becomes a way for these men to resolve the unrelenting torment of their emotional pain in an equal yet opposite way that suicide does for many others.

I don’t believe either of the dentists involved in the apparent murder-suicide this week were bad or evil people. Enough people I know, know them well enough to say they’re not. It appears they didn’t have the tools or the support to extricate themselves effectively from their broken relationship, they kept hurting each other, probably unintentionally, and it sounds like the guy didn’t have the tools or support to effectively manage and process his heartbreak so he could move on with his life independently of her, like most of us learn to do.  

My personal opinion is that if we as a society are to turn the tide on domestic violence resulting in death, we need to start to recognise - and pay attention to - classic warning signs heartbroken people at risk of harming, including murdering, may demonstrate. We need to educate and distigmatise around these warning signs. We need to proactively act to get straight men especially, the help they so desperately need to address the pain of their heartbreak constructively before they ruin theirs and others lives permanently. We need to prioritize heartbreak as an emotionally labile, highly risky transient psycho-somatic state. 

And for anyone not sure they’ll ever find love again after heartbreak, I’m onto my fourth significant love affair. It doesn’t get any easier with practice but this one is the best experience yet! I’m sure in no small part due to everything I’ve learnt from all the previous relationship ups and downs with love and loss.

RIP Preethi and Harsh. 

Dr Christine May is a dentist, writer and LGBTQI community member based in Sydney. All views expressed are her own.