How to Fall Out of Love

A personal essay on what it means to let go.

Illustrated by Rachel Lee.

In the 21 years I’ve been alive I have fallen in love about 500 times over. With colors, places, the taste of a scone in the English countryside, the way crickets sound at midnight, with books and music and strangers. The first time I fell in love with another person, I was a teenager. In the years since then, I fell out of my love. 

When it comes to love, there are two big questions that I feel as though I am asked or I ask myself at least once a week: how do we know when we are in love? And how do we know when we aren’t any longer? 

The answer to these ever-colossal questions is obvious: there is no real way to know. You ask anyone who has been in love and they will tell you that when you fall in love you “just know,” as if that is supposed to be any reassurance at all. Or, they will make up a multitude of poetic verses or metaphors to explain it. 

You know you are in love when they are the first person you want to see at the end of a long day. You know when that silly TV show they love so much becomes your new favorite. You know when every old romantic jazz standard is about them. 

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But how do you know when you aren’t is a much more nuanced question. People want to talk about being in love, but some don’t want to talk about heartbreak. 

And the truth is that heartbreak can be much more difficult to discuss. It’s terrible and arduous in every sense, and, when you’re in it, it seems neverending. But heartbreak, like all other sorts of pain, is finite. While you believe that it may go on forever, it will free itself from you when you least expect it. 

A few years ago, I called my best friend in tears at 2 a.m. the day after my birthday. I was crying because my first love had neglected to send me a happy birthday message. No call, no text, no contact at all. Though I do not consider myself a very outwardly emotional person, this tiny act of indifference moved me in ways completely unexpected.

Though we weren’t exactly friends, we were still on friendly terms, and I had made it a point to call him first thing in the morning on his birthday, even though he had broken my heart for the umpteenth time a few days before. Even though we had been out of contact for several months at that point, I expected that a part of him would care enough about me to call. And when he didn’t, I felt as though my heart was shattered. 

“Why am I so upset about this?” I asked my friend. 

We ended things a long time ago. Both of us had dated other people in the meantime, and both of us had been happy for each other. Yet, there I was, tears streaming down my face.

I was angry. I was upset that after all these years, he still had a power over me. Though I had had an incredible birthday, full of stardust and love and hope, in the 11th hour he had still managed to destroy me. I lamented all of this to my best friend, and asked the same question over and over again. 

“Why am I still so upset about this?”

“Because you’ve moved on, but you haven’t let go,” she said.

I cried even harder when she said that. Try as I could to muster a coherent response, all I could was whisper, “Wow, yeah.” 

There is a difference between moving on and letting go. Though I had dated other people since our breakup, I hadn’t let go of the idea of us together. I still thought about him, no matter how placidly, almost every day. Just moving on wasn’t enough. I had to let go. 

It was not going to be easy and it was not going to be quick, but it was something that I had to do for myself. For years, I had subconsciously based my life around what I imagined would be best for our future life together, and now I was faced with a new consideration. How was I going to live my life independently of the idea of myself I had created for him?

I had been paralyzed by the idea of what letting go meant. I was so focused on what I was losing. I thought that by letting go of the people I once loved, I was letting go of myself. Yet I never considered that perhaps I was not losing much at all. 

They say that when a loved one passes away they never really leave you. They are a part of you because of the way they shaped your life, and as long as you keep their memory alive, they aren’t really gone. Falling out of love is a bit like this. You are losing the person; though they aren’t dead, you keep the memories. You remember who you were when you were with them. You remember all of the idyllic times you shared with them, and you remember the fights that made you stronger. There will always be something that reminds you of them. You will remember the specific way they say the word “interesting,” or that strange TV show they loved so dearly, or the fight you got into that you realize only now was because they cared about you so much. Your reaction to that memory may change, you may cry and then laugh, you may scoff at the fact that you ever attached meaning to that at all, but the past can’t be changed. 

Falling out of love is not in fact letting go of anything other than the presence that someone has over your life today. It is not something you lose, but rather you gain. By freeing yourself from someone who has such an influence over your emotions, you are free to consider yourself, perhaps for the first time. Your emotional life does not have to revolve around one person. Love is so much more than a feeling for someone else.

Email Annabelle Tocco at [email protected]

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