Everyone has experienced some form of heartbreak—in love, at home, on the job or in the star-crossed universe. When this happens, many of us kick-start our recovery by eating a solo pint of ice cream, lolling on the couch in tatty pajamas, shout-singing to newly cruel love songs or taking long, tearful walks in the rain.
These familiar remedies do help temper our emotions, as well as add hits of humor to romantic comedies. But what about new bodily pain that lingers? Unusual aches that confound? After all, heartbreak affects us physically, too. We cannot truly separate mind from body, head from heart.
Florence Williams knows this all too well. As she writes in her fascinating, frequently funny and altogether life-affirming new book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, when her husband of 25 years informed her that their marriage was over, “I felt like I’d been axed in the heart, like I was missing a limb, set adrift in an ocean, loosed in a terrifying wood.”
Post-romance ruination wasn’t something Williams had previously encountered, having met her husband on her first day of college. “I was drawn to him,” she said in a call to her home in Washington, D.C. When their marriage ended, since she’d spent her entire adulthood side by side with him, “I had to learn lessons in my 50s that people normally learn from dating in their 20s and 30s.”
Williams is the author of two previous popular science books, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (2012) and The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017), as well as a contributing editor for Outside magazine and a science writer for the New York Times. So when heartbreak engulfed her personal life, she became an assiduous and motivated student of the science of devastation. “It’s my mode of trying to understand what’s going on,” Williams says. “I’m the sort of person who wants to know what my body is doing; I want to know test results. I believe knowledge is power.”
In pursuit of that knowledge, Williams traveled across America and overseas to numerous laboratories, scrutinizing her very cells, analyzing the changes in her health and spelunking the hallucinatory hollows of her own mind. (Indeed, the supervised use of MDMA was involved.) She even interviewed the U.K.’s Minister of Loneliness and took a moving and illuminating tour of the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia.
“There’s something about heartbreak and meeting people from this vulnerable place that makes people want to help.”
As scientists, researchers and other intellectually curious sorts gave Williams access to their work, they shared not only their findings on the risks of chronic loneliness (it increases the risk of early death by 26%) but also the fallout from their own painful romantic experiences. “There’s something about heartbreak and meeting people from this vulnerable place that makes people want to help,” Williams says. “A lot of barriers come down when you’re real with people, and that felt true when I talked to the scientists. I was really moved by how many of them shared their own vulnerabilities.”
In particular, a rather poetic comment from a genomics researcher bore out Williams’ persistent sense of urgency. “When Steve Cole said to me that heartbreak is one of the hidden land mines of human existence, and that it can put us on a path to early death, that was so arresting!” she says. “It made me want to drop everything and focus on getting better.” It also made her want to share what she had discovered with others. “Everyone else needs to know this, too. This is important.”
It was also vitally important for Williams, who says she “grew up spending summers living in a van with my dad, driving out West and canoeing every day,” to recenter herself in nature. Her husband had been a similarly adventurous partner, taking regular wilderness treks with Williams and their two children, who are now 18 and 20. But running rivers and hiking through forests on her own was something she’d never considered doing.
“A sense of curiosity is really helpful for emotional resilience.”
Williams explains, “When you live your life with a certain set of expectations, and all of a sudden the ground falls away . . . it challenges everything you think you know about yourself and the world, but it’s ultimately this wonderful opportunity to figure out who you are.” Williams has now completed a solo whitewater rafting trip.
Time and time again, Williams’ research makes the case “that a sense of curiosity is really helpful for emotional resilience. Learning to be more open, to cultivate beauty even when emotions are difficult, that kind of self-understanding is really helpful.”
When it comes to heartbreak (and Heartbreak), Williams adds, “Grief is a very human emotion, and sometimes we’re not very good at paying attention to our emotional state. . . . We’re so good at glossing over and distracting ourselves—at saying, ‘Everything’s fine here.’ But when life forces us to put down that delusion, it enriches our capacity to connect with other people. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, you know?”
Florence Williams author photo credit: Sue Barr