The Dangers of Learning Your Lesson by Abigail Smith

Abigail TreeIt’s been almost two years since I lost someone I loved. The relationship was short, tortured, unhealthy (as all my romantic relationships have been, but that’s another story…) However, I fell particularly hard for this one. When we separated, the pain was unthinkable. I was surprised by how deep it ran. I didn’t know until he was gone how much I really cared about him.  I became physically sick, and even now there are days when I only have to bring him to mind to conjure a familiar pressure behind my eyes and in my throat.

Why did he leave? Why did I love him so much? What went wrong?  How can I stop suffering from this? I’ve discovered that satisfactory answers are nonexistent.

All I could find were platitudes. “It’s his loss.” “Now you know his true colors.” “You’ll find someone else eventually.”  And then there are the hollow religious comforts like, “God has someone better.”  Unsurprisingly, these flippancies don’t help much, but they are predictable and forgivable.

More ensnaring axioms come from those who claim to be oriented toward deep meaning-making.  Authors, thinkers, clergy, the ones you expect to have deeper answers— so many seem to serve reductions along the lines of, God sent him to you to teach you a lesson you needed to learn. I remember a church leader once telling me that she prayed regularly, “God, don’t let me waste any suffering I go through by not learning something from it.” Similar ideas come from those in the New Age: Your souls needed to meet in this incarnation, to learn karmic lessons from each other.  From the psychotherapy-minded: We are attracted to those who epitomize elements in our Shadow. Unhealthy attractions will dissipate when these Shadow elements are integrated.

Lessons to learn. Shadow elements to integrate. Not long ago, these sounded like helpful steps toward maturity, healing, freedom.  Until a few weeks ago, I handled my grief using advice along these lines. I would get quiet and introspect for lessons I could glean from the experience.  I wrote down each prescriptive gem.  I meditated on my discoveries, tried to absorb their wisdom.  I faced the rejected parts of my psyche I felt were similar to undesired elements I saw in my lover.  Greed. Pride. Selfishness… One must face and integrate these qualities in order to heal!

And yet, his painful imprint remained— and it remains— salient.  It has gotten better over time, but I despair at ever being fully “over him.”

Recently it dawned on me that that these approaches to creating meaning from relationships, while well-intentioned and of a certain wisdom, are not entirely sound. First, they flat-out don’t work in alleviating the pain of grief. Secondly, they draw on the contestable “redemptive suffering” model of dealing with the Problem of Evil. The main concern for this article, though, is that this kind of advice effects a de-personalization of the Other.  It treats the Other as something to assimilate, use, take from.  It reminds me of the nutritionist’s advice that when you crave salty foods, your body is really saying that it needs potassium, so eat some apricots instead, to stop the cravings. This may work for food, but wait!  Do we really believe people are like food to be consumed?

There is always some assimilation of the Other’s qualities in any relationship. Of course.  But Love is not a flat, predictable formula.  Person X has quality Y; I need Y; therefore, I need X.   Love is so much richer. Every person is a unique universe of traits, mannerisms, potential, preferences, activities, ideas, and so on.  When you love an Other, whose universe somehow resonates with your own, you can’t pinpoint specific reasons you want to be with them.  It’s a multi-dimensional, ever-changing, immense experience. A person cannot be reduced to the sum of her/his qualities.

People can teach us things. Of course. But Love isn’t only about how the Other can serve Me, or vice-versaLove transcends Transaction, whether we’re talking about exchanging physical services or spiritual lessons. When I miss my ex, I’m not missing his lessons; I’m missing him. Some ineffable quality, a unique expression of life that defines him as himself and nobody else.

Funny. I don’t seem to hear this kind of wisdom when the loss is familial instead of romantic.  Who would tell a child whose mother just died, “Don’t worry, there are plenty of women out there who can take care of you”?  While this may be true at a certain level, the fact is, nobody can replace your mother. Orphans aren’t urged to learn the lessons they’re supposed to learn from the lost parent and move on, nor to introspect on what caused them to be attracted to that family member in the first place.  The child may find someone else to parent him, but it won’t be the same, nor should it be.  A romantic Other feels, at some level, like family. Why is their loss assumed to be less painful, so easily bargained via self-improvement tactics?

Another problem with this “Other to Assimilate” idea is that it opposes itself to the feelings and experiences of those who love.  It essentially says, “I know you feel like you love that person, but your feelings are lying. You actually love yourself.”  If our feelings are not accurate indicators of our inner reality, which is, by definition, intangible and immeasurable, then what can we trust?  Maybe your feelings are right. Maybe you do love the other as an Other.  Maybe there’s no way, or need, to explain the unexplainable.

The lesson I finally learned from my grief is that, ultimately, there isn’t a lesson to learn. Love is greater than lessons. Love sees the person, not the lessons. Love insists on loving.  Can I maintain this perspective? My hope is, since the love in my heart proved stronger than my misguided attempts at self-healing, ultimately it will also prove stronger than grief.


Abigail Smith has a Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition, and is finishing a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design & Technology. She is currently job-searching in Phoenix, AZ.  If nobody will hire her, she will find a commune and live off the grid… She may or may not be serious about that… She enjoys gardening, bicycling, politics, reading, audio engineering, and referring to herself in the third person. Her personal blog is, and her singer-songwriter website is

Categories: Death, General, Grief, Loss, Redemptive Suffering, Relationality, Relationships

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Hi Abigail,
    I was very moved by your article alongside really enjoying reading it. Life can seem really cruel at times can’t it? When you experience a loss such as the one you have experienced, of course it is bound to hurt deepdown in the core of your entire being. There are always well-meaning people who make such comments as move on, get over it, there are plenty more fish in the sea, but when you are going through such a thing those comments are pointless. Please don’t think this comment is one of those religious things that you come across online, this is really not my intention and I am not a religious woman. I am however a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and as you may be aware, Buddhism works with logic.
    You point out in your article that you have had other relationships that have been unhealthy so I guess the question is what is it about me that attracts those things? This is not to insinuate that there is anything wrong with you, on the contrary. All through our lives we form attachments to things, people, ideas about the world and also to negative relationships. Most of the time these attachments are formed because of a deep rooted need within ourselves that needs to be filled and quite often, anything will do. Just because a person may treat another person badly Or may cause them harm, it has no bearing on the fact that that person loves the person in question.
    I always think that first it is important to look within ourselves and to work out what it is we are looking to fulfil, only when we have done this can we then make informed choices about how we fulfill that need. We do not grasp any longer at the first thing that comes into our range no matter how deceptive they may be. Our perceptions of things are more clear and we view things more rationally.
    I would like to share something quite personal with you Abigail, 10 years ago my partner was brutally murdered in a knife attack, the loss of the person I had planned to share my life with was devastating. I was angry, hurt, devastated at the loss he had left in my life. More importantly, I wanted to seek revenge on his killer. Of course I didn’t seek revenge because deep down I am a spiritual person and I think rationally. For a while however that is what I wanted to do until I realised that I was the only person hurting. If I took revenge, or if I sat for years wallowing in anger and hatred and self-pity, my partner would still be gone, he would not be coming back so I had to make a rational decision. I had to decide how I could rebuild my life based on the foundation that I had been left with, and so I decided to forgive his killer. I met with him in prison and told him I had forgiven him. From that moment I was liberated, free and able to think with clarity. We have to make conscious decisions about our life Abigail and when we do things are guaranteed to work out positively.
    I really hope that things work out for you and I look forward to reading more of your articles. Why not check out some of my work?


  2. It might be helpful to ask why you posted to this particular group. How do you understand your experience in connection to feminism and religion? Is it a feminist answer you are searching for as regards why your relationship failed? Do you feel disappointed in religion as a woman?


    • Hi Meg, that’s a great question – one that Abigail actually asked herself when I invited her to post on Feminism and Religion. To me the connections are in the “lessons” the learned. I found it really powerful how she was able to resist the instrumentalizing of her lost love. That she resisted reducing the other to a lesson learned, or to something to assimilate. In a sexist and patriarchal world women are so often instrumentalized, valued only for what they bring or offer to another. In Abigail’s refusal to practice such reduction, she also practices her own resistance to have that done to her. I love her vision of love as not *for* something – of loving another not for the lessons and growth it brings – but as worthy for what it is in itself – the beauty of it, and that’s a feminist vision.


    • Thank you. I feel I’ve come to the point where I don’t search for “answers” anymore, at least on issues like these. Whether this is a result of wisdom gained or merely tired resignation is anyone’s guess. ;-)

      Religion offers a lot, to lots of people, and for those who benefit from its structures (or any other tools of healing, religious or not), I say, great. I was just pointing out how sometimes the “answers” offered by the religious, in their earnest desire to help, can lack philosophical integrity, when you sit down and think it through.

      Discovering feminism years ago freed me from the pressure of following religious doctrines “just because the preacher said so,” etc. (hierarchy). It was this intellectual freedom that allowed me to work through this issue on my own and come to a conclusion different from what I was being offered by others. I don’t place a judgement on or feel disappointed in religion for where it has been less than helpful to me. I understand where these people are coming from, and I recognize that the advice offered in situations like these is, actually, helpful for many people. I am just the kind of person who likes to look beyond the surface… and I’m just trying to point out where some of these ideas lead us when taken to their logical conclusions. (Then again, this whole article could also simply be an exercise in narcissistic psychological indulgence, too, eh? Ha ha.)


      • Abigail, thank you for this post. It is very fresh and insightful. I agree with Xochitl, this is how I felt when I was reading your article: I was thinking – well done, this woman is thinking for herself and refusing to swallow conventional wisdom or even the deified psychotherapy! Well done!


  3. Perhaps feminism can encompass the whole world. I’d rather see fountains of estrogen (“nurture and neighbor”) running the world than the gushers of testosterone (“fight or flight”) currently in charge in nearly every avenue of endeavor, including religion. It sure would be nice if we could start all over again………………..


  4. I’ve been thinking about this post the whole day. I’m a victim of (emotionally/psychologically) abusive relationships myself. Am determinedly single now because I can’t seem to break out of the cycle. I’m getting very good at it. There are many schools of thought why one remains attached to an abusive (ex) partner. It can be attributed to one’s childhood. I have a personal theory: it’s the damage caused that keeps one attached. That one failed to love it better. So personal failure lands one in the next abusive relationship so one can make a success of loving it better. The only forgiving I’m prepared to do is forgiving myself for having fallen for it in the first place. One’s emotions can delude one. As a feminist I’m no longer prepared to put myself through another relationship like that. I still have emotions about the last two relationships. Some stronger than others. It’s been years. I keep on just calming down as best I can and strengthening my determination. I’ve learned to like myself a bit better for leaving them and staying out of it.


    • Thank you for sharing your story. Best wishes to you as you walk this out, and BIG HUGS!!


      • Thanks. I’ve been thinking about this some more in terms of relationships with various people, not necessarily with a partner. It is, indeed, possible to love deeply, sincerely and yet having to walk away and distance oneself in order to heal. Salman Rushie, the author, once said it is entirely possible to hold opposing thoughts or feelings. Saved my sanity.


  5. How is a failed heterosexual relationship feminist? It just is.


  6. In Eat Pray and Love Gilbert suggests that falling in love and passion are not enough to sustain a relationship. We may love damaged and unloving individuals, but love really is not enough to make them able to return love–at least not in most cases. Gilbert muses on the fact that men used to have to ask our fathers for our hands in love and marriage. She suggests that besides falling in love and loving, we should stand back and become our own “fathers,” by which she means, we should ask: “Is this person reliable?” Is this person stable financially? Is this person worthy of my daughter (myself)? Will this person care about my daughter as much as she cares about him (her)?” And so on. I found this advice very helpful. Love is not all you need, despite what the song says.


  7. Abigail —

    Thanks for this piece. It has so many juicy points to connect with. Here are a few that I made:

    “Love transcends transaction.” I love this succinct description of the importance of relationality in our lives, whatever kind of love it is. I agree wholeheartedly, but I don’t believe everyone in our culture actually believes this. I think many times in novels, films, and other cultural artifacts (and therefore in society at large), love is described in terms of a transaction or even a conquest. Just think of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler (_Gone with the Wind_). And that’s where the rub comes in, when two people get involved who have very different understandings of love (and, of course, that happens all the time).

    “Lessons to be learned…” Even if there are lessons to be learned from a failed love relationship (and usually there are, especially if there have been a series of them), learning them doesn’t necessarily lead to the objectification or depersonalization of the loved one. I think we can learn the lessons we need to learn from whatever difficulty without turning the other person into a monster or a loser (although sometimes they might be just that). Instead we can understand them as wounded individuals, just like ourselves. I think we all try to do the best we can, we just don’t always have the where-with-all to do it. And — this is my personal bugaboo — we don’t have to see the situation as either/or. Instead we can see it as a both/and situation: we can learn the personal lessons we need and continue to love the person involved.

    “My hope is, since the love in my heart proved stronger than my misguided attempts at self-healing, ultimately it will also prove stronger than grief.” Sometimes I think about how my love leads inevitably to grief. In the little things of life — my sister and her husband are really down right now and I feel FOR them — to the biggest grief I may ultimately experience — the death of my husband or my daughter (Goddess forbid!) or even the damage being done to the planet. But I don’t stop loving because of that. That would mean not living life fully. Of course, I’ve also learned that as a sensitive person I need to protect myself in some cases. I can love, but not necessarily make myself vulnerable.

    “If our feelings are not accurate indicators of our inner reality, which is, by definition, intangible and immeasurable, then what can we trust?” I agree that our feelings are one indicator of our inner reality, but I don’t agree with the assumption that seems to lie behind this statement, namely that there is some sort of authentic inner reality that has been untouched by the externals in our lives. We are all affected by the culture we live in; the lives we have lived so far; the family we grew up in; the social strata we inhabit; the economic level we have attained; the race we were born into; the gender we are’ the age we are, etc. Sometimes looking at the externals helps us understand the experiences we’re having. In fact, it’s really only middle and upper-class white people who think they can do otherwise.

    Thanks again for a provocative post!


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: