How to Break Up with Integrity: Rilke on Unwounding Separation and the Difficult Art of Recalibrating Broken Relationships
“Nothing locks people in error as much as the daily repetition of error.”
By Maria Popova
We speak of love as a gift, but although it may come at first unbidden, as what Percy Shelley called a “speechless swoon of joy,” true intimacy between two people is a difficult achievement — a hard-earned glory with stakes so high that the prospect of collapse is absolutely devastating. When collapse does happen — when intimacy is severed by some disorienting swirl of chance and choice — the measure of a love is whether and to what extent the kernel of connection can be salvaged as the shell cracks, how willing each partner is to remain openhearted while brokenhearted, how much mutual care and kindness the two who have loved each other can extend in the almost superhuman endeavor of redeeming closeness after separation.
How to do this with maximal integrity, in a way that embodies Adrienne Rich’s definition of honorable human relationships, is what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) explores in one of his staggeringly insightful letters, included in the posthumous collection Letters on Life (public library), edited and translated from German by Ulrich Baer.
The day after Christmas 1921, nearly two decades after he asserted that “for one human being to love another… is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation,” and four years after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay modeled the art of the kind, clean breakup, Rilke writes in a letter to the German painter Reinhold Rudolf Junghanns — a close friend struggling through separation and aching with the loss of love:
As soon as two people have resolved to give up their togetherness, the resulting pain with its heaviness or particularity is already so completely part of the life of each individual that the other has to sternly deny himself to become sentimental and feel pity. The beginning of the agreed-upon separation is marked precisely by this pain, and its first challenge will be that this pain already belongs separately to each of the two individuals. This pain is an essential condition of what the now solitary and most lonely individual will have to create in the future out of his reclaimed life.
He considers the measure of a “good breakup” — a separation that, however painful in its immediate loss, is a long-term gain for both partners, individually and together:
If two people managed not to get stuck in hatred during their honest struggles with each other, that is, in the edges of their passion that became ragged and sharp when it cooled and set, if they could stay fluid, active, flexible, and changeable in all of their interactions and relations, and, in a word, if a mutually human and friendly consideration remained available to them, then their decision to separate cannot easily conjure disaster and terror.
Four weeks later, as Junghanns continues to struggle with letting go of his lover, Rilke admonishes against the painful elasticity of on-again/off-again relationships, in which the short-term alleviation of longing and loss comes at the price of ongoing mutual wounding:
When it is a matter of a separation, pain should already belong in its entirety to that other life from which you wish to separate. Otherwise the two individuals will continually become soft toward each other, causing helpless and unproductive suffering. In the process of a firmly agreed-upon separation, however, the pain itself constitutes an important investment in the renewal and fresh start that is to be achieved on both sides.
Rilke emphasizes the importance of an initial period of distance in order to properly recalibrate a romantic relationship into a real friendship — a period which requires a tremendous leap of faith toward an uncertain but possibly immensely rewarding new mode of connection:
People in your situation might have to communicate as friends. But then these two separated lives should remain without any knowledge of the other for a period and exist as far apart and as detached from the other as possible. This is necessary for each life to base itself firmly on its new requirements and circumstances. Any subsequent contact (which may then be truly new and perhaps very happy) has to remain a matter of unpredictable design and direction.
That autumn, Rilke counsels another brokenhearted friend — this time a woman — through a similar predicament. Noting that “our confusions have always been part of our riches,” he reiterates that whatever the pull toward reunion may be, it is crucial to take distance in order to gain a clearer perspective on saving what is worth saving of the relationship. In a mirror-image complement to his wisdom on challenging necessity of giving space in love, he insists on the difficult, necessary art of taking space after love:
I have written “distance”; should there be anything like advice that I would be able to suggest to you, it would be the hunch that you need to search for that now, for distance. Distance: from the current consternation and from those new conditions and proliferations of your soul that you enjoyed back at the time of their occurrence but of which you have until now not at all truly taken possession. A short isolation and separation of a few weeks, a period of reflection, and a new focusing of your crowded and unbridled nature would offer the greatest probability of rescuing all of that which seems in the process of destroying itself in and through itself.
Rilke cautions against the temptation to turn a willfully blind eye toward all the factors that have rendered the romantic relationship unfeasible and to reunite — a choice that, rather than healing, only retraumataizes and perpetuates the cycle of mutual disappointment:
Nothing locks people in error as much as the daily repetition of error — and how many individuals that ultimately became bound to each other in a frozen fate could have secured for themselves, by means of a few small, pure separations, that rhythm through which the mysterious mobility of their hearts would have inexhaustibly persisted in the deep proximity of their interior world-space, through every alteration and change.
There is a symmetry, both sad and beautiful, between Rilke’s faith in the redemptive power of distance in saving love after a breakup and his insistence that “the highest task of a bond between two people [is] that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other” — as within romance, so beyond romance.
Complement this particular portion of the immeasurably wise and consolatory Letters on Life with Epictetus on love and loss and Adam Phillips on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in love, then revisit Rilke on what it really means to love, the combinatorial nature of inspiration, the lonely patience of creative work, what it takes to be an artist, and how hardship enlarges us.