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How to mend a broken heart
We’ve all been there. The soul-crushing, second-guessing, stomach-twisting depths of despair that can only mean one thing: you just broke up. Our writer travels to Croatia’s newly opened Museum of Broken Hearts to find out why, exactly, heartache’s grip is so profound—and whether science may someday allow us to bypass it entirely.
By Shannon Service
It was seven hours into our flight to Croatia when I starting worrying about the juggler’s balls in the luggage hold below. The balls were a gift from my ex-girlfriend Andrea, who made them out of socks stuffed with rice. They were exactly the right size for my small hands and landed with a dense, satisfying plunk. More importantly, they reminded me of the day I taught Andrea to juggle on the lawn outside my apartment.
I’d gotten her to the point where she could cycle through a few rounds, a feat accomplished through gritted teeth and wildly flailing limbs. I went inside while she practiced, catching her profile through the window: hair spiked up, body tilted to forty-five degrees, chasing her tosses across the window before disappearing. I laughed, but when she came back for another pass, I began to cry—overwhelmed by the knowledge that I was absolutely, incontrovertibly in love with this crazy person, balls aloft, in full physical comedy, running through my yard. But nine months of elation dissolved into nine months of hell, until we broke our engagement over what we agreed to call differing opinions on fidelity. From there it was five years of putting myself back together until, finally, there I was, forty thousand feet above Greenland, about to hand the juggler’s balls over to a couple I’d never met who ran a museum I half suspected was a brilliantly conceived gimmick.
As I drifted off to sleep, the balls started expanding in my mind. They grew and grew until I had the thought—grotesque, uninvited—of the juggling balls bursting out of the cargo hold and dangling beneath the plane like a pair of testicles, rocking back and forth so ferociously that the passengers began to panic, worried the plane would soon flip over. Pandemonium ensued. Cries and shrieks. Then, just as quickly, the thought passed, and I was left, once again, in row sixty-one, aisle seat, the lone passenger awake in a sea of angled heads.
Breakups are tough on the psyche. Really tough. One study shows there’s a chance that heartbreak alone can spur heart spasms in otherwise healthy people. The researchers call it “myocardial stunning due to exaggerated sympathetic stimulation”—a heart seizure brought on by overwhelming emotion. Most breakups aren’t lethal, of course, or most of us wouldn’t have survived junior high. But they can be substantial, and they run the full emotional gamut, varying in wide and interesting ways. Some splits are big and public, while others fracture in stifling silence. Paul Simon sang of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” but it turns out there are far, far more than that. In fact, there are at least four hundred, as collected and assembled in Croatia’s newly opened Museum of Broken Relationships.
Which is exactly where I was headed.
The Museum of Broken Relationships was conceived late one night at a kitchen table in Zagreb. Late because OlinkaVistica worked long hours coordinating Croatia’s biggest film festival and late because Drazen Grubisic, her now ex-boyfriend, never put words together effectively until after noon. They sat across from each other in the house that seemed already cleaved down the middle, divvying up the physical remains of their four years together. Some objects were easily sorted by value—she gets the TV, he gets the computer—but then there were the incalculables, the objects with little monetary worth but pounds of emotional weight. Objects like the Little Wind-up Bunny.
The bunny is scruffy and about five inches tall. Sometimes, when Olinka came home at night, she’d open the door and find him marching in circles in the entryway. If one of them left on a trip, the bunny went along in the suitcase, and the partner at home got photos. There’s one picture of the bunny in Iran and another of him on a podium addressing a crowd. He didn’t belong to either of them as much as he belonged to both of them. But “they” had collapsed, which is why, late at night with their possessions all around them, they suddenly hit on the answer to the question that would snowball into a museum and send them both around the world: What about the Little Wind-up Bunny?
Olinka and Drazen are artists, and after some time passed, they did what artists often do: they put their feelings on display. They became investigators into the plane wreck of love, bagging and tagging individual pieces of evidence. Their collection of breakup mementos was accepted into a local art festival. It was a smash hit. Soon they were putting up installations in Berlin, San Francisco, and Istanbul, showing the concept to the world. Everywhere they went, from Bloomington to Belgrade, people packed the halls and delivered their own relics of extinguished love: “The Silver Watch” with the pin pulled out at the moment he first said, “I love you.” The wood-handled “Ex Axe” that a woman used to chop her cheating lover’s furniture into tiny bits. Trinkets that had meaning to only two souls found resonance with a worldwide audience that seemed to recognize the same heartache all too well.
Part of Olinka and Drazen’s success lies in their timing. People have been fascinated with love and breakups forever, but recently a growing body of scientific research into the mysteries of the heart suggests that heartbreak’s grip might be tighter than we ever thought. Love, researchers are beginning to agree, is somehow deeper and harder to gauge than emotion. After all, it lingers, while emotions rise and fall in the span of a few seconds. Emotions are unstable and fickle. Love, however, is there day in and day out—whether or not you want it to be.
Love, says one theory now gaining scientific popularity, is more a form of persistent craving akin to addiction. Stanton Peele, a social psychologist who has studied the phenomenon for more than forty years, calls love one of the most powerful addictions on earth. He wrote in Psychology Today that the seven hardest addictions to quit are cocaine, alcohol, Valium, heroin, cigarettes, fatty foods, and, in the top spot, love.
And so, while scientists continue to study why love hurts so much, the Museum of Broken Relationships shows how, presenting an eager audience with its own homage to love’s smoldering remains.
My relationship with Andrea, the juggler, was like an addiction. The relationship went like this: exhilaration, then jealousy, a rapid descent into despair, and a bewildering inability to leave until, finally, the breakup. In the process, I dropped out of school, lost twenty pounds, and started smoking. On the other hand, my prior relationship with Selene—who remains an enduring friend, and would serve as my travel mate on this trip to Croatia—was relatively sane. Our breakup was less like driving off a cliff and more like cruising on a desert highway until we just ran out of gas. We leaned against the kitchen counter one morning with our eyes aimed at the floor and sadly acknowledged that the relationship was over. That was fourteen years ago.
Selene is an artist, thoughtful and languid, with strong painter’s arms and hair that she likes to dye different colors. We’re still close, and over bourbon one night at a bar in San Francisco, she described the museum and told me about Olinka and Drazen. She’d invited the couple to exhibit at her gallery, and it was one of her best-attended shows. When she said Olinka and Drazen were in the process of refurbishing a palace—a palace—to house a permanent broken-hearts collection, we raised our glasses and resolved to join them in Croatia at the grand opening.
We arrived at our hotel in Zagreb in the middle of the afternoon, completely exhausted. The next morning, Olinka, who lives in the hotel’s only apartment on the top floor, is already on her way down the marble steps by the time we’ve opened the door. A former dancer, Olinka moves with a disarming mixture of grace and awkwardness, like a teenage girl who grew too fast. She swoops Selene and me into the street and toward the museum, her black boots clicking along at a solid clip. Selene keeps pace, and the two of them talk a blue streak, one over the other, while I struggle behind. Finally we come upon it, in Zagreb’s old uptown: the Museum of Broken Relationships.
We walk through the palace’s large doors and into the white-walled museum. The polished concrete floors glisten. Paint rollers and towels litter a large table in the reception area, and tarps, buckets, and ladders are spread across the rest of the room. Post-it notes with black markings identify the exhibition’s objects and country of origin—a hot pink vibrator simply reads: “Toy. Ireland.”
Drazen, whose face is a delta of laugh lines, shakes my hand and offers a tour. “When we got here,” he says, proceeding into the first exhibit room, “this place was an absolute dump.”
The rooms, Drazen explains, are ordered by theme. Each room holds a couple of dozen items. Some, like the “Ex Axe,” are simply nailed to the wall. Beside each object is its story in English and Croatian:
“A Car’s Side-View Mirror” (1983–1988). Zagreb, Croatia. One night his car was parked in front of the “wrong” house. He paid for that with his side-view mirror. I was sorry afterwards since the car was not to blame. The wipers also got their share, but they were made of more solid material and stayed on the car. The following day, when the “gentleman” came home, he told me a weird story about hooligans who tore off his side-view mirror and bent the wipers. It was so funny that I was tempted to confess. Still, he never told me where he’d been that evening and neither did I. It was the beginning of the end of our relationship.
Other rooms were more sorrowful, like the War Room. Some of the exhibits from the Balkan countries, for example, alluded to their recent bloody history—a reminder that circumstance, not just personal choice, has a say in matters of love. One item, “A Child’s War-Time Love Letter,” an ode to a three-day love affair, was written by a thirteen-year-old boy in an escape convoy fleeing Sarajevo under fire. He wrote it to the cute girl in the car behind him. One item per shelf, lit individually, highlights a single love in a single life against the backdrop of war, immigration, and economic depression. On the wall, a quote from Emerson reads, “There is properly no history. Only biography.”
Drazen waits by the door. When I’m ready, he escorts me out, and we head back down the hall. Up ahead, the six- or seven-year-old son of one of Drazen’s friends has wrapped himself in the beaded curtain that separates the Sex Room and is straining toward a pair of pink fuzzy handcuffs.
Drazen, who normally ambles, picks up his pace as he heads toward the boy. “The kids love the Sex Room,” Drazen says in English as we walk back out toward the main room. “It has the best toys.”
Selene sits at a table in the museum’s café using a straightedge razor to slice a laminated roll of placards into the individual histories that will be posted alongside each piece. I stand behind her and read them as they come off the line:
“Intimate Shampoo” (1995–1996). Split, Croatia. After the Relationship ended, my mother used it for glass polishing. She claims it works absolutely great.
“Pen” (April 2004–August 2006). Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. I’m just really sorry I didn’t smash this pen the moment I got it, because then I wouldn’t have written all that romantic crap he didn’t deserve.
“Man, breaking up really does suck,” Olinka says.
Research into exactly why breaking up sucks is a relatively recent phenomenon. When Arthur Aron, a professor ofpsychology at SUNY Stony Brook, fell in love as a PhD student in 1969, he tried to read up on love’s chemical and physiological impacts but found almost no rigorous scientific research. Studying love was considered “wussy,” he says, and wussiness tends to have a negative impact on funding. Plus, love is tough to produce in a lab. Undaunted, Aron proceeded to spend the lion’s share of the next forty years studying the psychology of love.
In 2005, Aron teamed up with some neurologists and with Helen Fisher, the biologicalanthropologist who devised the questionnaire used to match people on Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com, to conduct a series of experiments. The first experiment placed happily-inlove people in an fMRI scanner to take photos of their brains. They found neural activation in areas of the brain linked with reward, excitement, and euphoria. Aron says this is likely indicative of early-stage love. Over time, the activation in this reward area can diminish. The car runs out of gas.
The processes that keep people together take place elsewhere in the brain. It’s a trait we share with only a few other animals, like the prairie vole.
Prairie voles are monogamous. Ninetyseven percent of mammals are not, though, sleeping around indiscriminately in a kind of Debbie Does Dallas approach to reproduction. Prairie vole couples, however, nest up on the first date, avoid other potential sexual partners, and become doting parents. Understanding why prairie voles go all Ozzie and Harriet helps shed light on the chemical and psychological substrate of human love.
Reproduction and mating behavior in the faithful vole is driven by three neurochemicals released during sex: dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing chemical, linked to the reward section of the brain, which means that prairie voles feel pleasure during sex and understand the sex-equals-bliss equation. It’s found in monogamous and non-monogamous mammals alike—it’s the basic “sex is fun” chemical that fuels the sex drive. Oxytocin and vasopressin, on the other hand, are monogamy-inducing chemicals and are only present in faithful mammals like humans and prairie voles. They are active in a section of the brain involved with recognition, and scientists believe that the faithful vole links the pleasure of sex with the features of its partner.
These monogamy chemicals combine the fundamental, biological drive to mate with the euphoria of dopamine and focus all that attention on the prairie vole’s lucky partner. When researchers block the monogamy chemicals, the voles become promiscuous. When the chemicals are present, the cocktail proves a powerful combination—one that creates the chemical conditions for love.
You can’t fake it, though. When researchers injected oxytocin and vasopressin into the faithful vole’s promiscuous cousin, the montane vole, nothing happened. The philandering voles didn’t have receptors in their brains to receive the monogamy chemicals. Humans, however, possess both the chemicals and the receptors. Variations in the quantity and location of receptors, scientists say, may account for some people staying more monogamous than others. Our capacity for enduring love, it seems, is rooted in the physiology of our brains.
But while research does seem to shed light on how and why people—and maybe voles— fall in love, the question remains: why is heartbreak so devastating?
So Aron and Fisher took seventeen heartbroken students who said they were still in love with their exes and placed them in fMRI scanners. They showed the students pictures of the person who’d dumped them and studied how their brains responded.
“We saw activation in the part of the brain associated with craving for drugs,” Aron says.
Fisher and Aron call love a “goal state,” closely linked with addictions. Unlike emotions, which can flare, a goal state requires a stable yearning for something—for warmth when you’re cold or a hit if you’re an addict. It’s a state that drives us continually until we can satiate our appetites.
It’s likely, Aron says, that our brains evolved to crave love—or at least the pleasing oxytocin chemicals we associate with it. Desperate creatures that we are, we eventually found drugs to provoke similar mental responses. The same reasons we yearn for love’s embrace, he says, are the reasons we’re susceptible to dangerous drug addiction. But it’s not just our brains that are wired for love.
We think of heartbreak as metaphoric, but the body actually does respond to emotional trauma, releasing a flood of stress chemicals like adrenaline that, in some cases, can overwhelm even an otherwise healthy person and cause his or her heart to spasm. Broken heart syndrome, as it’s colloquially known, has been tracked at the nation’s leading heart clinics since 2005, but because its symptoms look so similar to those of a heart attack, it is often misdiagnosed, says Ilan Wittstein, an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Heart Institute and the lead author of a New England Journal of Medicine article first describing the syndrome.
“Even at the emergency room level, they’re going to treat you for a heart attack,” Wittstein says. “It’s not until you’ve checked into the hospital and they perform an echocardiogram or a heart catheterization that the difference becomes clear.”
People with broken heart syndrome have an enlarged left ventricle and a closing of the arteries due to overwhelming emotion. It’s a sudden emotional shock to the heart, Wittstein says, that ranges in severity. “I’ve seen plenty of people who are very, very sick,” he says. “You could easily end up in the intensive care unit, and without care you could die.” Finding conclusive numbers on broken heart episodes, however, or tracking and isolating deaths from the syndrome, is difficult.
Understanding the science behind the pain of heartache is leading us ever closer to finding its cure. Fisher, the scientific mentor of online dating, is already theorizing that a solid dose of serotonin might prevent a happily married wife from falling for her neighbor. But Fisher is not the only one looking for a chemical answer to our hearts’ achings. C. Nathan DeWall, a social psychologist at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, released the results of a modest—but telling—test earlier this year tracking how people who have been rejected respond to a simple, over-the-counter painkiller like Tylenol.
“We made a straightforward prediction,” he says, “that if we numb people to the physical pain [of rejection], it will numb the emotional pain as well.”
Using fMRI scanning to track brain activity, DeWall studied twenty-five people playing a computer game that involved rejection. He found that the ten people who took Tylenol were less impacted by the rejection than the fifteen on the placebo. The small study, published in Psychological Science, isn’t enough tosay definitively that Tylenol or other painkillers eases broken hearts. But they might help. Addicts have long testified that taking painkillers can help “dull the pain” of recovery, after all. Rebounding from a broken heart, then, may not be so dissimilar from kicking any addiction. Painkillers for heartache? They might work. But is it a solution? That’s harder to say.
We’ve all heard about how painkillers are abused in the United States; from 1997 to 2005, sales of drugs like OxyContin increased more than 90 percent. Their rise has been blamed, at various times, on aggressive marketing campaigns by pharmaceutical companies, our aging population, and the sometimes reckless prescription habits of doctors. But no one seems to consider whether we’ve also been dulling the pain of our broken hearts.
Selene and I walk over to the museum around noon the day before it opens. The paint supplies are gone, and Olinka and Drazen are side by side debating the proper placement of a garter belt that hangs limply from a single nail.
“Garter belts” (Spring–Autumn 2003). Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. I never put them on. The relationship may have lasted longer if I had.
It’s clear from watching them that Olinka and Drazen fit together like a married couple. I ask them the question I’d been avoiding—how they met and fell in and out of love.
In Drazen’s recollection, he had met Olinka several times before they finally went out on a date. Olinka couldn’t remember. She is nearsighted and doesn’t always wear her glasses, so she would often look straight past him at clubs or introduce herself again and again. Drazen, who hates to be ignored, fell in love.
Olinka and Drazen were together for four years before, like Selene and me, the spark died and their relationship quietly ran out of fuel. When the exhibition idea caught fire, thrusting them into a working relationship, they both willingly accepted it. It wasn’t what either of them envisioned doing, they say, but it hit a nerve, and, as artists, they found it hard to turn down exhibit offers and sold-out international tours. The permanent museum was the next logical step. The two have since forged a workable and platonic relationship. In some cases, it seems, the addiction fades away, clearing room for lasting friendship.
Leaving Olinka to deal with the ever-ringing phone, Selene and Drazen move on to pondering the best placement of papier-mâché breasts. For a moment, they both just stare at the handmade, prosthetic boobs. One breast is larger than the other. The whole bodice is painted peach. The nipples are bubblegum pink. A string hangs from each corner to allow the thing to be tied on.
“Fake Breasts” (three years). Belgrade, Serbia. After three years together, my husband brought home fake, sculpted breasts which were, of course, larger than mine, and that was the time of our biggest relationship crisis. He made me wear them during sex because they turned him on. I was disappointed and, because of those fake breasts, I left him for good.
A couple of hours later, we all go out to lunch at a nearby restaurant. It’s the first time in the days we’d been there that I see Olinka or Drazen leave the museum. I take it as a sign that things are more or less under control. Drazen leaves on a short errand and comes back holding a black plastic bag.
“I have the frame for the sunshine penis,” he says.
“Photograph” (1993–1995). Bloomington, Indiana. This is the Florida lake where I skipped school with my boyfriend. The arrow indicates the spot where I first saw a penis in the sunshine.
The museum doors open at 10 a.m. the following day for a sneak preview for the press. Later in the afternoon, a few large trucks arrive and men begin assembling an outdoor stage in the square beside the museum. The town mayor had wanted to do a ribbon cutting, but Olinka and Drazen were against it. Instead, they opted for a pair of high-profile Croatian actors—a man and a woman who had been together but famously split up. If the mayor wanted to open the museum, he was told, he’d first have to leave his wife.
As the opening hour approaches, everyone dons museum T-shirts and turns on all the lights. A long, purple-and-white banner reading “The Museum of Broken Relationships” is unfurled in front of the building. Then the guests arrive.
As the famous ex-couple sings out front, the drinks flow, the rain starts, and the square blossoms with bright, festive umbrellas. The actors delight everyone with their rendition of “Ciao, Amore!” Guests wander through the museum, their drinks and food in hand. It is, all in all, like many gallery openings— with one noticeable exception: no one stands back, head cocked, hand on chin, to hold forth on a piece’s true meaning. It’s hard to wax philosophical about a pair of pink fuzzy handcuffs. Instead, the night feels more like the christening of a ship: buoyant and champagne-filled. Olinka relaxes and drinks wine, and Drazen beams with pride. The night is a smashing success.
A few days later, I am on a plane bound for the United States. Selene had taken an earlier flight, so I’m by myself this time. Without a single intrusive thought, I sleep the whole way back.
Later, after I’d landed back home, I started to think again about the museum: the hatchet the woman used to chop her cheating lover’s furniture into smithereens; the fake breasts and their ridiculous attempt at the erotic; the box of tears from the man in Berlin. In their own way, the pieces mirror my own rage, my own awkwardness, and my own despair. They remind me of my flailings in the face of love.
But instead of feeling shame, I find myself relieved. Faced with such overwhelming evidence of human lunacy, I let go of the notion that there is, somewhere, a proper, measured response to losing love. A broken heart makes us human, and sometimes being human is a ridiculous, painful, desperate thing.
Olinka and Drazen describe the museum as a shrine to failed relationships—a public memorial for some of our most private anguish. It’s a way for people to air out their heartaches and find therapeutic release. But it’s more than that. It’s a collective catharsis. Rather than being a collection of individual relics, it’s a uniting reminder that sometimes it’s okay to get a little crazy.
Faced with the silliness of that, what is there left to do but laugh?
A couple of months after returning from Zagreb, deep into the construction of this article, my current girlfriend Maggie and I split. I hadn’t actually felt heartbreak in more than six years, and the force of it was surprising. When you’re in a relationship, you don’t realize how many times a day you think of your partner: “I can’t wait to tell Maggie this,” or, “I wonder what Maggie wants for dinner.” One day I counted. I thought of Maggie seventy-three times in twenty-four hours. If, as Fisher maintains, new love is like obsessive-compulsive disorder, then, for me at least, a breakup is like a traumatic head injury. I’d forget sometimes that she was gone. I’d say “we” instead of “I” or somehow forget that she wouldn’t be there every morning when I woke up. Sometimes I’d feel nauseous and disoriented, as if I’d had a concussion.
In the days following the breakup, I tried taking Tylenol to numb it. Who knows if it really worked? But it seemed to make me feel better. The thought of what I was doing, however, also made me uncomfortable.
Larry Young, a psychiatrist at Emory University, made waves recently when he speculated that within this century, we will have a pill to fall in or out of love. Something about that prospect is unsettling.
Do we really want that pill? Do we want to tamper with the nerve roots of Shakespearean sonnets, the Taj Mahal, or the Blues? There’s no question that at times I wanted and might have taken a drug to fall out of love faster—to ease that piercing pain. There were moments I might have done almost anything to sleep, to regain enthusiasm. But wouldn’t I also miss surfacing from the depths, the part where I get to see how the world can be even more beautiful with a bruised and fragile heart? So often, I find ways to make myself happy by being comfortable and, in doing so, I subtly wall off from the world. Heartbreak cuts through all that and opens me, against my will sometimes, to life’s harshness, and to its beauty.
Down the path of medically managed love lies yet another way to distract and numb us from the world. Another “addiction” to control, another wild human adventure successfully tamed. But in our increasingly manicured lives, isn’t it good to have something that hits us like a tanker in the night? Something we can’t wall off and contain?
On my last night in Zagreb, I drank tea with Olinka in her apartment. The bustle of the opening had died away, and she was in a quieter, more reflective mood. She talked about why she and Drazen have meticulously kept and curated the detritus of other people’s relationships for more than four years.
“The museum is like a shop window where you can come and see other people’s lives,” she said. “I’ve become a better person after a couple of breakups—especially this one with Drazen. The common perception is that you’re suffering and you have to stop suffering. But suffering is okay. If you’re just happy, watching TV and eating your pizza—then what? This makes you think about yourself, which is the most important thing.”
Heartbreak inevitably leads us to a choice: walk into the pain or run away. Drugs—even the little lightweight ones like Tylenol—are attempts to float above it.
On a windy night in February, I took the necklace that Maggie had given me, wrapped it in tissue, and dropped it into an envelope bound for Zagreb. The note read:
Dear Olinka and Drazen,
I commend this necklace into your capable hands. In my drawer it’s a reminder of a happier time, but in the context of the museum, I hope it says something more. I hope it adds to the evidence that courage can be found when we bring our broken hearts together.
Then, just to be sure, I threw the bottle of Tylenol away.