Getting from heartbreak to happy

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Ask the huddled masses rocking back and forth in the post-breakup pit of despair, when every waking moment (as well as those rare sleeping moments) is spent wondering what went wrong, what they could have done differently and how life can go on without the embrace of their lost lover and best friend, and the outlook is not good.

It will never feel better, they whimper. Ever.

But let a few weeks go by, or a few months — sometimes it takes a few years — and the clouds do part. Hope streams through. Happiness, and often a truer love, waits around the corner.

The best is yet to come, affirm the once broken-hearted, after they've put the pieces back together. A few tales of heartbreaks and their happy endings:

The marriage-phobe

When Lauren Sternberg and her college boyfriend moved in together after six years of dating, she started asking if marriage was in their future. He never wanted to talk about it.

"There was always a reason — money, 'I'm not ready' — but then he'd say, 'I love you and want to be with you,'" Sternberg said. "It left me believing enough that I wasn't wasting my time."

As more friends got engaged, as well as her younger sister, she found herself feeling increasingly sad that her relationship felt like it was moving backward.

"I got to the point where I was crying in the shower by myself," said Sternberg, who was 29 and living in Washington at the time. "I was just in this fog."

After eight years, Sternberg couldn't do it anymore.

Within a week she packed all her stuff in a Penske truck and moved back in with her parents on Long Island, N.Y., where she spent a few too many Friday nights on the couch with her mom watching "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"

She felt lost and scared. But "my grief was more for the loss of what I hoped would have been, not the reality of what was," she said.

Sternberg threw herself a happy hour to reconnect with old friends, and among those who showed up was a high school acquaintance named Jeremy. Every few months they'd bump into each other at gatherings and talk for hours late into the night.

But Sternberg felt too upset for romance and wanted to figure out who she was outside the context of a relationship. She saw a therapist. She signed up for an oil painting class. She took up running. She traveled to Spain with a girlfriend.

After 10 months, Jeremy finally made a move. The relationship came easy. He came to her parents' house for Christmas the first year. (In the eight years with her ex, they had never spent the holidays with each other's families.) They were married in 2011.

"There was such a difference, it was eye-opening to me that someone cared this much," said Sternberg, now 34, "and was willing to jump through a whole bunch of hoops to make me happy."

The cheater

One of the worst things about betrayal, says Helen Berger, is that "you feel like you're crazy." When she suspected, less than a year after their commitment ceremony, that her partner was cheating, Berger's queries were met by a series of denials until finally she admitted to an affair and said she was torn.

They went to counseling, but it persisted. Berger found herself having panic attacks. She went through her partner's phone records. She checked their joint bank account to look for clues. And yet she still begged for reconciliation.

"That's when I knew I had to go, I had to gather up my dignity and leave," Berger said. She moved from New York to Los Angeles in June and cut off contact with her ex.

With the life she had been planning gone, "I went through the dark night of my soul," Berger said. She blamed herself — for not earning enough money, for gaining weight, for pushing too hard for children.

"The hardest lesson I had to learn was that her cheating had nothing to do with me," she said.

Getting to that realization took six months of hard work.

She did double-time therapy. She went to Al-Anon meetings, for the families of addicts, to deal with co-dependency issues. She did acupuncture. She worked out every day.

She took a vow of silence at a 10-day meditation retreat, where she was to "observe my thoughts with equanimity," and at one point fell to her knees with the yearning to hold her ex's hand. On the last day, participants were instructed to forgive anyone who had done them wrong — and forgive themselves.

"I left that place and I felt lighter," Berger said. She stopped pining. She lost 35 pounds. She felt a strong bond with her family, which had steadied her with its unconditional support.

Berger, now 36 and a script coordinator on a TV show, realized she had a pattern of seeking out women with intimacy issues so she could rescue them, but that in trying to be someone else's light, her own light had dimmed. In her next relationship, she resolved, she would take care of herself first.

Last month, she went on her first date since the breakup, with a woman she met online at OkCupid.

"It was amazing," she said. "This new single life is exciting!"

The Facebook effect

When his 11-year marriage to his college sweetheart headed toward divorce, Michael Foster moved in with his parents in Springhill, La., secluded himself from his friends and called his wife almost daily in hopes of working things out. But she seemed happier without him.

"It hurt me from the bottom of my stomach all the way up to my heart," Foster said. He was 34 at the time. "It made me feel I had failed as a dad, as a husband and as a man."

Their intimacy had unraveled slowly, as his outdoorsy extroversion clashed with her indoorsy introversion, and each felt resentful of the other for not pulling enough weight in the relationship, Foster said. Yet to split that July 2010, to imagine another man taking over where he left off, was devastating.

After two miserable months in his parents' home, Foster moved into his own apartment, focused his energies on his relationship with his daughter and started feeling better.

When he discovered his wife had begun a relationship with one of his fraternity brothers she had connected with on Facebook, he accepted there was nothing more he could do.

And Foster would soon discover that Facebook, and his fraternity, could bring good into his life as well.

Two years earlier, Foster had learned through Facebook that one of his fraternity brothers, Fernando Ruiz, had passed away (full disclosure: Fernando was this writer's cousin). Foster sent condolences to the family, and the widow, Idaliz Ruiz-Sanchez, wrote back thanking him. They became Facebook friends.

Six months after his split, Foster and Ruiz-Sanchez started a friendly banter on Facebook. He wasn't sure what to make of it; he hadn't dated since he was 20. They spoke on the phone and discovered they both worked at restaurants and liked the outdoors. A month later, Foster flew to Orlando, Fla., to meet her, not knowing what to expect, sweating through his shirt with nerves.

He was looking for her at the airport when he felt a hand on his back. He turned, and before he could say how nervous he was, she planted a kiss on his lips. The weekend was a hit.

They traveled back and forth for four months and met each other's daughters, relieved to find that everyone got along. Foster moved to Orlando, and they moved in together in April 2011. Last month, they got engaged.

"There's something bigger out there that controls things," said Foster, 36. "At that (breakup) point in time, you can't see it. You hate life, you don't like yourself, you despise people with good relationships. But once you get to the other side, you realize how great it is."

Actions that lead to a better place

There is life — and love — after heartbreak. So pick yourself up off the bathroom floor and get yourself ready for better things to come. Breakup veterans Maryjane Fahey and Caryn Beth Rosenthal, authors of the new self-help book "Dumped" (Sellers Publishing) and the blog, offer some big-sisterly advice.

Forget closure. You're never going to hear what you need or want to hear, and there will always be gray areas you won't understand. Don't keep the wound open by seeking resolution.

Cut off all contact. If you check in with your ex every once in a while, you relive the whole relationship, want it back and make it harder for yourself to move on.

Allow yourself to wallow (for a bit). Take a hot bath, cry, give yourself time to come out of the victim phase.

Stop the drama. Remember that this is not a tragedy; it is a bad moment in your life, and it will pass.

Forgive your ex — and yourself. Be grateful for the time you had together. Let it go.

Declutter. Get rid of all memorabilia of your relationship and defriend your ex's friends and family on Facebook.

Practice gratitude. Be grateful for what you do have: your friends, your home, your job, your health.

Turn negative thoughts into positive statements. You will stop missing your ex. You will meet someone new.

Say "yes" to everything. Salsa dancing? Yes. Karaoke? Yes. Biking tour through Bordeaux wineries? Um, yes.

Reinvent yourself. This is a time to figure out what you want for yourself in life as well as in a mate. Explore the things you enjoy.

Raise your standards. Remember all the things you dreamed of having in a relationship and go after them.

Enjoy nature. Take a hike, go to the seaside. Being in nature is calming and stokes creativity.

Be kind to yourself. Do yoga. Meditate. Go to the gym. Volunteer. Clean your home. Get rid of the toxic people in your life.

Do joyful things. Travel. Explore your city. Have adventures with friends. Don't go hunting for a new love; just live and have fun.

Tell friends and strangers you're dating again. Meet lots of people, be curious and date for practice. You might like 1 out of 10, but the others might make good characters in a book someday.

When you relapse into missing your ex, a particularly potent danger around milestones and holidays, remind yourself of all the reasons you're grateful to not be with him or her anymore.

— A.E.R.

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