Casette player
Photo: Stocksy


The pain, the catharsis and the cringey shame of a good break-up song

It’s a song you’ll listen to hundreds of times, before – suddenly – you can no longer bear to ever hear it again. Louise O’Neill pays homage to the break-up song

Added on

By Louise O'Neill on

You never forget the first time your heart was broken, do you? The unexpected violence of it and how visceral it was, the way it scored its track marks across your skin. You had heard friends talk about sternums ripped open and hearts dragged from chest cavities, still  pulsing, and you secretly thought they were being a tad dramatic. Until it happened to you.

“Why do I feel nauseated all the time?” you think, your stomach turning over like a live thing. “Perhaps I am starting the flu and that is why every bone in my body aches deep?” The taste of salt on your upper lip, the pillow beneath you sodden with tears as your mind races with what if and I should have and why and why and why?

You remind yourself that while your heartbreak feels unique to you, it is, in fact, an almost universal experience. You’re not going to die from this. Somehow, this knowledge doesn’t comfort you; you are not soothed by the suggestion of banality, of how utterly ordinary this all is. You feel frustrated by your weakness. You want to reject the clichés of getting drunk and calling your ex “an asshole” who was “shit in bed, anyway”, even though you’d previously spouted sonnets celebrating his/her sexual prowess and ability to make you orgasm multiple times an hour. You don’t want to be that person sneaking off to the work toilets, returning with bloodshot eyes, blaming “allergies” and the “high pollen count”. You certainly don’t want to be the weirdo stalking their ex’s social-media accounts, counting their smiles, and how fucking dare they have the audacity to look happy when you’re miserable? And then there is the Break-Up Song, an inviolable element of the healing ritual that must be observed in order to fully recover. Here are some of my personal favourites:

Don’t Speak by No Doubt – the boy I impetuously broke up with in my teens and regretted doing so for years afterwards.

Un-Break My Heart by Toni Braxton – the emotionally unavailable guy whose approval I was desperate to win.

Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson – the boyfriend who was too kind to me, but we both knew we weren’t making each other happy, in the end.

Right Through You by Alanis Morissette – the charming man who promised so much and who gave so little.

The grief runs wild; it is unfettered, unpredictable. The resulting raw vulnerability can feel like a scary space to occupy, particularly for women

In my third novel, Almost Love, Sarah, the main character becomes embroiled in a toxic love affair with an older man. After months of using her sexually and emotionally bread-crumbing her, he eventually refuses to commit to the relationship. Sarah takes to her bed in despair, her heart feeling as if it is cracking inside her chest, and she listens to Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart on repeat.

It could have been another song. I Will Always Love You. Back To Black. Ain’t No Sunshine. Nothing Compares 2 U. The entirety of Lemonade. The best break-up songs have lyrics that are slightly opaque; vague enough that you can reinterpret them to fit your individual narrative. But it still feels as if the singer is reaching a hand out to you, telling you that you are not alone or strange or hopelessly damaged. They want you to know, these artists with pain like razor blades in their throats, scraping the words off their tongues, that they understand you. They see you.

We listen to these songs as a form of catharsis, needing to crack the sorrow in half and force it out of ourselves, collecting damp in the heels of our hands. The grief runs wild; it is unfettered, unpredictable. The resulting raw vulnerability can feel like a scary space to occupy, particularly for women, who are so often told to control ourselves, to be “good girls”. We cannot behave like the stereotypical crazy-ex girlfriend; we must remain dignified at all costs. But, when we retreat to dark corners, listening to our chosen break-up song in the shadows of night, we give ourselves permission to be broken apart, again and again. We have been abandoned by the person whom we cared about above all else, or maybe we have abandoned them, cast aside the dream of a relationship that we thought would save us. We have not only lost love, but we have lost faith – and because of that we are left hollow. Empty. There is a gnawing hole at our very centre and it is hungry to be filled with something. Anything. Leonard Cohen said that there was a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. Well, maybe that’s how the music gets in, too. And with the music comes healing.

You will get over this, of course; you will recover from this wretchedness, as all of us do. One morning, you will wake up and be surprised to find that you don’t want to stay in bed, thinking of all the ways you failed to make them love you. You will remember a time before your ex, when you were happy, and the possibility of being happy again doesn’t seem impossible. Then, one day, you will realise that an hour has gone by and you haven’t thought of him or her, and then it’s two hours. Five hours. 24 hours. A week. A month. You begin to forget them and the forgetting is a relief of the kind you have never known.

But the break-up song will stay with you for ever, for that is its legacy. It will return suddenly and without warning, playing on the car radio, over the speakers in your local supermarket, on iPhone shuffle. And you will think of them every time you hear it. You will think of them and of that time with a slight sense of embarrassment and a twinge of something else, something that you cannot name. And then you will let it go, unfurling your fists and allowing the melody to drift from you. You will watch it float through the still air, away, away, in search of someone else who needs its help.

Almost Love by Louise O’Neill is published by Riverrun and is this week's Bedtime Bookclub and a new excerpt will be available every night at 10pm. 


Sign up

Love this? Sign up to receive our Today in 3 email, delivering the latest stories straight to your inbox every morning, plus all The Pool has to offer. You can manage your email subscription preferences at My Profile at any time

Photo: Stocksy
Tagged in:
break up

Tap below to add to your homescreen

Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox