Florence Williams, HEARTBREAK

Florence Williams, HEARTBREAK

Zibby is joined by science journalist Florence Williams to talk about her latest book, Heartbreak. Florence shares how she was inspired to research heartbreaks following the sudden end of her marriage, as well as the adventures and experiences she partook in to learn why heartbreak affects us the way it does and how we can move on from it. Florence and Zibby also talk about the current research on loneliness, the power of the A.W.E. method, and why forging and fortifying meaningful connections can be the best cure for a broken heart.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Florence. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey.

Florence Williams: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. Great to be here.

Zibby: I feel like I’ve been through the wringer with you after reading this book. First of all, I’m so sorry for everything you went through, but I’m glad it spurred this book because it was so interesting. I loved how you wove together the personal and the research and the dating and, oh, my gosh, all the stuff. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Florence: I’m a science journalist. I typically use events from my personal life or just things that happen that I become curious about to drive my work. In this particular case, it was an unfortunate set of events. My twenty-five-year marriage ended somewhat suddenly, not by my choice. For the first time in my life, I found myself reeling from heartbreak. For some reason, I had been immune from this because I met the man who would be my husband when I was eighteen. We stayed together for the next three decades. Mostly, it was good. We had two kids and a lot of fun and exciting careers and fun adventures in the downtime. He just basically decided he wanted something different once our kids were teenagers. I felt that that pain registered in my body in a way that I wasn’t expecting, that really surprised me, also freaked me out. I got sick. I got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I had trouble sleeping. I lost all this weight. I felt like I had been plugged into, I think I said a faulty electrical socket, that kind of weird, I’m really freaked out, and I don’t even understand it. Why am I feeling this so much in my body? I thought heartbreak was supposed to just be in our heads. That launched me into this investigation of why we need to take heartbreak really seriously and why we need to take our emotions really seriously. For me, it was a whole lesson in emotional intelligence. That’s how it started.

Zibby: This is our Valentine’s Day episode, so happy Valentine’s Day, by the way.

Florence: Sometimes it doesn’t always last forever.

Zibby: The way you wrote about heartbreak — first of all, let me just say it’s a miracle that you and your husband got together the way you did and stayed together for that long. I feel like when you’re so young getting together, any couple that got together young, the odds are so much less that they stay together forever because we all change so much. I thought part of the story that was amazing was the success of it for so long to begin with, especially recounting how you met on your Outward Bound-ish, pre-whatever time. By the way, I went to Yale, and I don’t remember that program at all. I obviously just didn’t go.

Florence: Oh, my gosh, yes. It’s called FOOT.

Zibby: Oh, it’s called FOOT. Oh, my gosh, that’s right. I’m not a nature person. I was like, I’m definitely not going on that trip.

Florence: Clearly not.

Zibby: That’s right. I forgot all about FOOT. He was your FOOT leader, right?

Florence: He wasn’t my FOOT leader, but he was the FOOT leader. I was a FOOT freshman.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. You took us through your whole relationship. I feel like the first stumbling block, of course — I shouldn’t say of course. The first stumbling block was when you had kids because the two of you were so adventurous and going out and doing all these fun things. Then you referenced now you were in the wilderness, but you had to remember diapers or whatever, you had a baby in a Björn or whatever, and how that automatically changes the tenor of two adventurous seekers. It raises the question, what do you do in a relationship that’s based on mutual interests, and then all of a sudden, one of you can’t do it as well or as whole-hearted? What does that do?

Florence: Parenting, it’s a whole new adventure, and not one I would’ve traded for anything. It changed our relationship in that I think I had hopes or expectations that we would have a more equitable parenting burden. It was disappointing to me that we really didn’t. His career took priority. I was not happy about that. I also felt just sort of abandoned in some way in this difficult journey of parenting. I was kind of on my own there for large parts of time. I’m sure that these small resentments and also just points of disconnection, feeling like you’re not really being supported in the way that you would like to be, they add up over time, unfortunately. Partly because we got together so young and had so little experience with other relationships, we didn’t really have the language for communicating as well as — I know now how little we knew about communicating our needs and them meeting them, unfortunately.

Zibby: This concept of midlife heartbreak, when we think about teens sprawled on the bed with tears and sad music, that’s what heartbreak conjures up for me. It’s very different when it’s not just breaking your heart, but this broke your whole life. Your whole foundation shattered because it affected everything. You have some line in here about how all of a sudden, you had to go on these adventures without your life partner who had literally been by your side for your whole adult life. Then what do you do that day when you wake up and he’s not there and your kids aren’t there? How do you handle that?

Florence: It’s two things. One is that I still felt like I was a histrionic teenager. I was still lying face-down on the bed listening to sad music. I did that plenty. I think no matter what age you are, heartbreak is going to hit you in similar ways. It’s almost like having a brain injury or something. You have to relearn everything. You have to relearn how to move through your world in this completely different way. It’s a huge blow to your sense of self and your identity when you’ve been in a partnership like this for so long. I will say, even though heartbreak is kind of a universal experience, at the time, it feels very singular. It’s a lonely experience. For college-educated women who have been married for twenty years, the divorce rate is fifteen percent. It’s much smaller than we think of it. Overall in this country, it’s thirty-nine percent. Even that is less than the fifty percent that so many of us grew up hearing. In our demographic, the divorce rate is half of what it was in 1980, so I didn’t have any close friends who had been through this or who were going through it, certainly at the same time. You have to move through the world in a different way, figure out who’s going to help you and support you in a way that perhaps you’re not accustomed to seeking. I had been super competent and super together and very much wanted to convey that kind of persona to the world, as we do and as we are taught to do in this culture. Suddenly, I was like, oh, no, I’m really kind of a mess. It’s actually, in some ways, not so bad being a total mess. As much as my body hurt and was freaking out, eventually, I came to recognize that these human emotions are actually a huge part of understanding who we really are. Ultimately, it makes us more empathic to other people’s pain. It changed me in that way a lot. We can talk about more of the upside that comes out later on. That does not become apparent in the first throes of our break.

Zibby: Give me some hopeful tips for anyone who has suffered heartbreak. This is also very similar to loss in a way. You lost your life partner. He’s no longer accessible. As you point out, people write about grief all the time, how grief affects the brain, and grief fog. There’s all this literature and documentation on the fact that grief becomes very physical in its form. You’re taking heartbreak and applying that same filter.

Florence: With heartbreak, you have all the grief, but you also have these other layers; for example, rejection. There’s this emerging psychological field of what happens to your brain on rejection. As human animals, we are hypersensitive to the group and to the feelings of the group and whether we feel like we belong in the group or whether we’ve been kicked out. When your primary attachment partner takes off, you’re dealing with that sort of ostracism feeling as well. Your body basically responds as though you’ve been left to the jungle by yourself. You’re sort of expecting predators to show up. Humans, we’re not supposed to move through the jungle alone. We’re just not. Safety in numbers. That’s why we are social animals. That’s why we’re hyper-social animals. It’s just safer. It’s better for functioning in society or functioning as an individual in a society. That’s why your nervous system completely freaks out and produces all these stress hormones. Norepinephrine floods into your muscles, into your organs, into your brain. Your immune system changes. It very clearly changes. One of the first conversations I had was with this researcher at UCLA. I told him that I had just gotten diagnosed with this autoimmune disease and I was heartbroken and blah, blah. He said, “Why don’t you come into the lab? We can run you through these studies I do, this blood analysis that’s not available in a typical doctor’s office. We could look at your blood at various timepoints as you try to recover from this heartbreak and see if your immune system changes.” That’s what we did. That became one of the backbone scientific explorations that I did in the book. It was really interesting.

Zibby: Can you share the finding?

Florence: In the first timepoint, which was five months after the split, it turns out that my white blood cells were changing such that — what this doctor, Dr. Stephen Poole — he’s a neurogeneticist at UCLA. He said, “You look like you have the blood of a lonely person.” We know that lonely people do have a much higher risk for chronic diseases. They have a significantly higher risk of dying early. His lab has been looking at why. What’s going on in the immune system of people who feel like they don’t have social support? It is, by the way, a subjective feeling. You could be in a marriage and still feel unsupported and still feel lonely. My white blood cells were putting out more transcription factors that upregulate cells that produce inflammation as if they’re getting ready for an attack by a predator or a blood wound injury while you’re stumbling alone through the forest and at the same time downregulating cells that hit viruses. Because viruses are transmitted in groups, maybe our immune system makes this quick calculation. It can’t do everything. It’s like, okay, we’re not going to do so much viral defense. We’re going to do more wound defense. That’s exactly the wrong call if you’re living in modern life and — guess what? — you’re heading into a pandemic. In this case, Steve Poole has spent quite a bit of time studying people with HIV. It’s the wrong call, obviously, for HIV where you really want that viral defense. In our culture, too much inflammation that goes on for too long, we know, leads to all kinds of chronic diseases from Alzheimer’s to heart disease to cardiovascular disease — well, cardiovascular’s the same thing — to things like diabetes. You don’t want it.

Zibby: No. How can we reprogram the body in this lifetime? Not lifetime. It’s more than a lifetime. The way that we’re actually programmed, how do we go about saying, okay, if that’s not the right call, now what do we do?

Florence: That was my urgent question. I was like, I need to get better. I need to do it as soon as possible. That’s where I looked to these evidence-based heartbreak recovery plans. I ended up busting some of the myths that we’re told, ways to recover from heartbreak that didn’t have science behind them. I threw everything I had at it. I tried to do things like meditating, which we know can help your nervous system get into a calmer place. For me, I had already written this book called The Nature Fix about how being in nature can make us happier and healthier and more creative. I knew that I loved being in nature, so I turned to that. One of the psychologists I talked to pretty early said to me, she said, “The health statistics for people who are divorced are pretty bad. People who are divorced have much worse health outcomes and a twenty-three percent increased risk of early death, but we know that some individuals are more resilient than others. There are certain qualities these resilient individuals have.” I practically grabbed her by the shoulders to beg her to tell me what these things were because I wanted to be a resilient person. She said, “It’s really interesting. We find that when people have been through tragedies, it’s the ones who are able to see beauty and cultivate a sense of beauty, a sense of awe, these are the people who actually seem to come through these tragedies in that they can make sense of what’s happened to them. They can find joy, still, on the other side. Their brains seem connected, have more connections in different parts of the brain that just help them put their own problems into perspective and help them tell themselves a story about what happened and how they can get through this.”

I thought that was fascinating. I left her office just determined to spend even more time — for me, it was in nature. For other people, it might be listening to symphonies or listening to music. I spent time with people who have PTSD and are trying to recover from it to learn from them. I went on a backpacking trip with a group of fascinating young women who have been sex trafficked. I could not, in any way, compare my experience to theirs. They were exhibiting what I would call post-traumatic growth in a way that their resilience became contagious, not just the feelings of stress. I went through this workshop for divorcing people that was EMDR. It was a psychotherapy intervention called EMDR which utilizes eye movement and bilateral stimulation. That was kind of interesting and maybe somewhat helpful. It is an effective treatment, known to be effective for trauma. I went through psychedelic therapy with a therapist using MDMA and psilocybin as a decoupling drug, which is not often how we hear it. Then I put myself through this wilderness adventure where I spent thirty days on a wilderness river, including fourteen days of it alone to try to learn how to be alone, how to rely on myself, how to access some bravery. I did all that. I ended up writing about it.

Zibby: Wow. For people who can’t necessarily take off and take a canoe with a bathroom on one side of it and try to go camping and doing all this stuff, from all your research, what is the best thing for people to do? What can people do?

Florence: I have this three-part plan that’s general enough that people can kind of customize it to what works. I’ll tell you the three parts. Number one, calm. You have to calm down. Number two, connect. Number three is purpose and meaning. Should I just dive into the first part there?

Zibby: Sure.

Florence: Your body basically, as I said, is in fight-or-flight. You have to figure out how to get out of that so that you can then do the work for healing because none of that’s going to happen when you’re in the grip of a giant freak-out. Do what you do that can help you calm down and get you out of this zone of acute trauma. For me, that was movement. It’s breathing. It’s nature. It’s meditating, dancing, whatever. Then the connection piece is both connecting authentically with people you love, so family members, your good friends — lean on them. You’ll find out who’s there for you and who isn’t. With divorce, I think sometimes people feel like it might be contagious or something. So much of our social world is built upon couples, on family units. When yours kind of dissolves, it is interesting who really shows up for you and who doesn’t. Also, connecting to nature and connecting to beauty. Anything you can do that helps you feel like you’re part of a larger universe that puts your own dramas into perspective.

When we feel connected to other people and when we feel connected to the world around us, it does kind of shrink our egos in this really, really beneficial way, not in a way that damages our self-esteem, but just in a way that raises the importance and significance and beauty of everything else. I talk a lot about the power of awe, to do that in the book. That’s part of the connection piece. Then finally, it’s this purpose and meaning. When I worked with this blood geneticist, this geneticist at UCLA, he said, “What we have found when we analyze blood in groups of people and we give them interventions to do, like volunteering at schools or whatever, the healthier immune system is not really linked to sociality or hanging out with people or even rating yourself as happier. It’s not about feeling happy. It’s really about finding purpose in your life.” If you’re volunteering or whatever — you could find purpose in your family unit. You can find purpose in your work. If you can do that, then you may not feel like you wake up every morning mirthful and giggling, but you have this North Star that really fulfills you in a way that Americans aren’t used to equating with well-being or happiness. He said those are the people that actually have the best immune systems and best-looking blood. That’s a really hugely important antidote to both loneliness and heartbreak.

Zibby: I want to FedEx him some of my blood and see what he thinks. I want a blood analysis.

Florence: Someday. Someday, maybe we’ll all be able to. It’ll be on the Apple Watch eventually, but it’s not there yet. Are you lonely today? Here’s what you need to do. Here’s what helps you, Zibby. What helps you is taking a bubble bath. What helps me is walking through the woods. Eventually, I think it’s not unrealistic to think that personalized medicine might be able to help us figure this out. When are our white blood cells happiest?

Zibby: Wow. It all comes down to meditation.

Florence: Meditation, it’s a huge intervention for some people, but not for everybody. It’s really hard to learn it.

Zibby: It doesn’t help me. It’s not for me.

Florence: It’s really hard to do it. It’s hard to learn it. Then a lot of times when people do learn it, then it falls off. It’s hard to make it sustainable sometimes for some people. Obviously, some people love it.

Zibby: It’s interesting, though, that you can basically take an inventory of your life based on these metrics. As you’re talking, I’m like, well, I live in New York City. When I’m here, I feel less happy, probably because I never leave my house except to drop off the kids. While I think my house is beautiful, it’s not nature. It’s not awe-inspiring. It looks exactly the same all the time. Whereas when we take a trip to California or something, every morning, you just look at the sky and wonder and be like, oh, my gosh, this is amazing. That fuels your soul in some way that I think we all know is obvious in some way but not measurable. Maybe we don’t prioritize it enough. If we said it’s actually going to save our lives, people might change —

Florence: — We don’t. That’s right. One of the, almost, definitions of awe is that it surprises you a little bit. There’s a little bit of a novelty quality to it. That’s why it pulls us out of our little comfort zone to make us pay attention and go, whoa, what? What is that gorgeous purple moon doing tonight? My god, wow, that butterfly, I did not expect that. It doesn’t have to be the Grand Canyon. You can find awe in things that are close to home. If you had a houseplant that’s putting out blooms and you really paid attention to that houseplant, you could find awe in that. You could find awe in your connections to your children who always do things that surprise you and make you sometimes blown away by their emerging intelligence or their intuition or the way they see the world. They can remind us how to find wonder and awe. Even in a city, there are lots of green spaces. There is a sky. There is a full moon.

Zibby: You’re right. I know. I’m regretting even saying that as we’re talking.

Florence: No, no. What you said I think is very, very commonly experienced by people, but most of us do live in cities. If we’re going to figure out how to make awe and beauty a part of our lives, we actually do need to work at it and be mindful about it. There’s this little acronym, A.W.E., that I find very helpful for people who live in cities. Go out once or twice a day or do it in your house. Do it in your kitchen or whatever. The A stands for attention. Just pay attention to something beautiful. Try not to multitask and think of your to-do list or whatever. Just pay attention. Then the W is wait a minute. Sit there with that attention. The E is exhale. Take just two breaths while you’re looking at something beautiful. Drop the soundtrack of your thinking brain for just a moment to wake up the sensory brain. Smell it. Touch it. Even that little exercise has been linked to pretty dramatic increases in people’s well-being. It’s amazing.

Zibby: Okay, done. I’m going to work it into my day. We can see the sky. I can just look out my window, obviously, and there is sky. We do see sun, the changes in the sun. I don’t want to minimize it. There are ways, and Central Park and blah, blah, blah.

Florence: There are birds. There are clouds.

Zibby: Yes, we are not in a cell.

Florence: And right now, dramatic weather.

Zibby: And dramatic weather. I was thinking that during this big snowstorm as the kids were outside and just picking up the snow. I’m like, how crazy is snow? It is so crazy that we walk outside one day and we can touch this. People would pay for this. People would pay to go experience it.

Florence: Your kids love it. They’re fully present.

Zibby: I love it too. It’s so fun. We were snowball fighting. Yes, I think all of this, and of course, the search for meaning, which I also think people know, but I think people struggle to find meaningful work and how to fit that in and what means something to them, especially when they’re on the treadmill at 8.0 trying to figure out what’s meaningful, it’s really hard.

Florence: It’s really hard.

Zibby: At least, there’s now a framework that’s achievable. That’s great and inspiring. I love that.

Florence: I think if we use it as kind of a signpost when we’re making decisions or planning even just little and big events in our lives, is this something that’s going to give me meaning, or is this something that’s going to entertain me? Is this something that’s going to amuse me, or is this something that is actually going to fulfill me in a deeper way? These are sort of some obvious questions, but I think we’re not used to necessarily analyzing our decision tree with this as a goalpost.

Zibby: I find this all completely fascinating. I’m just wondering — I didn’t talk at all about the writing of this book or anything. If you’re giving advice to someone who’s trying to do something similar and write a book like this — you did such a great job of weaving your story in with the science and making the science very digestible. It’s not confusing. It’s laypeople’s science that’s very impactful because it has these action steps associated with it. How do you do it? What’s the secret?

Florence: How do I do it? Well, I’ve been doing it for twenty years. That helps. I’ve been a science journalist for a long time. I find that humor is a key ingredient in helping the science become digestible. I apply humor towards myself. I also sometimes apply it to other people just to make them seem more human too, so the scientists I meet. It was so interesting when I was working on this book, Zibby, because I would go to some lab and talk to some illustrious scientist. I would say, “I was married for twenty-five years. Then my heart got broken. This is why I’m writing this book.” They would say, “Oh, yeah, heartbreak. Boy, when I was in graduate school,” blah, blah, blah, or “I just got this phone call about my mother.” The scientists I talk to instantly would share their own heartbreaks in a way that was so personally validating. It’s just nice to have people say, yeah, I’ve been there. How helpful is that? It also became helpful in the book because it humanized them as characters that I wrote about.

Zibby: Very true. Good tip. Also, I’m excited to listen to the Pushkin audiobook.

Florence: Oh, fantastic. I’m super excited about that. We did something really creative with that. Because I had done quite a bit of audio work, I took tape of all these interviews. I took tape of my friends. I even taped my therapist talking to me on Zoom. I taped some of the boyfriends along the way. I spoke into an audio journal. I actually wove in that in-the-moment tape for a really immersive audiobook experience.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, very exciting. I actually first heard about your book from someone at Pushkin who I was having a meeting with.

Florence: Oh, great.

Zibby: It was awesome. Florence, thank you. Thank you for this Valentine’s treat, this inspiring roadmap to more fulfilling, purposeful lives while we’re heartbroken or not, just how to live better. What better gift is that? Thank you.

Florence: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you so much.

Florence: Thanks.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Florence: Bye.

Florence Williams, HEARTBREAK

HEARTBREAK by Florence Williams

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