Doctor NerdLove believes there’s a lot we can learn about moving on and getting ready for a better relationship from the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
As half my readership heads off to Nerdi Gras to sit in line for three days in hopes of getting into the Hunger Games 2: Hungry Like the Wolf panel at Hall G, I am contentedly sitting at home and enjoying the brief spate of incredible weather here in Austin. And as more tales of con-related relationship drama filter in to my inbox, it’s only natural to think of the stories of epic break-ups and trying to get over them.
Which, in turn, made me think of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
In a lot of ways, I found Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be an interesting companion to 500 Days of Summer – both have similar themes of dealing with broken hearts and coming to accept that relationships you thought were perfect were, in fact, deeply flawed. They also make interesting contrasts; while one was twee and featured the Hipster King Joseph Gordon-Levitt (at least, until the Winter comes and they sacrifce him in a Wickerman made out of ironic beards and fixies) and Manic Pixie Queen Zooey Deschanel, the other is much more earthy and crass, staring Kirsten Bell (who’s career seemed to get strip-mined for the role) and Jason Siegel’s dick.
But what made the movie interesting for me was the way Peter (Jason Siegel) Bretter handled his break up. As a sort of Everyman character, Peter made a lot of classic mistakes on his road to recovery… as well as doing a lot of things right.
And I think examining the story of his break-up and recovery shows that there’s a lot that people can learn from this.
He Didn’t See It Coming
Peter has one issue that that lots of men – and women – are guilty of, myself included: he had blinded himself to the true state of his relationship with Sarah. As a result, the long-simmering frustrations and resentments boiled over and ended the relationship… and Peter was blindsided by Sarah’s seeming betrayal.
Now in fairness, hindsight is 20/20, but a quick and impartial look around should’ve given Peter a clue what was going on. To start with, he had absolutely no life, no identity outside of his relationship with Sarah. Without her, he was a lump on the couch, a manchild who’s incapable of so much as cooking an actual meal for himself. He only comes back to life when Sarah’s coming back. He’s completely and utterly lost without her; he can’t even put his cereal away without her assistance.
Of course, he’s so caught up in defining himself as PeterAndSarah that he hasn’t realized how stressed she’s been feeling. Her career is stagnating, she can’t bring herself to make the leap to movies and she’s stuck in a system where women are valued primarily for youth – or a willingness to strip down – and she’s running out of time. This is a point when she needs a partner, someone who can support her, comfort her and encourage her as she tries to plan her next move, not a someone she has to nursemaid into being a responsible adult.
Not that Peter’s career is going anywhere either. He’s coasting along; he’s an incredibly talented musician stuck in a job that he could practically do in his sleep. His talents are going to waste and he doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, his passion project, the Dracula rock-opera has been put aside and left to gather dust… along with his dreams.
Small wonder then that Sarah started banging Aldus Snow; he may be a self-absorbed poon hound who’s barely got two remaining brain-cells to rub together, but he’s present, he’s full of passion and drive. The verve he has is so night-and-day different from Peter’s apathy that it reminds Sarah of everything she and Peterused to have.. and that she’s so desperately missing.
Would fixing these issues have saved the relationship? No… probably not actually; there were deeper issues that would ultimately have caused them to break up sooner or later. But at the very least, an ounce of awareness would’ve kept Peter from being so sucker-punched by Sarah’s leaving him.
Getting Over Your Ex By Getting Under Someone Else
I’m a proponent of sexual healing when it comes to recovering from a break-up… but you have to do it right. Peter… doesn’t.
The problem is that Peter is putting himself in a sort of fictitious arms race with Sarah; he can’t stop thinking about all of the sex she’s probably having with the millions of strangers that occupy his imagination, so the best way to get past that is to go out and bang some new strange himself.
Therein lies the problem. Part of the reason why I advocate going out and getting laid as a way of healing a broken heart is that it’s supposed to remind you that not only are there other women out there besides your ex, but they find you attractive. It’s a way of reaffirming your abundance mentality… and getting you up off your heartbreak couch and shaving off your lifetime supply of loneliness. Critically: it’s also supposed to be after you’ve had time to heal. Running right out into the waiting arms and squishy parts of another woman is a recipe for heartache (yours) and resentment at being used as a vagina-shaped bandage (hers).
And of course, that’s precisely what Peter did.
He wasn’t trying to “get back out there” into the dating scene, he was trying to numb himself by fucking the pain away.
Of course, this behavior is just symptomatic of another mistake Peter makes…
Process Your Feelings… Don’t Wallow In Them
Peter does a classic guy mistake: he tries to repress his feelings. He wants to force himself to be over Sarah almost instantly, so he’s constantly trying to shove the pain away. If he doesn’t feel that hurt constantly, then clearly he’s recovering, right? Right?
Repression of anything only makes it stronger. The more he tries to bury his heartbreak and sorrow, the more it hurts… and the more of a spectacle he makes of himself. He keeps telling himself he’s fine, he’s not hurting and everything’s ok… and then he ends up blubbering on the floor of his apartment or boring complete strangers at the bar with his sob stories about how he was done wrong.
This is something almost endemic in men; we’re socialized to be disconnected from our emotional needs and as a result, we have little idea how to handle them when we need to. Instead of just feeling them, processing them, accepting that shit hurts but it will fade, we try to get back to the point where we’re just fine and nothing’s wrong… and that makes everything worse.
We don’t have the same support system that women do because we’re socialized not to let ourselves be vulnerable to other men, but at the same time, we want some form of comfort and reassurance. So we go to that shrine of broken hearts, the bar, and cry into our beers as we try to self-medicate into numbness.
This is in no small part why so many guys seem to turn into babies after a break-up; shit hurts and we have no idea what to do or when we’re ever going to feel ok again.
Some guys go in the opposite direction and wallow in their misery. To them it’s a confirmation that they’ve been done wrong – that something unfair has happened and they’re being tormented by a cruel and uncaring universe for the simple crime of being. This self-indulgence in self-pity is a way of supporting a belief that life is especially hard for them, which makes them the protagonist in the drama in their heads.
Get the Hell Outta Dodge
One of the smarter things that Peter does is to just pull up stakes and get out of town.
To start with: when the wounds are still raw, going to a place that isn’t teeming with memories of the two of you together is a good way to let yourself recover – if you have the opportunity, that is. It’s hard to let the emotional wounds heal when everything around you encourages you to pick at the scab. But even if you can’t necessarily pull up stakes and go on a “she broke my heart” vacation, there are still ways of reaping the benefits. Part of why this was good for Peter is that it’s one of the key steps in the NerdLove Break-Up Recovery plan: get busy living.
As the saying goes, living well is the best revenge - especially when you feel like you’ve just got your heart ripped out of your chest by the callous asshat that was your ex. In Peter’s case, going to Hawaii has been something he’d always talked about, but never did. He decided to just throw caution to the wind and have an adventure, something that was completely out of character for him. He stepped out of of his comfort zone and made a point of doing things he’d always wanted but never quite had the guts to try.
Stop Worrying About The Rebound
Peter’s ongoing flirtation with Rachel is the emotional heart of the movie. Rachel is intended to be the polar opposite of Sarah, down to being a brunette to Sarah’s blonde and she represents his emotional progress as he tries to get over his ex.
The key moment for Peter is when he quits beating around the bush and straight up asks her out on a date. This is the moment when Peter starts to step out of the role of “The Guy Who Just Got Dumped” and back into his real identity.
More importantly though is that he discards his worries about whether Rachel is just a rebound or that she said yes out of pity; he’s decided that he likes her and he’s interested enough in seeing where this goes. Unlike the various emotionless bar hookups from earlier in the movie, he’s in a much better place emotionally. He’s not looking at Rachel as a way of making a point or trying to drive the pain away, he’s interested in her because she’s pretty damn cool and he wants to get to know her better. Even if it ultimately doesn’t go anywhere – after all, he’s only there for a few days – it’s a huge step for him; he’s reminding himself that there are other women out there who are just as amazing – or even more so – than his ex.
A lot of people stress out about the “rebound”, as though the next relationship you get into after a break-up is inevitably doomed to fail. This is a very good way of talking yourself out of a potential new relationship. Sometimes yes, you do realize that you got back into the dating scene before you were ready or that you aren’t up for a new relationship… but this could be true any time you date someone. Sometimes you have to just accept that you like someone and go for it.
You Have To Commit To The Jump
There’s an excellent metaphor around the middle of the movie, when Peter and Rachel have hiked out to a gorgeous cliff-side view of the ocean. After saying that she feels free to do anything, Rachel jumps off the cliff into the water. Peter hems, haws and then after much prompting from Rachel… half-asses it and ends up clinging to the side of the cliff, trying desperately not to fall on the rocks below.
Kind of like how he’s been living his life, really.
He can’t finish the Dracula musical because it would mean taking a risk. He takes a tenative step out and gets his ass handed to him and assumes that since he tried, that was good enough.
And I think we all know how I feel about “try”.
If you’re going to attempt something, you have to commit. Taking tiny baby-steps because you’re afraid to go all in means that you’re not giving it your full effort; you’re holding yourself back. And ironically enough, it’s the attempt to protect yourself that’s going to fuck you over and keep you from succeeding. You have to throw yourself into the things you want; fortune favors the bold.
You Never Know The Whole Story
Our exes stubbornly refuse to follow the rule that says they’re supposed to lead monastic, sexless lives after they leave us. As a result, we inevitably have to deal with the fact that our exes will start dating someone else, sooner or later. When they do, comparisons are inevitable. And whether you’re hopelessly outclassed or your ex is dating someone a few rungs down the evolutionary ladder from you, there will always be a moment where you ask “What does he have that I don’t have?”
Besides your girlfriend.
In Peter’s case, his ex is dating Aldus Snow, one of the hottest rock stars on the planet who sings like a god and fucks like a beast. Even if Peter wasn’t still hung up on getting Sarah back, it would be almost impossible not to feel stung by the comparison; of course she’s going to be far happier with him than she ever was with Peter right?
Well… maybe. Maybe not. As perfectly, effortlessly cool as Aldus seems, we find out that not everything is blissful for him and Sarah. He’s utterly self-absorbed and barely spares a thought for anyone around him, can’t keep his dick in his pants to save his life and has a collection of designer STDs. He and Sarah may have roof-shaking sex but deep down they can’t stand each other. They’re as poorly matched as Peter and Sarah were, if not more so.
The problem is that Peter – as all of us have – is comparing what little he sees of Aldus with everything in his own life. He’s comparing Aldus’ highlight reel to his own unedited footage. Comparing yourself to the next person your ex dates is pointless – not only do you not know the whole story, but ultimately, it’s not about you. The best thing you can do is go and live your own life instead of worrying about how it stacks up to someone elses’.
You Want Someone Who Gets You
One of the surest signs that Peter and Sarah were never going to work is that, in the end, she doesn’t have any respect for his passions. Whenever Peter is trying to convey his excitement for his Dracula rock opera, Sarah… really wishes she were just about anywhere else. She clearly thinks it’s childish and stupid and wishes Peter would grow up and focus on the things that are important.
And while she does have a point, the fact that she doesn’t get Peter means that their relationship was going to end sooner or later.
Rachel, on the other hand gets Peter. She may think that his opera is meant to be a comedy instead of the drama he envisions, but at least she understands and appreciates his passion for it. It may not necessarily be her cup of tea, but it’s a big part of what makes Peter, Peter and that means it’s part of what she likes about him.
You don’t need a partner who shares every single interest you have – that’s a trap of a different kind – but they do need to be able to at least respect the things you love and that you love them.
You Have To Take Responsibility
It’s very rare that a break-up is a one-sided affair. There is the occasional “space-flea-out-of-nowhere” moment where the person you thought you were dating suddenly dumps you because fuck you that’s why, but 99 times out of 100, it takes two people to cause a break-up… and you have to own yours.
Now it’s a bit unfair to dogpile on Peter; we only see the whole relationship through his perspective, so at first, Sarah seems to be a heartless bitch who took advantage of Peter’s naivete and went social-climbing for a hotter ticket into the limelight.
It’s only later that we are given Sarah’s side of the story… and Peter hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory either.
But then, his unwillingness to acknowledge that there was a problem has been a major part of what has held him back and kept him from growing. By the time Sarah finally has the come-to-Jesus talk that’s been brewing all this time, he’s made great strides towards recovering from the break-up… but he still hasn’tquite gotten around to addressing the issues that caused the break-up in the first place. It’s only afterwards that he starts to understand that he needs to break out of that rut he’s been living in for so long..
By the time he gets back to the mainland, he’s a changed man. He reconnects with his passion for the Dracula musical and finally commits to the leap… and it pays off. It’s only in confronting the full truth of his relationship with Sarah that he’s finally able to get past her and finally be ready for his next, better relationship.
Not a bad lesson to learn, if you ask me.