Breaking down your breakup through songwriting

Breakups are always challenging.

Platonic or romantic, they’re the end of a relationship. And they happen because something wasn’t working: you weren’t happy, the other person wasn’t happy, etc.

Your breakup is a story: it has a beginning, middle, and (most definitely) an end. Hindsight is supposedly 20/20, so let’s take advantage of that story by turning them into songs.

Expressing emotional shifts through songs

There are six core emotions that affect human behavior: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. At any point in a relationship, you’re bound to cycle through those six emotions – in fact, it’s extremely healthy to cycle through them. It’s extremely dangerous to get stuck in a certain sector, though.

So looking back on your relationship, start making a list of pivotal moments; those instances where you started to notice a shift in the relationship’s energy. These can be good or bad moments, but usually after a breakup, it’s easier to pick up on the negative ones.

For each moment, chart how you felt over time (see my example below). The closer the dot is to the outer wheel, the more you felt it in that moment. The closer it is to the center, the less you embodied that emotion.

Over time, you’ll start to see shifts in your energy. Or if there are no shifts, then maybe you were blind to something that was in front of you all along. In the words of Le Corbusier, “I prefer drawing to talking. It is faster and leaves less room for lies.”

In order to get anything out of this, you need to be honest. It’s really for your own eyes anyways, and I’ve shared my own to make you feel less self-conscious:

For any given shift, or lack thereof, talk to yourself about that moment. For me, I never felt at ease in my relationship; I was always on edge. In the charts above, I see I just had a high concentration of anger, fear, and disgust – arguably the core ingredients of unhappiness. I expressed these thoughts like this:

I look at you
I look at all of you
And I think to myself
No, no, no

No to what I’ve known
No to how we haven’t grown
No to the love you’ve never shown

I don’t want you like that
I don’t want you
I will never be the one that loves you

We talk a lot about how dating is about figuring out if you want to be with someone in the long term. Identifying shifts in the relationship and writing about what happened in lyrics helped me understand how much I was ignoring my own unhappiness.

Expressing insecurities through songs

Here’s my list of insecurities when it comes to relationships:

  • I’m not a complete person without a relationship
  • All my friends are in relationships and don’t want to hang
  • I’m not good enough

I would advise timing yourself on creating your own list to one minute or three – four items, since it’s extremely easy to go down the rabbit hold of negativity.

Now that we have our insecurities listed, let’s pick one and flip it. I’ve picked “I’m not a complete person without a relationship.”

My relationship history was a long-winded game of chutes and ladders: I’d climb out of one relationship just to slide in another. I felt like I was sleepwalking into the arms of total strangers, and I did question if I was bringing this on myself. So, I wrote these lines:

The only trips we ever take are guilt
You love to tell me how to feel

The only games we ever play are blame
The fingers always pointing back at me

You’re so quick to call me the fool
But you’re in love with a memory too

This led me to asking myself: what are my ideas of a “complete person?” What are the ideas about relationships that make them complete for me? Make a list of them. The imagination is incredibly powerful, and an idea to combat an insecurity like that is going to be impressive and easy enough to project onto a person who could never live up to the ideal.

It’s easy to fall in love with an idea. For example, I once dated the idea of a tortured artist. Consider what makes these ideas so great, and what makes them not-so-great. That previous relationship could have ended months earlier, but I got very good at projecting the best qualities onto a person and seeing everything through the lens of denial.

Good morning
I’m in mourning
But I’m the dance-on-your-grave-type
The cops came for the alibi

Been ignoring
All the warnings
Reading in between the lines
Asking God for a sign

What became clear to me through my own songwriting is that dating an idea is going to change you, maybe more than that person themselves. It’s easy to confuse sacrifice with compromise, but there’s a difference between forgiving yourself for being wrong and beating yourself up for it.

When you identify who you were in that relationship, you’ll realize that the breakup isn’t about the other person leaving you, but about you letting go of that part of you and outgrowing yourself. And that process is incredibly painful – you’re going to hit the five stages of grief. I go through them daily as I shift between feeling the best to the worst in milliseconds.

But you keep going, and you keep writing songs. You learn what you want, what you don’t want, and how to make a different decision when you reach that next fork in the road (which you will).

Why we listen to and write songs about breakups

You listen to Lizzo because it’s not a breakup if she tells you it’s not. You listen to Taylor Swift, who has a discography built on the actions of her exes. You listen to Adele who wrote two entire albums on a single heartbreak. You listen to Ariana Grande, who accepts with grace. The list goes on.

You writing about your breakup means you’re also ready to let go of who you were in that relationship. You’re outgrowing someone you were for a few days, months, or maybe even years. And while that hurts, you can’t be your own person without knowing your pain intimately – your next partner can’t be the bellhop to your emotional baggage.

When people ask me where I’m at in the five stages, I just answer: I’m in mourning, but I’m the dance-on-your-grave-type.

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February 14, 2020

Hannah Park Hannah Park is an engineer at Splice and a songwriter based in New York City. In her free time, she's an aspirational amateur baker.