“How I healed my broken heart in Finland” by Dr. Tarryn Bannister

Looking back now, with the doctorate under my belt and currently enjoying a peaceful relationship, I can see that my 2014 heart break turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I am more decisive now and I know what “I” want. Prior to us ending the relationship, I had grappled with indecision as to whether I could trust my own intuition. For years I had been dancing to other people’s tunes while trying to conform to traditional social rules and norms. I had been afraid of rejection, craving acceptance and ignoring my feelings. I didn’t realise it at the time, but my break up in Finland provided the catalyst I needed to transform. The relationship gave me the unexpected and invaluable gift of reinforcing why I entered into my current career while teaching me that I can (and should) trust myself.

This story began in 2014, during the second year of my doctoral studies. I was awarded a research scholarship from the Finnish Foreign ministry, which enabled me to undertake a research stay at the Finnish Institute for Human Rights. The Institute is located at the Åbo Akademi University in Åbo/Turku, Finland, opposite the picturesque Turku cathedral. Coming from a socio-economically challenged country like South Africa– I was deeply aware of how fortunate I was to have this amazing opportunity and I was beyond thrilled. A part of me was however, anxious as I would be traveling on my own for the first time and I would be separated from my boyfriend for a significant amount of time.

The day I arrived at the airport I was picked up by a wonderful woman who worked at the Institute, who ended up becoming a lifesaver during my trip. During the drive to the guest house I was surprised by all of the houses we drove past. To me, South Africa just seemed so much more…colourful. Once we arrived at the quaint guest house (which was very colourful inside!), I learned my first surprising fact about Finland. In Finland- people remove their shoes at the entrance and walk around the house in their socks. Given the long winter season, which can result in guests treading in snow- this is a perfectly practical tradition. As I was unzipping my boots I realised however, that I was wearing my wooly socks with the words “mischievous little devil” embroidered on them. While they had been a recent humorous gift, they were not the kind of attire I would have liked to be wearing when meeting a future colleague. Needless to say, I was a little embarrassed and I tried to retreat to my bedroom as soon as possible.

A few days into my trip while trying to acclimatize (and shopping for new socks) I received a cryptic message from my boyfriend telling me that he had kissed another woman. My heart sank to my shoes because I knew with every fiber of my being that there was more to the story. Shaken- I told him to leave me alone.

As I sent my last message to him I sat on a bench in the middle of the Turku town centre watching the ice-cold Aura river flowing past me and feeling devastated. I was hurt and I was also embarrassed. I felt ashamed that I had allowed this man into my life, especially as there had been some pretty glaring red flags indicating our incompatibility. I was also worried. A significant amount of my clothes and possessions were still in his flat and I was stuck in a foreign country- unsure as to whether he was going to burn my stuff or throw it away.

While a part of me felt like hiding under the bed in the guest house I, I realised I had to ‘boot and rally’ so to speak. I had to come up with a ‘programme of action’ to get myself out of this mess, to truly appreciate Finland and to move on. While processing the break up was a complex journey that took more than a few weeks (and a few tearful Skype calls with a special friend) here are some of the things that helped me to get some perspective and to move on:

I made a list of all the benefits that came from ending the relationship.

It may sound harsh but I needed to make this list to encourage myself to remove my rose-tinted glasses. I had to stop romanticizing the relationship, ground myself and recognise just how dysfunctional the relationship had been.

One example of such an advantage was that I suddenly had a much healthier bank balance. So much so that I was able to plan a birthday trip to Amsterdam. Now that’s something that will make you smile- even if you are crying. Once I started making the list, it became very lengthy very quickly and I was faced with the reality that this relationship was not as perfect as I had originally thought. This does not mean that I was under any delusion that I was flawless and that he was ‘the flawed one’. In fact, the relationship served as a powerful mirror, highlighting and reflecting my issues and insecurities. As painful as it was, allowing these issues to come to the surface enabled me to face them and heal.

The list was also important because at that stage in my life, I was feeling the pressure of gendered social norms (particularly this idea that a woman should make a relationship work). One of my friends had told me a few years earlier that because I was not getting married at the age of 24- that I was: “losing at the most important race of my life”. While she was speaking her truth at that time, I can only thank my lucky stars that I did not cave in to this social pressure. It may be that your path is to get married at 24 and to have children straight away. It may however, be that your path is to do something completely different with your life. Neither option is wrong and in my opinion, there shouldn’t be any hierarchy between the two choices. What bothers me is that social pressure is still primarily skewed in favour of women taking on traditional roles, even in cases where it isn’t in the woman’s best interests.

Making this list helped me to realise that sometimes ending a relationship is in fact an empowering act and not some kind of a failure as some of my friends (and society in general) may have believed.

I drank “Glögg” and I sang karaoke.

There is nothing quite like drinking Glögg (delicious mulled red wine) on a snowy day while giving gendered social norms the middle finger. I was able to enjoy this drink a few weeks into my trip, when two amazing female friends joined me in singing karaoke in Helsinki. There was something extremely therapeutic about belting out TLC’s “No scrub” and Lilly Allen’s “Hard out here” to a bar filled with Finnish strangers who I would never see again. Karaoke is also scary and exhilarating. It’s not only about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, it’s about knowing you suck and getting up on stage and singing your song anyway. Having two beautiful female lawyers as my backup singers was also pretty special.

I embraced ice swimming and the sauna experience

One of the best things about Finland is the fact that almost everyone saunas. During my first week in Finland, the woman at the Institute invited me to sauna with her and some friends. Being a conservative South African (well conservative in this way) I wasn’t quite ready to sauna with a group of people I hardly knew. Luckily the guest house I stayed at had a private sauna downstairs. I started making the sauna a part of my daily routine and there was something healing about the experience, almost as though I was detoxing on an emotional level. During my stay I was also able to participate in the Advanced Course on the Justiciability of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. At the end of the course, we all took part in ice swimming. It was incredibly exhilarating (not to mention unforgettable) and I would recommend it to anyone who visits Finland.

I kept my eye on the prize.

It can be difficult to be productive when you feel heartbroken. Especially in a foreign country. One of my best friends constantly reminded me to ‘keep my eye on the prize’. For me, at that time, it meant finishing my doctorate and working towards one day hopefully playing a role in transforming the legal system to be more responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups (particularly women who have experienced abuse).

Studying the devastating impact of poverty reminded me of just how small my problems were compared to the important work that needs to be done in the world. There were days when I faltered though. The first draft of my foreign law chapter was terrible and my supervisor was understandably disappointed. I didn’t give up though. I kept on going.

I ate and I prayed.

Another great thing about Finland is their ‘pea soup and pancake Thursday’ tradition. This is a surprisingly pleasing combination and there is nothing quite as comforting as their amazing thick pancakes. I ate a lot of these pancakes…

At the time when the whole relationship imploded I felt hurt, lost and confused. I wanted to understand why I was drawn to this man and why the relationship had caused so much pain. Ultimately, after much seeking I was able to gain closure in a rather unexpected and gratifying way. During this time I became a little obsessed with Rumi’s poetry and with Eckhart Tolle’s work. One quote from Eckhart Tolle in particular, really stood out to me. On relationships and addictions, he said:

“They do not cause pain and unhappiness. They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.”

Much of my research has focused on dysfunctional relations within families and society. Most of the research indicates that these dysfunctional patterns of relating are passed on through the family. One of the most important things I have realised is that if you experience this dysfunction and you are able to heal yourself- you can be a powerful catalyst for change.

I dated but I didn’t love.

While everyone is different, I personally believe it’s unhealthy to go straight from an intense relationship into another one. I was not interested in a serious relationship but I was open to having fun. This brings me to another fantastic thing about Turku, in that it was filled with so many interesting academics and students from all over the world. I was lucky enough to meet some truly amazing people. I had one particularly special evening with a cute Nepalese guy who cooked for me and sang to me with his guitar. Even when your heart is broken, it’s important to remember that the world is filled with interesting, accomplished and wonderful people who deserve to be loved and appreciated. You don’t have to fall madly in love with every single one of them, but you can share a connection and a moment of kindness that can bring a smile to your face years later.

I played in the snow and I appreciated South Africa.

While it’s no secret that South Africa is facing a number of socio-economic and political challenges and that we can learn a lot from Finland, being in Finland made me appreciate my home country. For example, while Finland has an impressive social security system and infrastructure (not to mention incredibly progressive rules pertaining to paternity leave) the weather made me long for the space, warmth and beauty of South Africa. Don’t get me wrong- Finland was impressive (I left my purse on a bus once and a gentleman actually jumped off the bus just to return it to me). The physical beauty was also captivating.

Traveling helped.

Ultimately, Finland was the clean break (and transformational gift) that I needed. Being in that crisp, beautiful and cold environment provided the perfect space to allow me to reflect and recover. Having an extra trip to Amsterdam for my birthday also didn’t hurt. During my stay in Finland I saw so many beautiful white swans and the symbolism was not lost on me. A few years later I got to see black swans in Mauritius, and the extent of my transformation finally hit home.

For anyone who has ever been disappointed in love (and especially the ladies) try to remember that as much as it hurts at the time- it has the potential to be a catalyst for immense personal growth- for both parties. Also, just remember that you are more beautiful and stronger than you realise and that everything happens for a reason. You sometimes just need a bit of patience to understand exactly why.


In December 2016, Tarryn Bannister received her doctorate in law. She is passionate about human rights, social justice and Buffy the vampire slayer.


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