Something alarming started happening on Facebook around Christmas time when I was in my mid-20s. A rash of red hearts broke out, accompanied by cyber shrieks and multiple exclamation marks. "SARAH SMITH IS NOW LISTED AS ENGAGED," Facebook announced. Lest anyone miss this, Sarah would normally post a helpful accompanying note, perhaps: "OMG MARK PROPOSED TO ME UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE AND I AM THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD!!!!!"
"Shit," I muttered, dismayed. Sorry, I mean delighted. "It's started!"
The next year I braced myself as yuletide approached. Maybe it had been a mysterious one-off phenomenon?
It had not been a mysterious one-off phenomenon. Further red hearts and exclamation marks were posted, heavily footnoted by messages of hysterical congratulation. I joined in the hysteria but felt secretly ripped-off. I had become very good at binging on mince pies and weeping sentimentally over Christmas carols. I was now highly skilled at the art of causing a family punch-up and then blaming everyone else. But this was no longer enough. A successful Christmas now required an engagement! Who the feck authorised this?
You can hardly blame someone for proposing at Christmas. It's a time when everyone is either extremely jolly or at least pretending to be extremely jolly. Churches are warm and candly and full of angelic choirs (the better ones even serve mulled wine). Who wouldn't want to book themselves into one of these badboys and start a happy life with their beloved?
But as January begins, it produces another tribe of lovers who, while statistically significant, are largely overlooked. While the newly-engaged begin covert negotiations regarding bridesmaid hierarchies and fusion duck recipes, these lesser-celebrated lovers stare at the clock and wonder how they will get through another day of this hell.
These are the lovers whose relationships did not make it through Christmas.
Passed through the seasonal prism of mass-sentimentality, crap turkey and racist grandparents the steady beam of light that was once their relationship has emerged terminally fragmented. The new year begins; hope ends. It's a sad paradox, but it's a real one. Apparently, twice as many relationships break up in January than in any other month.
Two of my dearest and most beloved girlfriends cried down the phone to me yesterday, having found themselves unexpectedly single.
"I feel so sad I can hardly breathe," one of them said. Her agony was so intense I could feel it myself.
Bad break ups are diabolical, gruesome and hideous. And many more adjectives besides. I wrote a blog about my own awful breakup a few years ago and was astonished by the force of readers' identification. I still receive emails about it even now: there is obviously a strange comfort in going through hell if another human being is in the same place.
Not only do break ups leave one with the self-esteem of a fossilised rat dropping but they seem to bring about horribly masochistic tendencies.
"What are you doing?" My housemate asked me in January 2009, a few weeks after I had been dumped.
I shrugged angrily. What did it look like I was doing? I was going through hundreds of photos of my ex-boyfriend, howling like a wearwolf and shoving vast quantities of fruit loaf in my mouth.
"You're just harming yourself," she said gently.
"LEAVE ME ALONE," I roared. "I HAVE TO DO THIS. IT IS PART OF MY JOURNEY OF PAIN."
In hindsight, it's a part of my journey I could probably have bypassed but it is no doubt a staple of January 2012 for many of those suffering those first agonies of separation. The access we have to online information about our ex-partner is dangerous. Nothing good can come of looking them up, and yet it feels like the only task for which we have any enthusiasm.
We stalk, we weep, we eat too much or we stop eating completely. We rage, we run, we throw out old things and buy new ones but nothing takes the pain away. It's just horrible. And it has to be endured. I'm a firm believer in the transformative power of a bad break up but I have not forgotten what a rotten, stinking experience it is.
Unless you are part of the recently-engaged tribe, you'll probably agree that January is crap enough as it is. You have no money left - chocolate or otherwise - your job is just as rubbish as it was in December and you are probably quite fat. But spare a thought, I ask you, for your heartbroken friend. Give them a call. Take them for a drink. Cook them dinner. Let them know that you're happy to love them until they learn to love themselves again.
Because there is no break-up more miserable than the January Breakup. Go on, pick up the phone.