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The Chef Boyardee theory of breakups

What I learned from my visit to the Museum of Broken Relationships.

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The Museum of Broken Relationships sits on a narrow side street in Zagreb, Croatia, a few blocks over from the church where Dan’s parents got married. Nestled on a corner, a small sign juts out over the sidewalk, proclaiming the museum’s existence.

Googling “things to do in Zagreb” a few weeks earlier had led me to the museum’s website and countless articles about the catharsis one could experience there. Dan had added cathedrals, historical sites, and a list of sophisticated museums to our shared agenda, but the Museum of Broken Relationships was my one contribution.

He thought it was strange, an opinion he expressed multiple times on the short tram ride from his grandmother’s house to the city center. It wasn’t the first time he’d judged my taste as unrefined and overly sentimental. But I assured him it was a normal couple-y thing to do, and the woman at the museum’s front desk echoed the sentiment.

“You’d be surprised how many people take their dates here,” she said, smiling as she handed us two neon green wristbands.

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Inside the exhibit hall, the walls and floors were a stark, smooth white. Every few feet was a glass display case featuring an object related to its owner’s broken relationship, along with a museum label detailing the circumstances. The objects came from all over the world and consisted of everything from wedding dresses to childhood toys to locks of hair. As we walked through the exhibit, I drifted ahead of Dan, eager to take everything in. After a week of looking at statues of war heroes and graves of saints, a hot pink silicone replica of someone’s ex-boyfriend’s penis was a welcome sight.

One of the last objects we stopped to look at was a box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix, crust and sauce included, all the way from Indiana. The person who sent it in couldn’t eat gluten anymore, and had to give up their favorite food as a result. The letter was funny, and clearly meant to be taken as a joke. In the last paragraph they wrote, “Maybe I loved you too much. I wish it weren’t so, but I do much better without you.”

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I was surrounded by stories of star-crossed lovers, death, broken families, and lost children — but I couldn’t get that pizza sauce out of my head.

A few years later, just a couple of weeks before our four-year anniversary, Dan called to say that he couldn’t see a future with me in it. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” he said.

I wanted to say: Then what is it? But I already knew — it was that he didn’t love me enough. All I could think to say before I hung up was, “I couldn’t have loved you more.”

When you’re in the habit of writing about your life, any emotional experience that doesn’t yield artistic inspiration feels useless. For weeks, every time I sat down to write about Dan, I could only think of the Chef Boyardee box we had stood in front of two summers before. Maybe it’s easier to write about loss when it’s mundane; maybe the feelings are the same no matter how big or small the lost thing is.

Now and then I think it would be funny to send something to the museum. Maybe even the shirt I bought at the gift shop that reads “I love breakups” — even more ironic now than when I bought it. But months pass, wounds heal, and bitterness fades. And, truthfully, I don’t think I could come up with anything more accurate or more profound than that Chef Boyardee letter. I did love Dan too much, but I’m much better without him. Sometimes we love things in direct proportion to how bad they are for us — there just isn’t more to it than that.

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Molly Hamilton is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.