Risk, Vulnerability, Heartbreak and Recovery in the Tarot

Turning to the tarot for insight regarding relationships can be a profoundly eye-opening experience. It can also be a stern reality check to snap us out of denial, or a welcome comfort like a warm blanket and mug of tea while taking shelter from a storm. In short, tarot is a truly valuable instrument to help guide us through the challenges and joys of relating to others.

Oftentimes however we turn to the tarot not when things are going full sail but rather when we have had our hearts broken, or we are facing major confusion, ambivalence, or despair regarding a relationship.

Here are a few cards to reflect on, representing some of the larger themes that weave their way through our life’s journey in relationship to an intimate partner.

Risk with Regards to Matters of the Heart — 2 of Cups

2 of Cups from The Phantomwise Tarot

The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open. – Chuck Palahniuk

Beginning a relationship, opening your heart, and seeking authenticity before another human being is fraught with risk. It’s an approach, it’s an unknown, and there are no guarantees. Risk isn’t generally a concept or interpretation associated with the 2 of Cups. Usually you see readers referring to this card as “love sweet love” and in fact clearly as a 2, a card of partnership and duality, and as the suit of Cups, the suit of emotions and heart, that is the main theme running through this card. However we can’t forget that this card represents the so-called “honeymoon” phase of love and relationships. Opening ourselves to another is a risk that we have to be willing to take in the very beginning, in order to be able to get to know a person on a deeper level, and at this point we have no way of knowing if the partnership has the ability to last beyond those first initial sparks. It takes the willingness to adventure with another human being and taking the risk of being hurt.

Protection Vs. Vulnerability — 2 of Swords, Page of Cups

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. ― Pema Chödrön

In the 2 of Swords, we see a woman who is absolutely closing herself off, crossed as she is with two swords and the blindfold across her eyes. If you’ve been hurt in a relationship and still haven’t fully healed, it can be completely appropriate to purposely close your eyes to the world of relationships and to protectively cross your arms across your chest with sharp swords, ready to chase away any potential suitor who might dare come wander down your path and further torment your tender heart.

By the same token, when you feel ready to approach the potential for relationship and intimate love in your life, a certain amount of vulnerability and openness is called for, in addition to the capacity for risk described above. The Page of Cups is a good example of this type of vulnerability, because he offers his cup freely and with childlike joy. He doesn’t hold back his feelings, he expresses openly his message of love, and in doing so, he either consciously or unconsciously renders himself completely vulnerable, because there’s always a chance that the cup he’s so willingly holding out could be rejected. Knowing when to use the protective energy of the 2 of Swords or the unguarded and totally open-hearted energy of the Page of Cups is a determining factor in the initial approach to a relationship or avoidance of one.

Heartbreak, Loss, Moving On and Letting Go — 3 of Swords, 5 of Cups, 6 of Swords, 8 of Cups

We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our love object or its love. — Sigmund Freud

The 3 of Swords is a classic card for heartbreak, and little explanation is needed to interpret a large red heart pierced by three sharp swords. Is there a third person in the picture, or a factor that is interfering and making this relationship impossible?

The 5 of Cups is a card of mourning and loss, shown by the spilled cups, the black robe and the bowed head. While typically the advice is given to the querent to “turn around and realize two cups are still standing” meaning that not everything is lost, the truth is that when a feeling of utter loss and devastation occurs, sometimes it isn’t appropriate to turn around yet. Sometimes the only thing possible in the moment, and the emotionally healthy choice as a response to heartbreak, is to simply mourn and feel the pain rather than trying to deny it or push it away. This is especially true as it regards the loss of an intimate relationship, that unique someone who can never be replaced in the heart. I ran across this idea of the benefits of taking the necessary time to mourn rather than simply “looking at the bright side” in the 5 of Cups through the thought-provoking book Tarot and the Tree of Life.

The 6 of Swords shows moving on and always has a heavy feeling to me, a sense of melancholy and disappointment, mixed with hopefulness that the future, while still unknown, holds promise and better things to come. When the 6 of Swords appears in a reading, it can often represent that sense of moving on from a relationship that you know has to be done, but is done with a feeling of sorrow despite the necessity. However here there’s always a sort of element of a silver lining, a sense of hope and a sort of inner acknowledgement that ultimately it’s better this way, which can make acceptance of the transition easier to embrace.

The 8 of Cups is quite similar, in the sense that here, too, we see a scene of moving on, and yet there’s the added element of the carefully stacked cups. Here we’re leaving behind something that we’ve built up and invested our hearts in, but something that despite our investment, is lacking a fundamental element (notice the gaping hole where there’s a missing cup in the formation). When we consciously acknowledge that we’ve done all we can and it still just isn’t going to work, we cut our losses and move on, not because we necessarily even want to, but because we either know we have to, or because in some way we’re forced to.

Recovery and The Calm After The StormThe Star

I like The Star best to represent the powerful archetypal energy inherent in feeling hopeful after a very difficult period of struggle. The Star is the shimmering of the grass after a rainfall, the sort of rainbow that appears and tells us that life still has beauty and can be enjoyed again. While it isn’t yet jumping up and down for joy like The Sun, it’s a quiet peace, an inner knowing that “this too shall pass” and in fact has passed, at least enough to where the heart can begin to loosen up again and not be afraid of feeling, or of hoping for a new love to fill it once again.

While these themes and phases can be applied to dating and forming new relationships and breaking up, they can just as easily be applied to a long term relationship and the cycles that inevitably come in the “life/death/life” cycle as it is so brilliantly described by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and her retelling of The Skeleton Woman. (Here the story is presented in a fascinating blog called Spiritual Emergency that details one person’s journey through a psychotic experience that in other cultures is defined in other terms such as a shamanic initiation.)

The never-ending spinning of the web of relationships, the twists, the turns, the full-hearted joy and the suffocating heart pain that accompany them — this is all the raw stuff of life, and the tarot captures these elements in all of their subtleties.

What cards do you identify with key themes in the various stages of intimate relationship? What cards speak to the challenges and calls to growth and empowerment that intimate relationship can spark in us? Please share with me and other readers in the comments section!

Shelley Ruelle is a tarot consultant who works with clients using the art of the tarot, to help them gain insights and personal empowerment in making conscious decisions and navigating the sometimes confusing waters of life. Invest in your own greater good, walk more confidently on your life’s path, and intimately connect with your higher self through a custom-designed reading by Shelley: book your personalized reading now.


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