The Science Behind Why Breakups Suck (And What You Can Do About It)

The Science Behind Why Breakups Suck (And What You Can Do About It)

Love feels like the greatest thing in the world… until it ends. When it does, we stop functioning at our full capacity. We lose motivation, find challenges insurmountable and sometimes feel like we won’t love again. Fortunately, several studies have uncovered the root of why breakups just plain suck — and what you can do about it.

Photos by Africa Studio (Shutterstock) and Kaonos (Shutterstock). Illustrations by me.

It doesn’t matter if you get dumped or you dump someone — we humans tend to have very similar patterns when it comes to loss, regardless of our perspective. Some breakups will hit harder than others, but a handful of studies show our brains tend to mess with us in some very specific, common ways. In this post we’ll take a look at the psychological science behind breaking up, as well as get some expert advice from relationship and family therapist Roger Gil to help you move on.

The Science Behind Why Breakups Suck (And What You Can Do About It)

You’re Hard-Wired to Fear Rejection

The Science

Nobody likes rejection, and not just because it hurts. Many, many years ago, rejection from your fellow humans often meant death. If you were pushed away from your tribe of people, you had to survive on your own. Few people did. Nowadays we know social rejection doesn’t equal a death sentence, but aside from the surface of hardships our bodies have a physical reaction as well.

A study conducted by the University of Amsterdam decided to take a look at what happens to us physically when unexpected rejection occurs. Coincidentally, it affects our hearts:

Study participants were presented with a series of unfamiliar faces and were asked to predict whether they would be liked by the other person. Following each judgment, participants were provided with feedback indicating that the person they had viewed had either accepted or rejected them. Feedback was associated with transient heart rate slowing and a return to baseline that was considerably delayed in response to unexpected social rejection. Our results reveal that the processing of unexpected social rejection is associated with a sizable response of the parasympathetic nervous system.

To put it in simple terms, the parasympathetic nervous system handles much of the body’s work that doesn’t require our intervention. That includes sexual arousal, digestion and the regulation of internal organs (like your heart) — among other things. When study participants felt rejection, their heart rates slowed for a while. The effect was even more pronounced when the rejection was unexpected, and it also occurred if the participant feared the possibility.

What You Can Do About It

Because we have this built-in response, we tend to exaggerate the harm rejection actually causes us. While the end of an important relationship is substantial, it only affects a portion of our life. Nevertheless, we still have a tendency to exaggerate reality because we can literally feel it in our hearts regardless of the situation. Roger offers a few suggestions to start repairing the damage from this built-in reaction:

A person first needs to do a little “emotional triage” before trying to process the rejection. That means they should identify emotional supports and ways to busy themselves while the shock of the loss and rejection sink in. It could take days or even months to begin to “forget” the feeling of the “rejecter’s” presence so a person should allow a sufficient period of time to allow the immediate pain of the loss to sink in. In the meantime, it’s normal to mourn the loss of the relationship by confiding in friends/family, crying, etc.; just be sure to avoid unhealthy “numbing” behaviours like binge drinking, impulsive sexuality/promiscuity, over-spending, etc.

Because of the physical response, many of us tend to turn to those numbing behaviours to avoid what we actually feel. When emotions manifest themselves in our bodies, the effects can be very powerful. Remember that while you can’t control these feelings, you can control how you respond to them. Remind yourself that part of what you feel happens automatically and make a large effort to behave responsibly as your emotions might encourage you to do otherwise.


The Science Behind Why Breakups Suck (And What You Can Do About It)

You’re Addicted to Love and the Benefits of Partnership

The Science

When you love someone, you integrate them into every day. You think about them, they help you do things, they solve problems and they just exist along with you. When that all disappears, you feel lost because you actually lost something.

For example, if your ex-partner always washed the dishes, doing it yourself will feel more arduous than ever and will drudge up the pain of the breakup. You’ll feel like you can’t accomplish certain tasks because your former significant other always helped you with them. This can make you feel inept and worthless because, on top of the existing sadness from missing someone you love, you can’t handle daily tasks that were never a problem in the past.

If that sounds bad, Stony Brook University conducted a study that found out the situation is actually worse. They compared the brains of people in love and those who’d recently lost it with the brains of drug addicts. Here’s what they discovered:

[T]he fMRI results of the study show that looking at a romantic rejecter and cocaine craving have several neural correlates in common. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that romantic rejection is a specific form of addiction (Fisher 2004). The perspective that rejection in love involves subcortical reward gain/loss systems critical to survival helps to explain why feelings and behaviours related to romantic rejection are difficult to control and lends insight into the high cross-cultural rates of stalking, homicide, suicide and clinical depression associated with rejection in love.

What You Can Do About It

So if you struggle to overcome the benefits of love because you’re actually addicted to them, how can you move on? Roger suggests a few options:

It depends on the nature of the slack that you have to pick up in your ex’s absence. For example, if you’re talking about financial matters or domestic tasks then there is no easy way to get into the habit of retaking responsibility. If the tasks elicit pain, then a person just has to give themselves permission to cry or experience any associated anger. It may also help if the person tries to reframe taking over the things their partner used to do by telling themselves that it is part of reclaiming their independence and beginning the healing process.

You will feel unhappy when you encounter tasks that your former partner used to help with or tackle. You cannot avoid that. You can, however, begin to move past it with reframing and allowing friends to help you instead. It takes time, but you’ll move past the hurt much faster with a little concerted effort.


The Science Behind Why Breakups Suck (And What You Can Do About It)

The More Your Relationships Fail, the Less You Think They’ll Succeed

The Science

While you might not want to look at a relationship as a failure just because it ended, as you may have gotten many happy years before things went bad, you will most likely label it that way. We have a hard time accepting that we succeeded on any level if something ends on bad terms. To make matters worse, the more we “fail” the less we think of our ability. The goal of love starts to seem possible the more we let it slip away.

A study conducted at Purdue University by Jessica K. Witt and Travis E. Dorsche looked at this problem in another way. They measured the perceived difficulty of football players and their field goal performance:

Participants who made more successful kicks perceived the field goal posts to be farther apart and perceived the crossbar to be closer to the ground compared with participants who made fewer kicks. Interestingly, the current results show perceptual effects related to performance only after kicking the football but not before kicking. We also found that the types of performance errors influenced specific aspects of perception. The more kicks that were missed left or right of the target, the narrower the field goal posts looked. The more kicks that were missed short of the target, the taller the field goal crossbar looked. These results demonstrate that performance is a factor in size perception.

How does this relate to lost love? Failure at anything makes challenges seem more and more insurmountable. When we fail we convince ourselves we have a harder task at hand. This can result in a vicious cycle where we continue to fail because we believe we have such a little chance of success.

What You Can Do About It

In order to continue on with the pursuit of love after a breakup, that cycle must be broken. Roger suggests looking at the problem as an opportunity for self improvement:

When there are multiple “disrupted” relationships, I will often have my clients examine the that commonalities exist between the various relationships. Usually it comes down to processing the one thing every single one of their relationships had in common: the person themselves. This ultimately leads us to working on them “becoming the right person” for their next relationship rather than simply trying to find the “right” person. Why? Because it’s usually their issues that led them to choose less than ideal mates or to engage in unhealthy relationship behaviours. “You were cheated on by one ex? Their issue. You were cheated on by multiple exes? Then you’re probably doing something that leads you to these people.” By actively working on one’s own issues, they will hopefully develop qualities and skills that will make them more attractive to emotionally-healthy suitors.

Roger feels self improvement is just the first step. It creates the foundation for moving forward, but you still have to work to convince yourself you can actually find love again:

Once you’ve begun working on yourself, you can then begin working on convincing yourself that a healthy relationship is indeed possible. Why? Because you’re healthier (emotionally speaking, that is) than before. You’ll also (hopefully) have a better understanding of how to identify the red flags of “unhealthy” suitors and the hallmarks of someone who will engage in relationship-promoting behaviours. In other words, you’re learning to be a better dancer so you shouldn’t be too scared to get on the dance floor.

Building confidence takes a lot of work. It won’t happen overnight. Surround yourself with good people who care about you so you don’t forget that you matter. Let them support you as you build yourself back up. While you may feel devastated and horribly imperfect at the start, you were that way when you felt happier, too. The sadness only points to the problem you didn’t notice before. In a way, that’s better, as you can only fix the issues you actually know exist.

The Science Behind Why Breakups Suck (And What You Can Do About It)

You’re Forever Connected to Your Past: How to Move Forward

You’ll always move towards the future, seeing as that’s how time flows, but you can never forget the past. At first this can make moving on very difficult, but in the future it can provide a source of strength and confidence. As previously discussed, overcoming failure can create a great source of strength. That makes handling any future breakups you may have to endure a lot easier.
Still, the past sticks with you in all sorts of ways as we enter a new relationship. You look at your previous mistakes and try to avoid the hardship they caused as you find new love. While the past can sometimes provide a source of useful education, it can also paralyse you. Before you engage in any new relationships, Roger suggests you assess whether or not you’ve sufficiently moved on from the last:

If we recognise that we have a lasting “negative” side effect from a previous relationship, then we should probably reconsider entering a new relationship. If we insist on dating, then we owe it to our new mates to let them know that we will need to proceed slowly and with caution before going “all in” with the relationship because we’ve been hurt before and need enough time to feel ready enough to open up and allow ourselves to reach the level of emotional vulnerability that a relationship requires.

When you’re actually ready to move forward, you should watch for how your past affects you. You can easily avoid problems by keeping a line of communication open with your partner and avoid making any assumptions. Your current partner’s behaviours may sometimes mirror an ex-partner’s, but they may not have the same meaning.

For example, your ex may have allowed the dishes to pile up in the sink as a passive-aggressive way of telling you to do your part of the chores while your current partner might do the same thing solely out of laziness. If you start to draw parallels, have a conversation. Explain what your previous boyfriend or girlfriend used to do and ask your current significant other about their motivation so you don’t make an incorrect assumption.

Breakups stick with us, and it can be hard to let go of the past. We’ll hurt regardless of how hard we try to overcome it, but we can with a concerted effort. Remember that you’re wired to feel pain, lost love comes with actual day-to-day losses, and moving forward can seem harder the more you have to do it. We all experience these problems and all have to fight to move past it. If you can keep mind that we all have to tackle these same challenges at one point or another, you’ll know you’re not alone.

A very special thanks goes out to Roger S. Gil, M.A.M.F.T., for his integral contributions to this post. For more, follow him on Twitter and check out Luvbuzd, his podcast.

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