“To the brain, getting dumped is the pain equivalent of getting burned by a hot cup of coffee….merely looking at a photograph of an ex-partner energized the neurological regions…that also process physical discomfort. Defensively, the dejected brain also signals the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and amplifies the body’s immune defenses as though warding off emotional pathogens. Indeed, as additional research further confirms, matters of the heart and mind are intimately connected.*
Ouch. That sounds serious. And it is. In love – and at work too, let’s say when we are let go or are unhappy enough to leave on our own – when our deeply held connections are severed and our dreams for a future in that connection are dashed – it hurts. The heart hurts, and the mind hurts, and sometimes we feel that loss of connection all over our bodies. So don’t let anyone tell you that you are not supposed to feel exactly as crummy as you do when you break up with the one you love. We are wired for this. By and for nature and nurture, in an effort to survive and reproduce, Pair Bonding matters to humans, and when the pair bond is ruptured that incredible urge to either repair it or replace it tells us all we need to know about how much we want to pair. Yes, there are what the attachment theorists call avoidant types. But it seems the wish to bond was once there in them too before ‘Enough is enough; I’m going it alone’ set in because s/he was either mistreated or ignored by an attachment figure too much of the time. By the way, try having a relationship with an avoidant type, and see how kicked in the stomach it feels every time you try to get close. Not a bad reason to break up, if things cannot be improved. You deserve better, you say. And you do.
Or maybe you two were close and really enjoyed being together. Maybe even though you both loved the same music, loved to hike or bike together, to take in the theater, or sit by the fire, or walk on the beach; maybe there was always something that didn’t feel good or right. Maybe it was the pain of incompatible core values that derailed you. As numbers of clients** have explained, they loved being together in the moment but for the long haul the plain truth was that their life plans and core values did not match. She embraced commitment; he embraced independence. She embraced intellectual and financial career success. He embraced simplicity and serenity via his art. Core values are the virtually unshakeable rules by which we live, and living long together by fundamentally different rules can sometimes, not always, but often enough make things too damned hard. So then they breakup – talk about hard.
Before we get to what makes breaking up so hard, and what we can do to make it easier, here are some interesting stats on breakups compiled from Facebook status updates*:
- When: the most common day for breakups is first Monday in December, cleaning up mess before not during the holidays. Early March, spring break, a popular time for breakups too.
- How: People born before 1975 tend to breakup in person 74% of the time. People born after 1984 breakup in person only 47% of the time, more likely by phone (30%), text (14%), email (4%).
- Why: Everything from soup to nuts: Cheating, unsatisfying sex, not enough time together, loyalty, support, just not feeling it, “economy, politics, boredom and even vocal pitch as the final straws for various couples.” Kind of makes me wonder how many people really even know.
- How Long: By this I mean how long does the grieving process take. “Eight weeks after getting dumped, 40 percent of people in one study exhibited signs of clinical depression, and 12 percent appeared moderately or severely depressed. Remember, it’s supposed to hurt because evolution and culture want us to want to bond.
- Who: Women initiate two-thirds of divorces and have the statistical breakup edge. Of course, sometimes her life partner left emotionally way in advance of the actual breakup, so it’s not clear who actually dumped whom.
In any case…Breaking up is hard to do. Hormonally hard. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or pleasure inducing drug, that can send us soaring, make us crazy, and boy does that feel good. The mere sight of a romantic partner can stimulate the brain’s reward system and flood us with this love drug. The realization that the loved one is gone deprives us of the drug. To avoid this deprivation we may find ourselves out of our minds motivated to repair the relationship to get the love drug back. Being with the one we love, also produces endorphins, and with endorphins comes that “general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure.” Without that drug we’re in withdrawal and, until we grieve a bit and restabilize, we feel none of the above.
So how do we grieve? Pioneering attachment theorist, John Bowlby, gave us 4 stages of grief: Numbness, Yearning, Disorganization and Despair, Reorganization. The more widely known psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler Ross, gave us 5: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. It appears that in Bowlby’s model the anger pretty much rolls into the yearning, that phase of bargaining to get the love back, and the anger associated with the frustration this fruitless effort entails. So these two models are very much alike, stages beginning with ‘make it not be over’ and ending with the acceptance that it is. Turns out the stages are not any more neat and clean than any relationship is. They can be a mess. No sooner do we think we’ve moved along to acceptance than something happens, let’s say a facebook post, and we are hurled back into the throes of painful emotion all over again. The brain does not forget that easily and can be triggered by almost anything, as you may know.
But visits by feelings from earlier stages of grief do not necessarily mean that we haven’t moved along in the grief process. We may think of these visits as all part of the process instead. Rumi has a wonderful poem, The Guest House, to help us think about all emotion in this way. And one of the best things I ever heard, may sound obvious to you, but hit me hard in a good way when I needed it, came from a philosophy mentor who said, “You know, Madelaine, it is possible to be happy and sad at the same time.” Great. So tears of frustration or sadness are not necessarily a setback. They are okay. In fact, studies have indicated that emotional tears calm our breathing and heart rate, and carry stress hormones that can be cleansed from our bodies when we let ourselves cry. So live it up. Don’t hold back. Go on. Have a good cry.
And then Play. Because, even if we can’t get back with the one we loved, there are plenty of other ways to get the peaceful, joyful lovin’ feeling back. Romantic love and sex are not the only ways to get the love drugs back. No sir. Exercise and playing games, video games, card games, varieties of challenging or competitive play – can increase dopamine levels. Dopamine (the pleasure drug) motivates us to achieve and rewards us with pleasure when we do, making us want to set and reach goals all the more. So after love, when it can feel like all is lost and you hate that deep, dark, foggy pit you’re in – Get up, Get out, and Play. And then your dopamine will motivate you to do even more of the kinds of things that increase endorphins, the inner morphine that can ease our pain and help us to feel happy again.
How to increase endorphins: Get out of the bed. Get off the couch. Hang out with people you like. Laugh. Go to the beach. Take a sauna. Play volleyball. Dance. Eat (dark chocolate, hot peppers, alcohol in moderation, and to some extent just about anything you enjoy). Help someone (helper’s high). Exercise. MEDITATE. Yes indeed, studies have found every one off these to impact our chemistry in ways that make us feel good when we might otherwise have felt nothing but bad. How to be happy and sad at the same time. How to lift oneself up and out, to help oneself to Play for the benefits to our overall health and happiness. And okay, who knows, maybe even to find that oh so delicious high, romantic love, out there in the playground once again. You never know what can happen when we least expect it, with an aura of health and joy on our side. Play, play, play. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.
For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:
Email: Madelaine Weiss
* Conger, Christen, How Breakups Work. congerhttp://people.howstuffworks.com/breakup.htm/printable
**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.
Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.