Still from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) 

the science of breaking up

Sometimes love hurts, but breaking up isn't all bad. One science and psychology writer shares what he learned after a painful personal experience.

by Doug Main
29 December 2017, 5:11pm

Still from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) 

I recently went through a crushing breakup that happened quite suddenly. For weeks, it left me reeling. The parting forced me to recognize some harsh truths, and to reevaluate who I am and what I want. Being interested in science and psychology, I also wondered what research has to say about the phenomenon.

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Mood swings
One of the most striking things is that even compared to past breakups, in this case, my emotions shifted quickly and unpredictably. One moment I’d feel upbeat and positive — thinking that despite being difficult, it’s all for the best. The next, other thoughts would intrude, and I’d sink back into feeling sad, angry, or fearful. Or I’d question whether or not I’d made the right call in breaking it off. Such emotions are normal, of course, and I’ve taken it as a chance to meditate on the impermanence of emotions and other life circumstances. But what exactly drives these wild swings?

Grace Larson, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University who has studied romantic breakups, says that close partners help us regulate our emotions, our circadian rhythms — when we go to sleep and wake up, when we get hungry — and other aspects of our physiology. We also look to partners as “attachment figures,” who make us feel secure and with whom we share our feelings and many activities. Thus, when that relationship is no more, our physical cycles, and emotions, become dysregulated. “It completely makes sense that without that, for a while, your emotions will be out of whack,” she says.

“Like a lot of life’s experiences, break-ups are a mixture of positive and negative outcomes,” says Gary Lewandowski, professor and chair of the department of psychology at Monmouth University. “Even if you’re sad about a relationship ending, chances are there are positives as well, such as more time to focus on yourself and your friends, etcetera. Even if you initiated the breakup, while you may feel better overall because you were more prepared, you’re still going to have some negative feelings such doubting whether you did the right thing or guilt about hurting your partner.”

Feeling the pain
One of these negative emotions is feeling hurt, and research shows that emotional loss does actually seems to act on the brain similarly to physical pain. In a study published in 2011 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers put participants in a functional MRI machine, which measures patterns of brain activity. Then, they showed people an image of their ex, with whom they’d recently broken up. Later, they exposed the participants to a painful (but not harmful) sensation of heat. Both experiences caused a similar level activation in the brain. “These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection ‘hurts,’” the researchers wrote.

While there’s pain, there’s also a feeling like withdrawal. Some research suggests that romantic love can impact the brain similarly to an addictive drug like cocaine, and that the loss of this love can lead to biochemical effects similar to withdrawal. I don’t like this comparison, because it conflates one healthy and life-affirming thing with something destructive and enslaving. And it also only looks at the brain from a materialistic standpoint, which has its limits. Regardless, the fact is that there are biochemical parallels between love and addiction on the one hand, and breakups and withdrawal on the other. Good ways to work through this process include exercise and socially bonding with new and old friends.

It helps to talk it out
When you build an intimate relationship with somebody, it’s not surprising that your sense of identity can change. For a time I dated a woman whose family made it clear that they wouldn’t approve of me unless I converted to Judaism. Although the relationship didn’t work out and I didn’t convert, I seriously considered a significant identity shift that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind. One of the many challenging parts of breaking up is having to address this question: Who am I now that I’m not with my partner?

Psychologists call this rejiggering process “self-concept reorganization.” In a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Larson and University of Arizona psychologist David Sbarra conducted an experiment in which they had 210 undergraduates come into the lab following a breakup. A total of 120 of the students came in four times over the course of nine weeks, during which time they spoke to researchers about their breakup, and the psychologists took physical measures like blood pressure. The other 90 students just came in once at the beginning and end of the nine week period. The former group fared better and reported less “self-concept disturbance over time.” In other words, they seemed to be more clear on who they were independent of their ex.

Compared to the 90 who didn’t come in four times, these 120 also had “decreases in breakup-related emotional intrusion, loneliness, and the use of first-person plural words when describing the separation.” Larson concludes that these changes may be the results of talking about what they were going through with the psychologists. Regardless, the results suggest that it’s helpful to confide in friends and family about what you’re going through, not only in terms of emotional support but also to help cognitively process what’s going on.

Rejection really does affect the heart
Processing a breakup involves not only the brain and the mind but also the body. An interesting 2010 paper in the journal Psychological Science relates an experiment in which researchers showed the faces of unknown people to study participants. After being informed that the person “rejected” them, the participants heart rate slowed down. This suggests a disturbance of the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the automatic processes of the body at rest, which are sometimes called the “rest and digest” functions.

In another paper in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers looked at 70 divorced men and women. Participants were asked to reflect on their divorce, while the researchers measured each person’s blood pressure. Men who were still emotionally upset about their divorces showed increases in blood pressure upon reflection, while women generally did not.

Regardless of how long you were with somebody, breakups can be incredibly difficult. But you are likely to come out stronger, and with a better sense of who you are and what you want. Researchers suggest that the best way to cope is riding out the emotions and feeling them deeply, as opposed to trying to hide from them or numb the feelings away. Lewandowski says his own research “finds that writing about the experience, particularly focusing on the positive aspects that you may otherwise ignore, promotes positive emotions post-breakup.” Other things that help include learning new skills or trying new activities, pursuing enjoyable hobbies, immersing oneself in work, and hanging out with friends and family.

And then there’s the most obvious factor: Time. Time heals all wounds. While of course there’s no magic interval (every person and situation is different), one bit of positive news is that research shows that most people tend to overestimate how long it will take to get over a breakup. And with luck, the next relationship will be better.

As Adele would say: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”