I never had the privilege to dump someone. In all my relationships — the short and the long, the one resembling wild roars of fireworks or slow, gradual burns — I was always the dumpee. However, I did receive loads of emails over the years from people on the opposite end; the dumpers.
To my surprise, they were, on average, in just as much pain as the dumpees. Their reaction to the whole thing was near identical! They also gulped obscene amounts of food to cope with grief. They also flooded their kidneys with liquor to escape the pain. They also went on a rebound-like dating rampage to lose themselves in the arms of a stranger and, for at least a moment, forget about their ex.
No matter the nature of your breakup, the bottom line always stays the same: it hurts. But why does it hurt? Specifically, why do breakups hurt even when you wanted it more than anything? Below, I’ll reveal why.
1. Breakups Shatter identities
When we lose our significant other, they usually take a part of us with them, that is, a part of our identity. This act of unconscious and unavoidable thievery is also the catalyst for our emotional turmoil.
This is far from a simple idea, so let me try and make it clear.
When you’re romantically committed to someone for an extended period, your identities, that is, your beliefs, goals, and values, begin to merge. Next, you even start forming new shared beliefs, goals, and values through mutually intense, emotional, and meaningful experiences — the good and the bad.
This fusion process makes it possible for two people to develop a unified relationship or couple identity. In other words, an identity created by two separate but alike ones. (1)
While you may think that developing a shared identity is toxic, it’s actually not. For one, you can’t help but create a shared identity with someone you love and vice versa. And as long as the couple doesn’t include two toxic fuckwads who derive happiness solely from each other, but rather two mature individuals, already happy and content with themselves, their identity will likely be healthy, fulfilling, and most importantly, meaningful. (2)
We can also argue that all of our relationships, even the ones we hold towards health, exercise, or our career, give our lives meaning and consequentially make us feel better about ourselves. But I’m getting carried away at this point.
Let’s pretend you and your ex formed a pretty tight shared identity — you both value your relationship, you’ve worked on it diligently, and a deep friendship was blossoming under all the romance. Chances are, this was actually how things unfolded. Now, think about this: one random day, that same relationship that fuelled your life with meaning vanished.
At that point, it’s entirely reasonable to feel unexplainable suffering, to begin questioning life and its significance, to start obsessing over your ex or overeating or overworking, or under-sleeping.
Facts like whose the dumper, which the dumpee, who was toxic, who was healthy, and so forth, are all irrelevant, for losing a shared identity hurts regardless of the nature of your relationship. After all, it was still yours.
Generally speaking, the more meaning and fulfillment you attached to your past relationship, and the more emotionally connected you were to your ex, the more empty and hopeless you feel once that relationship ends — that shared identity ends. Ultimately, this “loss of identity and meaning” is the central reason why breakups hurt, even when you wanted it. (3)
You tackle this loss of meaning by finding other types of meaning. Maybe you derive a lot of it from your career, child-rearing, tight family relationships, a bursting social life, whatever. The more sources of meaning you can find and commit to, the quicker you’ll fill the holes in your shattered identity and feel like yourself again.
2. Breakups Cause Social exclusion
Humans are social animals by nature. We are hard-wired to form relationships with others to feel safe and avoid going insane. Creating sturdy relationships is vital for our mental health, emotional well-being, and general survival. Take a newborn, for instance. Would it survive without a caretaker to teach it how to wipe its ass? Probably not. (4)
And no, I’m not talking out of my ass here. There’s a legit study that proves how indispensable meaningful relationships are and why breakups hurt so much. (5)
Here’s how it goes: some sciency peeps examined the responses of several married women when they were threatened with an electric shock. And since this was an fMRI study, the participants were hooked up to brain scanners that measured their responses to that electric threat.
There were three scenarios in which scientists measured the women’s brain activity. In the first, they held their husband’s hand. In the second, they held a stranger’s hand, and in the last, the women held no hand.
The results revealed that the women’s brain activity in scenario one (holding their husbands’ hand) was less active than the brain activity in the other two scenarios.
What’s even more impressive is that the quality of the relationship between the woman test subject and the husband holding her hand influenced the brain scan results. The stronger the relationship between the two was, the less the woman’s brain was affected by the electric shock threats.
Therefore, judging by how important relationships are for humans, it’s no surprise that it stresses the hell out of us when a significant one ends, no matter who did the deed. At that point, anything threatening elicits a far more notable emotional reaction from us than it would if we still had a partner to latch on to.
Here’s how to counteract the entire thing and minimize potential breakup pain in this aspect? Socialize. The worst thing you can do after a breakup is lock yourself into a room and sob all day and night. Go out. Meet new people. Hang out with friends. Yes, it’s that simple. You’ll feel better afterward.
3. Breakups Cause Shame And Guilt
Do you know the feeling when you’re terrified to tell anyone about your breakup and the fact that you dumped your partner when you expected your relationship would stand the test of time? The thought of sharing this with someone mortifies you. It causes you to want to curl up in a ball, pull a blanket over your head, and disappear from the face of the Earth.
That feeling is shame — feeling disappointed —or even worthlessness— with yourself for not living up to your ideal expectations. Feeling shame is feeling bad about who you are. (6)
Shame is a nasty little bugger. We all feel it from time to time, and it’s a huge reason our breakup hurt so much. It can also fuck us up big time! It’s linked to anger issues, hostility, emotional volatility, poor physical health, narcissistic tendencies, low self-esteem, and everyone’s favorite, depression. (7)
Now, guilt is very similar to shame — it translates to feeling bad about something that you did. And interestingly, shame can develop from guilt left unchecked. So when you reflect on whether you were too harsh (or not harsh enough) when you dumped your partner, when you regret your decision for breaking up, or when you question it extensively, all of that leads to guilt. (8) (9)
Truth is, none of us are free of guilt and shame. Sure, some people feel less of them after dumping their partner. Other people feel more. But in any case, whenever you feel it, the best thing to do is to practice vulnerability.
Open yourself up emotionally instead of closing off. Face your fears and insecurities instead of burying them under the rug and pretending they’re not there. Be willing to get hurt for the sake of authentic — often even therapeutic — expression.
It’s the hiding of your shame and guilt that makes your breakup so damn painful. For in that hiding, you deflect your inherent responsibility for life. Therefore, do the opposite. Expose your shame and guilt. Counterintuitively, it’s this exposé that leads to increased self-esteem, improved well-being, and less pain. (10)
4. Breakups Cause Uncertainty
This is probably the most widespread reason why breakups hurt, and it often leads people to sabotage their recovery with questions like:
- Why hasn’t my relationship worked?
- What have I done wrong?
- Was I not good enough for my ex?
- Why couldn’t my ex just be different?
- Were we incompatible or did I just suck?
- Was I a horrible boyfriend/girlfriend?
The more you’d ask yourself these things, the deeper you’ll settle in uncertainty, as well as anxiety and confusion. Eventually, those feelings can produce a nasty inner critic and a pretty sickening form of self-talk. And as a result, you’d quickly slump into depression and misery. (11) (12) (13)
Here’s what you need to know about uncertainty: it’s never going away. Certainty is an illusion. Almost nothing in life is certain. Therefore the best way to tackle the issue is to get good at feeling bad. Basically, the more you avoid negative emotions, the more those emotions will paradoxically screw you over at some point.
Ignoring the fact that you’re grieving will only make you more miserable. Ignoring the fact that you’re angry will just make you explode at some later point. Ignoring the fact that you feel uncomfortable will only make you more uncomfortable.
So turn toward your emotions, not away from them. That’s essentially how you become more resilient — by learning to be okay with feeling uncertainty.
Now, when it comes to self-talk, know this: both negative and positive forms are bullshit. Follow neither. You’re not a worthless idiot for leaving your partner. But you’re also not someone who deserves all the feel-good shit in the world. You are just you—another spec of dust, floating around meaningless infinity and perpetual uncertainty. Don’t fight it. Learn to live with it.
5. Breakups cause physical pain
Imagine two scenarios. In the first, you just spilled yourself with a burning Starbucks brew. In the second, someone showed you a photo of a recent ex. On the surface, these two scenarios seem pretty different. But when we examine the underlying pain beneath each one, we can uncover a funny similarity: both generate an identical sort of suffering. (12)
There have been numerous studies concluding that the same brain parts activated when you’re dealing with physical pain are also activated when dealing with the emotional pain of a breakup. And then there were even studies that backed up those studies. (13) (14) (15)
One found that our brain releases natural painkillers — the same painkillers released amid physical pain — when we’re faced with rejection. Another one explained the profound connection between the physical and emotional pain of breakups within our expressions.
For instance, let’s say you spill yourself with boiling-hot coffee. How do most people describe that scenario? Well, they often say it was like ” a slap in the face, ” or they say, “it hurt like hell.” Interestingly, when we’re heartbroken, we often say the same things about our breakup. We describe physical pain as emotional and vice versa.
Also, our linguistic patterns are not exclusive to only English. Researchers proved that many cultures worldwide use the same or near-identical terminology to describe their emotional and physical pain.
All of this shows how breakup pain is comparable to physical pain, particularly that of a hot coffee spill.
And here’s my little personal theory: if breakup pain is similar to physical pain, and physical pain normally heals and goes away after time, the whole notion of “time heals all wounds” that I’ve been diligently preaching against since this blog started, might be truer than I though…
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