Why Do Breakups Hurt And What Can You Do About It

by By Max Jancar | Last Updated: November 22, 2020

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It doesn’t matter if your breakup happened unexpectedly and in a wild roar or if your relationship drowned up and slowly withered away. It doesn’t matter if you got dumped or if you’re the one who did the dumping. Breakups hurt in any way they happen. And since you’re reading this, I assume you feel somewhat hurt right now.If that’s the case, I get it. Don’t criticize or beat yourself up too much about it. We all go through this pain at some point. It’s normal. Especially today, when a new lover, and so, a new potential breakup, is just one swipe away.But one might wonder, why does it hurt so much?

Why does a breakup feel like the floor you stood on suddenly vanished – along with your aspirations, confidence, self-esteem, and even life meaning.In this article, we’re going to explore various reasons why those things may happen—Aka, why your breakup hurts so much. We’re also going to examine the nature of your pain, grief, and suffering, and in the end, I’ll give you some proven tips on how to relieve it and move on faster.

Why breakups hurt, reason 1: Shattered identity

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 catalysts for our harsh emotional turmoil. 

Let’s unpack this concept further.

When you’re romantically committed to someone for a more extended period, your identities, that is, beliefs, goals, and values, begin to merge. You even start to form new shared values, beliefs, and meaningful experiences together. But most importantly, you start to identify with the label, boyfriend, or girlfriend. 

This process makes it possible for two people to develop a unified relationship identity. In other words, they become one in various life-related aspects. And I don’t mean that in a toxic, codependent way where one parter sacrifices who they are for the other. Or in a way, where two incomplete or broken identities try to complete each other, which is often the case in toxic relationships.

What I’m talking about is a healthy form of identity fusion. One where two complete identities of mature and secure people who got their life together begin to blend. (1)

The benefits of a healthy and unified identity are vast. For example, research shows that individuals who have greater fusion with their partner in terms of their unique couple identity showed reduced vigilance for relationship threats and portrayed more constructive coping responses to relationship conflict. (2)

Here’s another cool fact. A healthy romantic relationship provides a much greater sense of life-meaning to both individuals in it. This idea was also backed up by the famous Holocaust survivor and the godfather of logotherapy, Victor Frankl.

To be more specific, he stated that one of the three paths to meaning is by “experiencing something or encountering someone,” which is his way of saying that you can find or create meaning through the relationships you cultivate. (3)

Interestingly, we can go even deeper into this subject.

We can also claim that all of our relationships, even the ones we hold towards health, exercise, or career, give our lives meaning and consequentially make us feel good about ourselves. And again, this effect is especially prevalent when it comes to our romantic relationships.

Now think about this: something that’s a part of you, something that provided your life with meaning and supplied you with fulfillment, is now gone. In other words, a relationship you cultivated and grown, and worked at is now gone, and it will never be the same again, even if you get back together with your ex.

It’s entirely reasonable for you to feel unexplainable suffering at this time.

It’s entirely reasonable for you to begin to ponder on existential questions, like, “who am I” or “What’s the point of living?”

It’s entirely reasonable for you to begin obsessing about your ex and performing unnecessary impediments to your recovery.

These reactions are all expected consequences of the loss of your unified relationship identity.

Surprisingly, breakups hurt no less, even if your relationship was toxic and dysfunctional (and you knew it), because, in the end, it was still yours. It’s still your identity that’s been broken, and your identity doesn’t care about the nature of your love life.

In general, the more meaning and fulfillment you attached to your past relationship, and the more you were emotionally connected to your ex, the more empty and hopeless you feel once that relationship ends.

Ultimately, this “loss of meaning” is the central reason why any form of breakup hurts so damn much. 

WHY BREAKUPS HURT, REASON 2: social exclusion 

Humans are social animals by nature. We are hard-wired to form relationships with others, to feel safe, and not go insane. Creating sturdy relationships is vital for our mental health, emotional well-being, and general survival. (4) Just take a newborn, for instance. Would it survive without a caretaker to teach them how to live life? Probably not. 

There’s also a study that proves how indispensable meaningful relationships are to how we deal with life threats.

In short, some sciency dudes and dudettes got into examining the responses of 16 married women when they were threatened with an electric shock. And since this was an fMRI study, the women participants were hooked up to brain scanners that measured their responses to the electric threat.

There were three scenarios in which scientists measured the women’s brain activity. In the first scenario, 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 brain activity of the women engaged in scenario 1 (holding their husbands’ hand) was less active compared to the brain activity of women involved 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 and healthier the relationship between these two test subjects, the less the woman’s brain was affected by the electric shock threats. (5)

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. At that point, anything threatening elicits a way more notable emotional reaction from us than it would if we still had a partner to latch on to.

Breakup distress can also make our brain go into fight or flight mode. Sometimes it may also paralyze us from recovery. All three reactions lead to unfavorable outcomes, such as a lack of appetite, sleep, low motivation, obsessive thoughts, and heartache syndrome.

WHY BREAKUPS HURT, REASON 3: uncertainty and shame

One massive, yet unknown contributor to the gut-wrenching pain breakups deliver, are all the doubts and confusion encompassing the experience.

For instance, you might barrage yourself with questions, like, “why hasn’t my relationship worked,” “what have I done wrong?” “Why couldn’t my ex just be different?” As a result, you would conceal yourself in countless layers of bewilderment, confusion. As a result, you would become sulky and anxious. Later, these feelings would encourage you to engage in self-criticism and self-loathing. Then you would develop the beliefs that you’re not good enough. And in the end, if you couldn’t find a way to reverse the process, you could easily slip into depression.

But along with our confusion and shock, there’s also the feeling of shame we have to worry about.

We all feel a certain degree of shame around our breakups, especially if we’ve been dumped. Maybe in our minds, the relationship we had should be longer or even everlasting. But now that the reality is different from what we think should happen, we feel embarrassed.

For instance, we feel ashamed that we didn’t have what it takes to maintain the relationship for a certain period. We feel embarrassed that we got cheated on or taken advantage of. Or we feel ashamed AND guilty that we ended things so quickly when we should keep on fighting for our relationship (even when we deep down know that’s not the right thing to do).

The link between the emotional and physical pain of breakups

Imagine two scenarios. In the first one, you just spilled yourself with a burning Starbucks brew, and in the second one, you were shown a photo of the ex with whom your relationship recently ended. 

While on the surface level, these two scenarios seem quite different. But when we examine the underlying pain beneath each one, we can uncover a funny similarity: both of these nasty experiences activate the same kinds of brain processes and generate the identical sort of suffering.

And I’m not the only one stating this. There have even been numerous fMRI studies where scientists concluded that the same brain parts that are activated when we’re dealing with physical pain are also activated when dealing with the emotional pain of losing our romantic relationship. (6)(7) 

There were even studies done that backed up those studies! 

For instance, there was one where researchers found how our brain releases natural painkillers when we’re faced with rejection. These are the same painkillers released into our bodies amid physical pain.

Another evidence of the connection between the physical and emotional pain of breakups is hidden in our expressions. (8)

For instance, when we spill ourselves with boiling-hot coffee, we might curse at how much it hurts or say, “It felt like a slap in the face,” or “it burns like hell.” And when we get betrayed or heartbroken, we could say identical statements. The phrases we use to describe each type of pain, emotional or physical, are essentially the same. 

I also want to add that the above linguistic patterns are not exclusive to only English. Researchers proved that many cultures worldwide use the same or almost identical terminology to describe their emotional distress and physical pain.

So we can ultimately claim that a breakup causes emotional pain and physical pain, somewhat comparable to a hot coffee spill. However, keep in mind that the keyword here is comparable

Generally, consume all studies with a grain of salt since the author’s biasses often get the best of them and skew the end-results. And yes, this also goes for the content I write. No one is safe from their biases.

How to heal your post-breakup pain

1. SOCIALISE 

I reckon socializing may be difficult for you at the moment, especially if you’re fresh out of a breakup. But, you have to make yourself participate in life again, to avoid mental and spiritual stagnation. You have to participate in your own recovery.

In the words of Dr. Craig Sawchuk, “Socializing not only staves off feelings of loneliness, but also helps sharpen memory and cognitive skills, increases your sense of happiness and well-being, and may even help you live longer.” Dr. Sawchucuk also adds that connecting via technology works just as much as connecting in person.

And when you think about socializing after a breakup, it just makes sense. I mean, the reason heartbreak hurts so bad is because of social exclusion. So it’s reasonable to presuppose that we will naturally feel better if we get active again in our community or friend groups.

So go out, and do just that. Now is not the time to play the lone wolf.

2. Find something new to fill the void in your identity 

Since breakups make a chunky hole in your identity, it’s only sound to patch the wound up, right? But contrary to popular belief, I’m not trying to say, go and find another partner. That’s something you probably don’t want to do when you’re grieving. Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself into a short-lasting rebound relationship and, consequently, just prolong your suffering. Now, I’m also not recommending you go out on random dates. Relax.

What I’m recommending to you is to begin reshaping yourself (physically and emotionally), upgrading your core values, and finding a new sense of meaning and fulfillment in your life. One that’s not tied to any other person. In other words, work on yourself. Let that exploration act as a remedy for your post-breakup injuries.

For example, find a passion to pursue wholeheartedly – a purpose, if we can call it that. Find a cause to strive for. Get back to some old hobbies.

Just find something to give more fucks about than your damn breakup, and pursue that.

3. THE HOLY TRINITY

When dealing with self-criticisms, overly negative self-talk, obsessive thoughts, and grief in general, it’s good to turn to what I call the holy trinity. That is, meditation, journaling, and therapy. And while these three things are not a panacea, it’s proven that they contribute to far better emotional and mental health. (9)(10)(11)(12)

But now you might ask, how do these things help?

When it comes to meditation, we learn to separate our thoughts and feelings from reality and see them for what they are – just thoughts and feelings.

For instance, we might feel like shit, but by participating in the meditative act, we learn to observe this feeling is just a feeling and doesn’t necessarily mean anything. When we come to this point, we also learn how to avoid labeling our bad thoughts or feelings, and instead learn how to accept them and finally, let them go. Doing this somehow makes us feel better. We still don’t have much evidence on why this makes us feel better, but it does. And that’s all that matters, to be honest.

Journaling is similar to meditation. In its simplest form, it translates to writing our thoughts down on a piece of paper and non-judgmentally and objectively observing them. 

For example, you might feel that you’re a complete loser after your relationship failed, but when you actually write down, “I feel like a loser,” it’s way easier to be like, “Seriously? This is what I’m thinking? I might’ve fucked up one of my relationships, but that doesn’t make me a loser. I just made some mistakes. That’s it” 

When we engage in therapy, we vocalize our thoughts and have someone trustworthy judge them and occasionally give advice. 

And that’s pretty much it. 

It’s not about the framework a therapist, life coach, consultant, or any other professional uses. It’s not about the degrees they have or the fancy techniques they deploy. 

Again, the magic of therapy is in talking to someone who will listen, guide, and not judge what you’re going through.

Ultimately, the reason why all three of the above methods work so damn well is because they help us make our unconscious conscious. They expand our self-awareness and to make the subjective, less biased, and objective. And when that happens, we can begin to work on whatever issue we’re facing with more clarity and confidence. 

If you want to go deeper into exploring healing modalities such as meditation and journaling, here’s one massive article that will show you exactly how to start with both and give you additional tips on how to move on as quickly as possible.

And if you want your own dose of therapy, schedule a consultation with me. I’m not a licensed therapist, but I do incorporate many therapeutic techniques and exercises in my consulting and have a track record of getting my clients great results in their breakup recovery.

Footnotes

Slotter EB, Gardner WL, Finkel EJ. Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Feb;36(2):147-60. doi: 10.1177/0146167209352250. Epub 2009 Dec 15. PMID: 20008964.

Courtney M. Walsh & Lisa A. Neff (2018) We’re better when we blend: The benefits of couple identity fusion, Self and Identity, 17:5, 587-603, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2018.1430062

https://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-classic-Holocaust-ebook/dp/B00EKOC0HI/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1606036086&sr=1-1

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/

Coan JA, Schaefer HS, Davidson RJ. Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychol Sci. 2006 Dec;17(12):1032-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x. PMID: 17201784.

1 Field, Tiffany. (2011). Romantic Breakups, Heartbreak and Bereavement * —Romantic Breakups. Psychology. 02. 10.4236/psych.2011.24060. 

Macdonald, G. (2009). Social pain and hurt feelings. In P. J. Corr & G. Matthews (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personality psychology (p. 541–555). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511596544.034

Eisenberger, Naomi & Lieberman, Matthew & Williams, Kipling. (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science (New York, N.Y.). 302. 290-2. 10.1126/science.1089134.

Macdonald G, Leary MR. Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychol Bull. 2005 Mar;131(2):202-23. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.2.202. PMID: 15740417.

Livheim, F., Hayes, L., Ghaderi, A. et al. The Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Adolescent Mental Health: Swedish and Australian Pilot Outcomes. J Child Fam Stud 24, 1016–1030 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-014-9912-9

Smith, M. L., & Glass, G. V. (1977). Meta-analysis of psychotherapy outcome studies. American Psychologist, 32(9), 752–760. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.32.9.752

Chu, L.‐C. (2010), The benefits of meditation vis‐à‐vis emotional intelligence, perceived stress and negative mental health. Stress and Health, 26: 169-180. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.1289

Purcell, M. (2020). The Health Benefits of Journaling. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/

Bloodgood, M. (2016). Why do Breakups “Hurt?”.

1 Field, Tiffany. (2011). Romantic Breakups, Heartbreak and Bereavement * —Romantic Breakups. Psychology. 02. 10.4236/psych.2011.24060. 

Cover photo by AnatoFinnstark via DeviantArt