The broken hearts club

Dinsa Sachan talks to psychologists about their research on the effects of relationship break-up.

07 August 2018

Stan Tatkin was devastated by his divorce 19 years ago. ‘It was a loss I had not expected ever in my life,’ he says. Tatkin, now an assistant clinical professor at the department of family medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles, grieved and moved on. The experience of heartbreak informed his work.

At the time, he had been deeply immersed in learning about developmental neuroscience and bonding between babies and mothers. ‘When the divorce happened, I started to switch my concentration, because I was trying to figure out what happened,’ Tatkin recalls. He explored how childhood experiences, ones specifically pertaining to emotional conflicts with parents, affect individuals’ love lives later in life. That led Tatkin to his current career as a couples expert.

While Tatkin ultimately learned and benefited from his experience, the dissolution of a romantic union brings tremendous pain and trauma to many people. There is a huge body of research that shows that heartbreak and rejection can alter the course of people’s lives, often for the worse. But there is also evidence that humans are capable of weathering that storm and moving on.

The pain is real
A 20-year-old marriage collapses. A two-month summer fling comes to a screeching halt when the gap year ends. Someone cheats on their partner of two years. A person is in love and those feelings are unrequited. Heartbreak can result from a variety of romantic situations, but its experience has some universal characteristics. ‘It’s a terrible disappointment when you think you have something and it’s gone,’ says Stanley Charnofsky, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State University Northridge. ‘When you get married to someone, you don’t say “I do for four years”: you think you’re going to last a lifetime. But when it doesn’t, of course there’s disappointment.’ Charnofsky has been divorced for 30 years himself.

When a heartbroken person laments that they hurt, they mean it. A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and led by Ethan Kross showed that a romantic break-up activates brain areas that are associated with physical pain. The team scanned the participants’ brains using fMRI while they performed tasks. First off, they had to look at a picture of their ex, with whom they’d recently broken up, while thinking about them. Then they stared at a friend’s picture and reminisced about a positive episode with that person. Next up, the researchers plugged a thermal sensitivity device to their forearms. Sometimes, they received a painful but tolerable hot sensation that felt as if they were dipping their finger in hot water. Other times, they were given a moderately warm sensation. The scans showed the activated regions during the hot sensations were the same ones that lit up while they viewed their ex.

Perhaps the pleasure centres are equally important. Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher’s studies have shown that lovers tend to behave like drug and alcohol addicts in some ways. They experience cravings, sleeplessness and lack of appetite. Not surprisingly, the end of a romance, then, can result in a kind of withdrawal – obsessively calling their ex or begging for their love. One of Fisher’s studies showed that rejection activates some of the same areas that are involved in cocaine addiction.

In some people, heartbreak can even trigger mental illness. A University of Oregon study led by Scott Monroe found that adolescents are especially prone to depression after a break-up. Almost half of the respondents in the study developed depression for the first time after a break-up within the past year.

What stings most?
If a person is undergoing a painful divorce, colleagues and bosses often show empathy towards them and grant days off. But break-ups in unmarried relationships aren’t taken so seriously. People have to often put their feelings aside, plaster a fake smile on their face, and head to the office. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology followed 1300 people over a period of 20 months and found that break-ups in unmarried relationships caused significant distress and reduction of life satisfaction in 43 per cent of participants. Galena Rhoades, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver and the lead author of the study, says that cohabitation was a huge predictor in the decline of life satisfaction after a heartbreak. ‘People who are living together have a lot of the same constraints and structural issues to work through. They are more likely to have children and more likely to have to disentangle financial commitments.’ But that doesn’t make break-ups of couples who were not cohabiting less frustrating. ‘Emotionally it can be really hard to adjust, especially if the people who were dating saw a future for that relationship,’ says Rhoades.

One the other hand, a rejection can sting even more if a person is replaced by someone else immediately – or even before a formal break-up is announced. A study by Sebastian Deri and Emily Zitek, published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that people feel more rejected after comparative rejection (rejected for someone else) than a non-comparative split (not rejected for someone else). The study also found that if the cause of the break-up is not clear, people tend to assume there was infidelity involved.

A 2010 study by psychologist Erica Slotter, who was then at Northwestern University, shows that one reason break-ups are distressing is because they diminish the ‘self-concept’ of the person – they begin to question their own identity. ‘It’s me that was invested in you that I’ve lost. And in some ways I may not recapture that part again. It’s like this: you and I represent a unique combination that’s like a fingerprint… we cannot have that again because of the way you and I are,’ says Tatkin.

Two sides of the coin
Break-ups are rarely mutual. Typically, one person initiates it (dumper), and the other (dumpee) has to accept that decision. The dumpee and the dumper have two different experiences following the split. ‘The dumper is generally not as upset,’ says Tatkin. ‘They usually have a reason they want to get away from the relationship.’

Even if the dumpees had expected the split – they may have even wanted it – they tend to suffer more. ‘Because they are not making the choice, they tend to feel more of the pain. There’s a part of them that almost forever asks the question why,’ says Tatkin.

The dumper is also ahead of the dumpee in the grieving process. ‘The person that initiates the break-up has already processed many of the thoughts and the feelings related to that kind of separation and has looked forward to some extent – what is coming up in life, there may be a new relationship or a new lifestyle that is emerging,’ says Peter Kanaris, a clinical psychologist based in New York.

To make matters worse, not everyone discloses the real reasons for the break-up. ‘Whilst the motivation for this is to make the break-up easier – “it’s me, not you” – it often leads to more confusion and distress as the “dumpee” struggles to make sense of it,’ says Georgina Barnett, counselling psychologist and author of The Mottos: The Guiding Principles Behind Creating an Enchanting Relationship. ‘The person who is being rejected will often fall into irrational ways of thinking initially due to the intensity of their emotions.’

The vicious cycle of finding closure
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people who are deeply in love often overestimate the intensity of distress from a future break-up. Led by psychologist Paul Eastwick, then at Northwestern University, the research revealed that the actual emotional toll from the break-up was much less severe. People who were less in love with their partner (and were more often the ones to initiate the break-up) more accurately predicted the severity of the distress caused by the break-up. It goes to show that break-ups are sometimes not nearly as anguishing as we predict.

Yet, clinical psychologists observe plenty of unhealthy behaviour in their clients post break-up, such as drug and alcohol abuse. ‘Another bad choice is trying to get the other person to come back, and spending all your time trying to do that,’ says Tatkin. Some people, he says, use methods of fear and guilt such as a suicide threat or attempt as a tactic. Casual sex and rebound relationships become respite for some, Tatkin says. On the other hand, some people plunge into an ‘I’ll never get into a relationship’ kind of despair.

Tatkin, Kanaris and Charnofsky agree on one thing: reaching out for emotional support is one of the best ways to handle a heartbreak – at least, in the immediate aftermath of the event. But if that’s not enough, a person should seek a professional counsellor. ‘They can really wear out their family and friends by being that person who is constantly talking about the break-up,’ says Tatkin.’They need to protect those relationships from being overburdened from their obsessiveness.’ He likens heartbreak to a case of bad flu. ‘There’s nothing they can do about it. There’s nothing they can do to not feel that way – they have to ride through it,’ he says.

Many spend an inordinate time seeking ‘closure’. ‘The break-up can have the effect of shaking a person’s sense of reality and how they had formerly organised and understood their world,’ says Kanaris. ‘The search for closure is often an effort to gain an understanding of what happened and to regain equilibrium.’

Tatkin believes closure is a sticky proposition. ‘It’s subjective and can continue to be an itch that cannot be scratched,’ he explains. ‘Heartbreak never entirely goes away, does it? It fades into the background only to be tickled or poked by a memory.’ He advises people to focus more on grieving and processing their emotions – sadness, anger, fear – than on finding closure.

What’s personality got to do with it?
Different people cope with rejection differently – and their understanding of personality may influence it. In a series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Lauren Howe and Carol Dweck decided to investigate whether individuals’ views on personality change had any impact on how they dealt with heartbreak. They conducted five studies to explore this question. They asked participants to fill out a survey that had questions about personality change. For example, did they think that a person’s personality doesn’t change much over the course of a lifetime, or that everyone, no matter who they are, can significantly change their basic characteristics?

In some studies, the participants were asked to recall a past break-up that was painful. Then, they answered questions about the recency of this break-up, their current relationship status, and their beliefs about the break-up. For example, did they worry that there was something ‘wrong’ with them that prompted the rejection? Did they think that potential partners would believe they were undeserving of their affection because they were rejected? Would they hide the details about their break-up in future relationships?

The researchers found that the participants who believed that personality is fixed were more likely to believe that being rejected indicated that there was something wrong with them, and they were more likely to think that others, especially future partners, would think something is wrong with them. They were more likely to worry that they would face rejection in future unions. And, the studies found that endorsers of this type of personality mindset were less likely to take away positive lessons from the experience of rejection, like that it was a stepping stone to satisfying future relationships.

What makes these people so vulnerable? ‘They look at the things that happen to them in the world as evidence about what their traits are,’ says Howe, the lead author on the studies, who is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University Mind & Body Lab. ‘If you get a bad grade on a math test, that becomes a piece of evidence that you’re bad at math or maybe even that you’re not smart. So when it comes to rejection, when a person didn’t want to be with you, someone who has a fixed mindset about personality might think “oh, this is a piece of evidence that I’m undesirable”, and this might prompt them to start questioning who they are.’

Others agree with the findings. ‘It is possible to hold on to the pain as it is what keeps the person alive in our minds. I don’t know that it is ever possible to completely let go anyway,’ says London-based counselling psychologist Nikos Tsigaras. ‘But we can get stuck because we can’t bear to let go.’ He also adds some people can become defined by a break-up. ‘We could think ourselves as unlovable or not good enough, if the breakup is felt to confirm a terrible pre-existing suspicion about ourselves.’

Galena Rhoades’ life-satisfaction study also had a surprising finding that could point towards a personality connection. ‘We expected that people who had lower levels of relationship quality would see the break-up as relief,’ says Rhoades. ‘But, in fact, we found the opposite – people who had better, stronger relationships tended to have smaller declines in life satisfaction after the break-up.’ She speculates that individuals who tend to have happier relationships – or are happier people in general – may also tend to adjust to life changes better.

Does it get better?
When Scarlett O’Hara’s flamboyant third husband, Rhett Butler, walks out on her towards the end of the movie Gone with the Wind, O’Hara, true to her indomitable spirit, reassures herself: ‘After all, tomorrow is another day.’

It really is possible to move on. In a study published last year in Journal of Neuroscience, University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers led by Leonie Koban found that the placebo effect could help people deal with the break-up. Participants who had faced rejection were given a nasal spray. Half the people were told the spray would improve their emotional pain, while the other half were told it was
a saline solution.

The people in the first half reported feeling better emotionally as well as physically after the nasal spray treatment. Their brains showed increased activity in areas that regulated emotion and reduced activity in areas that felt pain. The authors noted that if someone assured themselves they were doing something about dealing with the break-up – socialising with friends, picking up a new skill and meditating – it could go a long way in their recovery. But, yes, they actually have to do those things.

There’s also reassurance that time heals from Helen Fisher’s rejection study – as time passed, the brain’s attachment centres showed less activity in spurned lovers.

Of course, the pain caused by a break-up can blind us to our own faults and role in the split. ‘People often need to move past the trauma of heartache before they can begin to reflect,’ says Georgina Barnett. ‘Many people say they do not fully understand why a relationship failed until months or years after the event. However, taking responsibility for how we may have contributed to the break-down of the relationship – provided this is done without self-blame, which is counter-productive – can empower us and give us faith in our ability to create a new relationship with another person.’

Sometimes though, if someone’s had a string of unsuccessful relationships, the biggest lesson perhaps is that they need to find better partners. ‘A breakup is often (but not always) a call to reflect on our partner choice and make more informed choices in the future,’ says Tsigaras. At other times, it is a reminder to address unresolved issues from the past.

The experience of heartbreak, many psychologists say, is a lot like bereavement. ‘We may all experience losses very early in our lives,’ says Tsigaras. ‘To loosely quote Freud, sometimes it is the loss of a parent or the loss of the parent’s love, or the loss of love from ourselves. If there are previous losses that have not been sufficiently mourned and worked through then a heartbreak could be felt to be a kind of repetition of those earlier losses.’

The two Stans – Tatkin and Charnofsky – reclaimed their lives after their heartbreaks. Tatkin, now 63, is happily married to his current wife, Tracey. Charnofsky, who is in his eighties, is ‘best friends’ with his ex-wife. They keep in touch via e-mail. They have children – and even grandchildren – that they are involved with. ‘We had heartbreak at one point, but now we’ve worked it through,’ says Charnofsky.

BOX: Friends or clean break?
To be friends with your ex or not? That’s an important question many people face after their split. Research led by Melinda Bullock (Saint Louis University) and published in the Journal of Social Psychology in 2011 found that people were more likely to end up being friends if their relationship with their ex had been satisfying. Even if the romantic union had to be dissolved, they found the ensuing friendship meaningful.

Friendship with an ex, however, can land you on murky terrain. Research published in Personality and Individual Differences found that some exes simply want to stay in touch for pragmatic reasons – sex and money. Justin Mogilski, a psychologist at Oakland University in Michigan and lead author of the study, identified a collection of reasons why people stay friends with their exes. He found that people who score higher on ‘dark personality’ traits – a collection of psychological features and tendencies characterised by impulsivity, willingness to exploit others for personal gain, aggression and self-aggrandisement – were more likely to report that they would find it important to stay friends with an ex for pragmatic reasons.

The idea of being friends after a break-up may sound appealing – I can’t have you, but I can still be friends with you – but this kind of camaraderie can be hard to maintain. ‘I don’t think every friendship will be as reciprocal or mutually gratifying as someone might hope,’ says Mogilski.

People need to ask themselves – why do I wish to be friends with an ex lover? ‘If both people are uninterested in a committed romantic relationship and are simply looking to be friends with benefits, then wanting to stay friends for sexual reasons may not cause much distress,’ Mogilski says. ‘But if ex-partners’ reasons for staying friends are discordant – one person hopes to rekindle the romance while the other just wants to be friends with someone who can fix their car – then this may lead to unrequited love or resentment when one partner doesn’t reciprocate.’

Barnett favours a clean break. ‘Generally, it is advisable to maintain a period of complete separation, at least initially, so as not to reignite distress, or to avoid the temptation of a temporary reunion only for the heartbroken person to find themselves rejected all over again,’ she says. But a clean break is often not possible, especially when children and co-ownership of a house are involved.

Australian relationship coach Marianne Vicelich observes that clean breaks, though recommended, are hard to achieve in the modern world. ‘Social media has changed the world of ex-relationships, and has made it difficult to make a clean break, to grieve and to move on,’ says Vicelich. ‘Thanks to social media, your exes will pop up on your screen at any time.’

- Dinsa Sachan is a freelance writer

Illustration: Ciaran Murphy