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Why are breakups so painful?
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Why are breakups so painful?

[6 Minute Read]

Hello, friend. If you're here, I'm assuming it's because you're either 1) going through a painful breakup or 2) a big brain nerd like me, curious how the mind works when you're experiencing heartbreak. Perhaps you're even 3) all of the above.

The good news is that your curiousity is about to reward you with knowledge that will hopefully make your experience a little easier to go through and help you be less critical of yourself. At the very least, you'll better understand what processes in your brain are contributing to your painful feelings.

Parts of what I dive into in this article were learned from the book Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love" by marriage and family therapist and licensed psychologist Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. It (and she) is fantastic and I highly recommend it! Other sources are cited at the bottom of the article.

Note that this article uses language that suggests that love and breakups are similar to addiction in some ways. This is in no way intended to minimize the actual struggles of addiction.

Why do things fall apart?

Sometimes a split is necessary, even if it feels like your soul is being ripped into a million pieces. Regardless of who did the "breaking up", you're mourning the end of something that mattered to you (even if you can't fully explain why it mattered so much). You might even feel a sense of relief, but you just can't let go, and you can't figure out why.

The "why" may be complicated, since each relationship is unique. Maybe your partner reminded you of a happier time in your life. Maybe you were playing out ingrained childhood patterns with this person. Maybe you were trying to "fix" something in yourself using this person, Maybe you felt like, for once, someone truly needed you or gave you a chance to experience something you never had before. Maybe you simply felt wonderful in their presence, and you were swept up in the euphoria that love brings.

Let's start off by affirming something: you're right where you need to be. Seriously. It may not feel like it. You're probably convinced that your ex is 10x happier, jet setting with their new partner or soaking in the wild joys of singleness, while you're slowly becoming one with your bed and drowning in feelings that will never go away.

But let me just say...

Being a mess right now is completely normal. Let it happen.

Ruminating, obsessing, bursting into tears, and feeling hopeless are all normal responses to heartbreak.

Heartbreak is not unlike grief. It comes in waves and stages, and we feel our worst when we tell ourselves that we should "just get over it". In fact, many people don't really give themselves the grace and compassion they truly deserve when it comes to "getting over it".

Humans bond - or form attachments - with others. You're hurting right now because you're a biologically healthy person who formed an attachment to another person. That bond was broken, and you feel pain. This is totally normal and a very healthy response to heartbreak.

Treating the end of your relationship like a process of grieving is much more natural and gives you the space to truly process and move through the feelings without pushing them down (I designed my Heart Mender deck for this exact reason!). Respecting your need to let go on your own time is a key part of healing.

 Picture of Vox Intra's Heart Mender breakup recovery deck. Text reads: "Picture of Vox Intra's Heart Mender breakup recovery deck"

Part of the reason for your pain is something known as Attachment

Ever pine for someone who didn't want you back? That's attachment theory at play.

Attachment is a theory that was developed by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (and later researched and expanded upon by developmental psychologist Marie Ainsworth and other attachment theorists).

Bowlby worked at an orphanage and observed maternal deprivation in young children. His observations led him to developing a theory that strong bonds are created in early development between children and caregivers. The quality of these bonds can determine how we develop or sustain personal relationships in adulthood.

There are four types of recognized attachment styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Disorganized. People who have Anxious, Avoidant, or Disorganized styles experience patterns of difficulty in relationships (especially if partnered with someone else who has one of those styles).

Relationships can feel like a constant "push and pull", where one partner is pursuing the other, or only receives affection once they give up their pursuit. Intimacy may feel difficult to achieve. There's also a kind of magnetism at work here; Anxious and Avoidant styles frequently end up together in a kind of "perfect storm" of relational anxiety.

By contrast, securely attached partners are comfortable giving and receiving affection, as well as working through issues with their partners. They see the benefits of being in a relationship and are able to maintain a sense of individuality while enjoying the closeness in their relationship.

This article doesn't delve into the nuances of attachment theory specifically, so we'll leave it there for now. The point is that your attachment style can greatly contribute both to your separation and your anguish afterwards. I'll leave a link to an attachment style quiz at the bottom of this article if you're curious about yours.

The other reason is because our brains become "addicted" to love

Love may feel mystical and impossible to explain but, chemically, it's the result of hormones and neurotransmitters that have had their settings dialed up to 10.

"Love" is the original addictive substance. Before drugs, before caffeine, before Netflix binging, there was love. It seeps into our brains, releases potent chemicals, and activates processes that are chemically similar to addiction.

Love floods your brain with dopamine. At the same time, your body decreases its production of serotonin. This may seem counter-intuitive, since a lack of serotonin is associated with feelings of depression, but the drop in this chemical actually increases our sexual drive to be with our partner.

In 2008, Dr. Helen Fisher and a team of researchers studied the brain activity of people who looked at pictures of their lover. The brain centers associated with pleasurable rewards and goal-directed behavior—the ventral tangential area and the caudate nucleus accumbens - lit up while they looked at the photos. These areas play a key role in addiction pathways. It's no coincidence that falling in (and out of love) feels similar to a kind of "high".

If that wasn't enough, physical closeness opens the floodgates to even more hormones. When we're physically close to the object of our affection, the brain is flooded by both oxytocin and vasopressin, generating the desire to guard one’s partner and creating feelings of attachment. [1]

Vasopressin also contributes to the feeling of missing someone when they're away and encourages feelings of loyalty and territoriality in males.

One study looked at what happened when vasopressin was suppressed in prairie voles, and the normally monogamous animals began to cheat on their partners. [2]

Of course, voles are not human beings. This doesn't mean that you must be physically close to your partner at all times to ensure loyalty or affection. Unlike voles, we can understand that our partner being away from us temporarily does not mean that they no longer love us or are interested in us. (In fact, there's a great article that expands on that idea here. Save it for a future read!). But, the intensity of feelings such as loneliness or sadness when they are away is similar.

The same brain pathways activate when we're "coming down" from the high of love, impacting our ability to regulate our behavior. We act in irrational ways. We become obsessed with thoughts of the other person. We have difficulty controlling our impulses and our emotions.

This sounds awful. Is falling in love "bad"?

Not. At. All.

If you happen to become "addicted" to (or, in love with) a person who is capable of loving you back in a healthy way, then you've got a recipe for a successful, lasting relationship, with ups and downs that you both can weather through effort, respect, and compassion.

If one or both of you happen to have attachment issues, major incompatibilities, or your love is not returned then you have a a forecast for a rocky relationship - with a strong chance of heartbreak and disappointment.

So what the heck do I have to do to have a great relationship!?

Your best bet? Love yourself. Work on yourself. Put in the time to heal yourself. Nourish yourself emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Address distortions in thinking when it comes to relationships. If time and money allows, look into therapy for guidance. This can be especially helpful when dealing with attachment issues or difficulty managing strong emotions. Vox Intra decks are also a great place to begin if you're just starting to get curious about your inner world.

With time and effort, you'll cultivate the mindset that you deserve a healthy, loving relationship. You'll also nurture love and compassion for yourself. This self-confidence and belief in your own inherent worth will translate into forming bonds with and being attracted to healthier people, kinder people - people who can show you the kind of love and respect that you've always been worthy of. It may not be an easy road, but it's one that is worth traveling.

Be well, friend. You're not on this journey alone, and you'll get through it, one step at a time.


You may also be interested in the following:

5 Tips for Getting Over a Breakup

How Do We Tough Out Conflict in Relationships?

Take the quiz here to find out your attachment style*

(*Note that, even if you're generally securely attached, a less secure partner can cause you to lean into a less secure style due to the dynamic of your relationship. Relationships are systems, meaning that our actions and behaviors often influence each other. Taking this quiz right after a breakup may not give you the most accurate picture of your style, so also consider taking it after you've taken the time to heal and feel like you're in a better place emotionally).


Sources cited:





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