The Blistering Break-Up

Getting dumped is shattering, but certain people suffer the effects of romantic rejection far more than do others. What makes getting the boot from a relationship extra hard for some? And what can help ease the pain?

By Lisa A. Phillips, published on May 4, 2015 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Daniel Ford had been buddies with Irene* since college, although it wasn’t until they were in their mid-30s that their friendship blossomed into a romance. Daniel was a computer programmer and artist, and Irene, the divorced mother of a 10-year-old boy. They lived hundreds of miles apart—he in Colorado, she in Arkansas. They kept in touch over warm, platonic email exchanges, though he never quite forgot the crush he’d had on her during their school days. When she came to his city for a professional convention, he took her out for dinner. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, and the spirit of the holiday stoked old feelings. Standing in front of her hotel later that night, he recalls, he kissed her with the passion of “a World War II sailor kissing his girl on the streets of New York.”

Not long after, Daniel visited Irene in Arkansas and knew they were in love. They enjoyed a week of beautiful drives in the country, deep conversations, and tenderly gratifying sex. He began to nurse fantasies about the two of them building a life together. During a second trip to see her, they seemed to grow even more intimate. After he returned home, however, Daniel sensed that Irene was becoming distant. He initiated most of their email exchanges and phone calls, and their conversations grew awkward. There was no mention of another visit on the horizon. He knew she had concerns about their geographical distance. On a deeper level, though, he intuited that she just wasn’t as drawn to him anymore. 

“I felt as if my superpower—my ability to be attractive to her—was gone,” he recalls. “That caused me to lose my confidence. As she withdrew, I was clinging.”

Daniel was devastated. He replayed his interactions with Irene over and over in his head, fixating on what went wrong. His therapist became so concerned about Daniel’s mental state that he gave him permission to call after hours. One night, Daniel telephoned him at 2 a.m. while feeling “unspeakably distraught.” The therapist told him to go to the nearest psychiatric emergency room. Sobbing uncontrollably, Daniel got into his car, drove to the hospital, and checked himself in. 

Why does being dumped have the power to hurt so much? Whether romantic rejection is articulated in a serious conversation, laid out in an email, curtly announced in a text message, or subtly signaled by a cold shoulder, one person’s unilateral turning away from a relationship can be torturous to the partner left behind. 

In part, the hurt stems from the same reason that all rejection is painful—because we are fundamentally social creatures whose lives depend on our connections to one another. The same impulses that bound our prehistoric ancestors together, lest they be banished from the fire circle and destined to die, are still hardwired into our brains. That’s why being refused a seat in the school cafeteria or getting turned down for a promotion at work pushes our most primal panic button. Social ostracization sends a subconscious signal that our survival is at stake.

On the continuum of rejection, romantic repudiation stands out as perhaps the most hurtful. Evolutionary psychologists chalk this up to the intrinsic human drive to perpetuate our genes— heterosexual pairs that stay together are more likely to reproduce and provide resources to their offspring, and the disruption of that possibility is thought to sound an internal alarm that our DNA might peter out if we don’t do something quickly about it. 

Even when childbearing isn’t in the picture, researchers say that we’re built to react strongly when a paramour takes leave. In landmark brain scans of people who suffered romantic rejection, Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher discovered that thinking about one’s beloved activates the same parts of the brain associated with addiction, motivation, and reward. Her work suggests that love itself is addictive and that rejection prompts a kind of neurochemical withdrawal, characterized by heightened anxiety and obsession.

“It’s a wonderful addiction when it’s going well and a perfectly terrible one when it’s going poorly,” Fisher says. “You feel a real, intense craving.”

Despite the severity of the affliction, most people ultimately deal with breakups pretty well, following a fairly predictable arc of mourning before moving on. Studies even show that we often thrive in the aftermath: A 2007 paper published in The Journal of Positive Psychology reported that by 11 weeks after a nonmarital breakup, nearly three-quarters of respondents felt a sense of personal growth from the split. Even for those undergoing a divorce, the period of acute pain typically abates “in a matter of months, not years,” says David Sbarra, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who researches the impact of breakups.

But for some, a romantic rejection can be unusually devastating. At its most extreme, it can drive people to suicide or homicide. Short of those extremes, Sbarra says that about 10 to 15 percent of spurned lovers “struggle mightily” when a relationship ends. Their distress is more intense and unabating. They are at a higher risk for major depression. Their health can suffer, and they may engage in dangerous behaviors like harassment or stalking. As heartbreak is increasingly recognized as a condition associated with real psychological and physical risks, researchers are getting closer to understanding why some people are more agonized by romantic rebuffs than others—and what circumstances can make some breakups especially shattering. 

Echoes Of Early Life?

Lakshmi* and Eric* met through mutual friends when they were in their mid-20s, and the first year of their relationship was easy and fun. Living in New York City, they worked office jobs by day and caroused around town at night. Then Eric got a job offer in Chicago, and they decided to move there together. Suddenly, with the typical stresses of establishing a life in a new place but without the familiarity and support of their shared social circle, they floundered. “We found ourselves relying on each other in a way that we hadn’t before, and our underlying psychological issues and limitations in intimacy started to emerge,” Lakshmi recalls. 

After 10 rocky months, September 11 happened and they returned to New York to be near loved ones. By then, their relationship was severely strained, with Eric increasingly pulling back. “There was definitely a dynamic of my wanting to make it work, but he was done,” Lakshmi says. 

Eric’s final detachment from the relationship triggered in Lakshmi what she describes as “an acute phase that was just, like, bonkers. I was in a constant state of panic to know if there was still a string between us. I would call him 10 times in a row and force him to interact with me. I was obsessed with hearing from him or being attached to him in any way. That allowed me to think, We’re still talking, we can get through this, but he would be like, ‘This is over.’ I knew that I was exhibiting strange behavior and a compulsive need for attention, but I just couldn’t control it.”

After several months of such unrelenting obsession, some of Lakshmi’s close friends told her she had to move on, that it had been going on too long, and, critically, that “this can’t be about him—this is something else in you that is hurting.” Lakshmi began to recognize that the pain she was suffering over the relationship had merged with her unresolved grief from the loss of her father, who had died when she was 10. “In my heart and soul, I kind of knew that,” she says. “My mechanism for loss was really faulty because my dad had died. The mourning of the relationship melded with all this panic and grief about my father, and I didn’t know how to distinguish the one from the other.”

Lakshmi’s experience underscores what researchers in the field of attachment theory believe about how our earliest experiences with parents and other caregivers influence the way we respond to breakups. If caretakers were available and responsive when we needed them—predominantly in infancy and early childhood, although the theory holds that close attachment figures are still essential in middle childhood—we are thought to be more likely to develop a secure attachment style in our interpersonal relationships as adults. We feel worthy of love, our partners serve as a secure base in our lives, and the end of a relationship doesn’t gravely affect our fundamental sense of ourselves. 

Alternately, insecure attachment styles may develop if early caretakers are not consistently available when needed—potentially including instances when a secure attachment bond is severed because of parental death. As adults, those with an anxious attachment style tend toward needier behavior in intimate relationships and have been found to have harder times when relationships end. 

In a 2003 study, Deborah Davis, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and her colleagues examined the role of attachment style in breakups. They found that attachment-related anxiety was associated with increased preoccupation with an ex and the loss of the relationship, greater physical and emotional distress, dramatic efforts to restore the relationship, and angry and vengeful behavior. 

People with an anxious attachment style “tried to romance their partners into coming back, and at the same time were very aggressive, telling lies about them, threatening them, stalking them, and even being violent,” she says. “This is largely a translation of infantile strategies for satisfying their needs into adult life.”

Even when people with an anxious attachment style don’t act out fiercely when dumped, their preoccupation with the lost relationship can have a significant impact on their health and well-being, putting them at an increased risk for chronic depression, sleeplessness, and high blood pressure. When they talk about their lost relationship, they tend to “focus on how terrible the breakup was over and over again,” says Sbarra, who has researched the impact of attachment style on blood pressure rate after marital separation. “They speak in an immediate, overinvolved, self-focused way: ‘This sucks, it feels so awful, I can’t believe she did this to me.’ It’s a very stuck narrative.” 
People with a secure attachment style, by contrast, will tend to speak about the lost relationship so as to help restore their emotional equilibrium, particularly over time. “They’re able to self-soothe by telling themselves, ‘I’ll be OK,’” Sbarra says.

Unfortunate Factors

If people’s attachment orientation informs how they handle romantic rejection, so too might their sense of self-worth—the essential value they place on themselves and the source on which that valuation is based. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that the more one’s self-worth depends on a relationship, the more suffering one is likely to feel when it’s over.

Brian Spitzberg and William Cupach, communication professors at San Diego State University and Illinois State University, respectively, have proposed that extreme reactions following the end of a relationship may stem from what’s known as goal linking. The lovelorn are essentially tying a crucial life goal, like their self-worth, to having or continuing a relationship with a particular partner. “They idealize that person as the solution to that higher-order goal,” Spitzberg says. “If that person rejects them, that frustrates the goal, which creates a cascade of other processes: stress, anger, rumination, an increase in effort.”

Beyond the role that self-worth plays in a person’s ability to weather the pain of rejection, the circumstances surrounding a relationship can also contribute a great deal. The degree of anguish experienced after being dumped can be affected by how committed a couple was to begin with or how long they were together. The experience of an additional recent personal loss, such as a death in the family or losing a job, can contribute to a heightened reaction to romantic rejection. If a breakup occurs in a relationship that was already situated within an antagonistic context, like family disapproval or a same-sex couple marginalized within an intolerant community, it may prompt greater suffering as well.

Depression also plays into how a person copes with rejection. To some extent, there’s a chicken-and-egg situation at work: While a breakup can bring on major depression, someone who already suffers from untreated depression is apt to have a harder time coping. A recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that after individuals endure a romantic rejection, the brains of those with untreated depression release fewer opioids in the neural regions regulating stress, mood, and motivation compared to nondepressed individuals.

Dumped partners’ perception of other romantic prospects also affects their ability to rally: With none on the horizon, they may be more likely to cling to the one they had and lost. Furthermore, the level of perceived emotional distress can be modulated by how clearly the relationship was defined. This is particularly true in today’s modern culture of dating, where the question of “what are we?” is often shrouded in ambiguity, leaving people particularly vulnerable to imagining a relationship as one thing while their partner considers it to be something else. 

Such was the case with David.* He met Anna* a few years ago through the dating site OkCupid and liked everything about her—her intellect, her politics, her aesthetic—plus, he says, “the sex was incredible.” They had been dating for eight months with nary a conflict when she came over one evening and told him, “This isn’t working for me.” 

He was stunned and gutted. Then, later that week, she showed up at his apartment and stayed the night.

“She had definitively broken up with me, but when she came back two days later, it was as if nothing had ever happened,” David recalls. They never discussed the incident, and resumed their relationship as it had previously been, with dinners out, weekend trips, and sleepovers at least three times a week.

A year and half went by before reality came crashing down on David, when Anna nonchalantly asked him why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He felt the air sucked from his lungs as he choked out an explanation—he thought she was his girlfriend—before he realized that to her, what they had was a friends-with-benefits arrangement. She reminded him of their earlier breakup and said, “You’re not my boyfriend. That’s not what’s happening here.” 

Anna cut herself off from David completely, and he was thrown into a months-long tailspin of overwhelming despair. “She was the only thing on my mind,” he says. “I was literally waiting around for her to call—I just didn’t believe that she wasn’t coming back. I would do passive-aggressive things like text her and ask if she was OK, and obviously not get a response. It was awful.” 

He eventually came to understand that the relationship’s lack of definition had laid the groundwork for his own painful rejection. And he had in some ways dug his own emotional grave, as it was his own fear of rejection that prevented him from broaching the subject of their relationship status much earlier in the game.

“I was probably in denial,” David said recently. “I tend to be very process-oriented, but I was so afraid of rejection and the truth that we weren’t really ‘going out’ that I didn’t bring it up. Two years later, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what went on, and I still have obsessive thoughts about her.”

The Pain Is Real

It’s common for the rejected to liken their lovelorn state to actual physical pain. Their hearts are “broken.” Their feelings are “hurt.” The breakup, they might say, “tore me apart.” As it turns out, these expressions aren’t mere metaphors. 

Naomi Eisenberger, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has studied the neural effects of physical pain and social pain—what we feel when our relationships or community ties are threatened—and found that social exclusion sparks activity in the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Her research also indicates the possible existence of a certain rejection-sensitive type of person who inherently reacts more intensely to both kinds of pain, and that this may have a genetic or biological basis. “People who are more sensitive to physical pain report feeling more rejected, and they show more pain-related neural activity in response to social exclusion,” she says.

Eisenberger’s findings not only underscore the nature of social pain as “real” pain but suggest a need to treat it with the same concern and attention that we use to address bodily wounds or disease. “When we see others experiencing physical pain, we’re empathic,” she says. “But when it comes to social pain, including pain from romantic rejection, we assume that they just need to get over it. We tend to be less respectful of people’s social pain, but these studies validate that there is something real going on. It’s not just in their head.”

Despite this kind of evidence, people in distress over a rejection still face a lot of misunderstanding. When Daniel’s heartbreak sent him to the psychiatric emergency room, he felt a bit of relief that “someone would take care of me.” But after being admitted, he was left alone all night on a gurney in a dark room—something he was sure wouldn’t have happened if he had come in with, say, a broken arm. In the morning, a psychiatrist finally showed up and dismissively said, “So, your girlfriend broke up with you and you’re going to commit suicide?” Along with now being saddled with thousands of dollars in medical bills, Daniel felt betrayed. He didn’t start to feel better until he found a new therapist who affirmed the seriousness of his ordeal. “When I told him the story, he said, ‘Well, she ripped your heart out!’ It was exactly what I needed to hear,” Daniel says. 

In some quarters, efforts are being made to legitimize the depth of suffering that romantic obsession and rejection can precipitate. Albert Wakin, a psychologist at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, has focused his attention on the subject of limerence, which he describes as a “variant of love” with characteristics of addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. First described by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the 1979 bestseller Love and Limerence, the phenomenon “is when a person is on your mind over 95 percent of the time,” Wakin says, noting that it can occur in an existing relationship but can also become exacerbated or triggered by a difficult breakup.

Like falling in love, the immediate period following a rejection can be an inherently obsessive time—which doesn’t necessarily qualify it as limerence. What distinguishes limerence is the intransigence of the obsessive feelings. “There are a lot of people who continue to have constant thoughts of the individual and that compelling, addictive draw for months, years, and even decades after the relationship is over,” Wakin says. For people who were already in limerent relationships, being dumped can become sheer agony as the obsessive feelings magnify—a phenomenon that Fisher calls “frustration attraction.” 

Wakin believes that the health care community could use a more specific diagnostic term and treatment protocols for such outsize romantic obsession. “A lot of doctors and mental health professionals tell their clients, ‘You just have to move on,’” he says. “They don’t understand it and don’t know what to do.”

Slouching Toward Survival

Whatever the reason that one might be extra sensitive to romantic rejection, there are ways to mitigate the agony and get back on track, as Michelle Lewis, a 34-year-old weight-loss counselor, learned when her relationship with her fiancé was falling apart.

He was becoming, as she describes it, “emotionally abusive” and increasingly distant, and it was propelling her to desperation. She blamed herself for his remoteness, obsessed over what he was thinking, and became consumed with figuring out what she could do to bring him closer. Eventually, she recalls, “I was driving around the city looking for him with no idea where he was. That was a breaking point. I realized my behavior was out of control.” 

With the help of a therapist, she began to realize that her thinking was distorted and that her fiancé’s withdrawal was not the result of her failure to be perfect. The technique she was taught, rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy, helped her identify and change the beliefs behind self-defeating thoughts, such as He’s the only man for me or I’ll never fall in love again. Indeed, many experts emphasize the need to redirect obsessive actions and thoughts away from the rejector. If you submit to the compulsion to send a text or look at that person’s Facebook page, it only increases the craving to reconnect and further fuels a misguided and self-defeating belief that you’ll get back together. 

“People think it’s cathartic to send an email or talk about their ex, but that’s a myth,” says Manhattan psychologist Jennifer Taitz. “Be a scientist and look at how that’s worked for you. If you don’t contact or talk about him, your feelings may pass faster and, more important, you’ll live better.”

Taitz recommends doing things that run counter to one’s obsessive impulses, which she acknowledges can be very hard. “It’s like a firefighter who runs into a burning building and is willing to endure flames to rescue a baby”—the baby in this case being one’s best interests and sense of self.

This kind of strategy eventually worked for 22-year-old newspaper reporter Jordan Wilkinson, although her path to success was long and lurching. After her ex left her, she was so shocked and despairing that she could barely get out of bed for a while. She eventually returned to work, while succumbing to what she describes as “random emotional breakdowns” when she would drive to a secluded spot and weep. “I was just always crying,” she says.

Around the one-year anniversary of his moving out, she decided to train for a half marathon. “I was ready to stop feeling sad and mopey,” she says. “The training helped me turn things around.” The race, not her ex, became her focus. “There were plenty of times during training when I’d have breakdowns about him, but having my workouts to look forward to was hugely important.” 

Exhausted and elated, her body thrummed with endorphins when she crossed the finish line of the 13-mile race. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she says. It was also one of the best. Her fixation on her ex was gone for good, with her regular runner’s high serving as a healthy replacement. “That was my turning point,” she says. “Running helped me get to a much better place.” 

*Names have been changed.

Rejection Relief

Being dumped can be excruciating, but there are proven ways to ameliorate the pain.

1. Reconnect with yourself 

Because so much of who we are is tied up in relationships,  psychologist David Sbarra says breakups often shatter our sense of identity. When you can once again answer fundamental questions, such as Who am I? Who are my friends? How should I spend my time?, you’re more likely to have a better overall sense of psychological well-being. “We start to feel better when we start to know ourselves again, not the other way around,” he says.

2. Cultivate self-love

Hard as it might be when you’ve been rejected, being compassionate and gentle with yourself is an important component of the recovery process, according to a study Sbarra made of people coping with divorce. He found that they bounce back faster when “they are kind and forgiving of what they did or did not do in their marriage and experience emotion without getting stuck in anger, sadness, or regret,” he says.

3. Break all ties

Taking a page from the addiction recovery playbook, experts strenuously recommend cutting off all contact with an ex. “It’s going to be painful as hell, but that’s the beginning of getting over it,” psychologist Albert Wakin says. Although it’s the last thing that obsessed lovers may want to hear, anthropologist Helen Fisher concurs: “Don’t call. Don’t write. Don’t ask friends about the person. Put any reminders in the back of a closet—if you’ve sworn off alcohol, you can’t have a bottle of vodka on the desk.”

4. Foster other attachments 

If social pain can sensitize us to the need for human attachment, use that as a motivation to reconnect with trusted loved ones—friends and family who made you feel loved before your relationship began. It’s surely not the same feeling you get from intimacy, but platonic connections can go a long way in soothing the social pain caused by rejection. 

5. Force yourself to have fun

Engage in activities that boost dopamine and serotonin, such as physical exercise and trying new things. Psychologist Audrey Sherman says anything self-soothing that takes your mind off the relationship, that feels good, and that isn’t destructive will be helpful. Other mood boosters could include going to the movies, dancing, reading, meditating, and spending a day at a spa. 

6. See a professional 

The postbreakup brain state, while undeniably unpleasant, nevertheless presents an ideal moment to seek therapy. Fisher’s research found that after a romantic rejection, people showed increased activity in the forebrain area associated with responding to gains and losses—a reflection of the rejected lover’s determination to figure out what happened to the relationship. “You’re already thinking: Why did he do this? What did I do wrong? ” she says. “You’re receptive.”

7. Try meds, maybe

If all else fails, people with particularly acute difficulties recovering from a breakup may find relief—at least for a limited time—with serotonin-boosting SSRIs. Fisher says, “They can help you sleep and calm down. They can help you think and act productively. In the short term, they can be useful.” But she cautions against staying on SSRIs for too long unless they’re indicated for another condition, such as chronic depression, lest you alter your brain’s essential attachment chemistry—potentially impeding your ability to fall in love again. 

Submit your response to this story to letters@psychologytoday.com (link sends e-mail). If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. For more stories like this one, subscribe to Psychology Today, where this piece originally appeared.

Facebook photo credit: Valery121283/Shutterstock