Nomar* was in love. He had never been happier. He and his girlfriend Marissa* were talking about moving in together and eventually getting married. For the first time in his life, he could imagine himself becoming a father. And then something seemed to go wrong: Marissa was tired and irritable when they were together. She didn’t want to spend as much time with him. She didn’t answer when he asked what was wrong. And suddenly, without warning, she told him that it was over. Nomar went from disbelief to incredible pain. It hurt to know that the woman he loved did not love him anymore. He fluctuated between rage and terrible sadness. And he missed Marissa, who had been his best friend, more than he could say.

Talia* and Jason* had been living together for almost two years. Talia wanted to get married and start a family. Jason said he wanted it too, but that they weren’t ready yet. “What will it take for us to be ready?” she asked. Jason could say only that he knew it wasn’t time. Six months later, he still wasn’t ready, and Talia decided that she had to break up with him. But she dreaded the pain and hurt she knew she would feel. It took her another six months to get up the courage to say goodbye. What she didn’t realize was that her decision would also hurt Jason. He sobbed when she told him she was leaving. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I love you. I just can’t marry you.” He never did explain why.

We all know that hearts don’t really break, but it can be hard to believe it when a relationship is ending. Not only can you feel a physical pain in your chest, where your heart seems to be cracking, but also you probably feel plenty of other pain as well—your head, stomach, maybe your whole body seems bruised and aching. And even your spirit or psyche, or whatever you call your emotional center, is reeling with pain. Just try telling yourself that it’s all in your head: The truth is, it isn’t.

Recent research has shown that we feel an emotional wound in the same way (and sometimes in the same part of our brain) as we feel physical injury. In fact, phrases like “broken heart," “wounded spirit,” or “hurt feelings” are not simply metaphors. According to a group of researchers headed by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, evidence shows that emotional pain activates the same part of your brain as physical pain. (See the terrific blogs by my PT colleagues Peg Streep and Melanie Greenberg on some of the fascinating research into the physical connections to emotional pain.)

So what does this mean about recovering from the breakup of a relationship?

First, it means recognizing that you are suffering from an injury. These steps toward recovery are based on physician-recommended procedures for healing from a physical injury.

  1. Allow yourself time to heal. Get enough rest. And feed yourself well, even if you don't feel much like eating. Food nourishes your body, and this is a time that your body needs nourishment to repair itself. When you are physically injured, you are often told to stay off of the injured part of your body for a period of time. According to the Mayo Clinic, both mental exertion and a too-soon return to physical activity after a brain injury (such as a concussion) can worsen symptoms and puts the injured person at risk of potentially permanent damage. The same can be true for the pain of a breakup. Sometimes it seems as though an emotional injury doesn’t get credit for being as painful as it is. When there’s a physical sign of distress—a cast or a sling or crutches—we get a lot of sympathy. But while people may be sympathetic about the pain of a breakup for a while, they often want us to "get over it" before we're actually are healed. Remind yourself—and maybe gently remind your well-intentioned family or friends—that, like physical injuries, emotional injuries need time.
  2. So what’s the equivalent of resuming physical activity after a breakup? Dating? Not exactly. That would be like going back to running five miles after you’ve been off a broken leg for six weeks. Just as with physical exercise, it’s important to start back slowly and carefully, to give your body and your psyche a chance to get used to the activity. You need to rebuild your feeling muscles just as you would your physical muscles. Maybe start with a quiet evening with friends, or a drink with an old buddy. See how it feels, and when you feel ready, try a larger social event.
  3. When you do start dating again, be prepared for some anxiety and discomfort. It’s natural to be guarded in these situations. You’re going to have a fear of being hurt again. Slow and easy is the way to move forward, just as you would if you were increasing your exercise regimen after hurting yourself. I actually encourage people I work with to share with dates that they are just getting over a breakup. Some counselors disagree with this advice, but my thinking is that saying it gives you a little more leeway to go even more slowly. It’s like saying that you just got a cast taken off your leg, so you can’t run full out right now. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to in the near future. Sure, it might scare some potential dates away; but my feeling is that they might not have been the best match for you at this point in your recovery anyway.
  4. Eventually, you will notice that you are genuinely feeling better. One danger of this stage is that you may have gotten too comfortable in your recovery position. Maybe you’re afraid to take a chance. Maybe you’ve gotten comfortable feeling sorry for yourself or focusing on your anger at your old partner. These thoughts and feelings can keep you stuck, when you’re actually ready to move on. Some honest soul-searching can help you move on. Are you afraid of repeating old patterns? Are you ready to make some changes in how you approach dating and relationships? Use this time to assess your real hopes and desires about a relationship. Now is a good time to make a realistic appraisal of what went wrong with the relationship that just ended. Did you miss early signs that something was amiss? Can you take responsibility for your own part in the difficulties? What can you do differently this time? And what can you ask from your next partner that maybe you didn’t let yourself put out there with the last one? 
  5. Once you have healed, let go of the old relationship. You’re ready to move toward a new one, but chances are good that you won’t encounter the “right” person immediately. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet new people—maybe some you wouldn’t have ever gotten to know otherwise. Learn something new and return to old pleasures. Don’t make snap decisions and don’t jump into something just because it feels comfortable—or because it feels different. 
  6. Remember that injuries can lead to growth and new directions. Take your healthy heart out into the world and find yourself a new and healthy relationship.

Copyright @ F. Diane Barth 2014

Readings

Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, Tor D. Wager. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 April 12; 108(15): 6270–6275. Published online 2011 March 28. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102693108  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3076808/ PMCID: PMC3076808  Accessed November 1, 2014

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