When Your Relationship Ends, What Happens in Your Brain?

New relationship research shows whose brain is least able to handle rejection.

Posted Jan 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

As everyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows, breaking up is not only hard to do, but painful. However, experiencing a breakup is an all-too-common feature of relationships, particularly those you form early in your adult life when you're still experimenting with intimacy. Eventually, you move on after such a breakup, but the learning process can be tough.

Even though many people don’t expect these “learning” relationships will last, not everyone reacts to the ending of these partnerships in the same way. One of the key factors that could affect the outcome of a breakup, according to relationship researchers, appears to be the individual’s attachment style. This quality of your approach to relationships reflects the sense of security that you have, in general, with the important people in your life. Based in large part on your earliest life experiences, when you were cared for by a parent or parent-like figure, attachment style carries into your adult romantic life. If you felt your parent could be trusted to want what’s best for you, then you’ll have that same confidence in your romantic partner.

By this logic, if your romantic partner decides to end a relationship, you’ll be able to recover much more quickly if you don’t let that breakup permeate your very sense of self. You might be hurt, but you’ll bounce back, because you know you can survive on your own. You’ll also avoid letting the experience cause you to feel that you’re defective and deserving of being treated badly.

According to a new study by Stellenbosch University’s (South Africa) Alberta van der Watt and colleagues (2021), there is a basis in the brain for the attachment bonds that people form throughout life. The areas most involved in these types of bonds include those associated with reward and motivation as well as the processing of memories. A rejection by an adult attachment figure, though never pleasant, could trigger responses in these areas that could be more pronounced in individuals who felt that they were constantly on the verge of losing their most important relationship.

To test these proposed links among rejection, attachment style, and the brain, the South African research team analyzed data from 4 previously-published studies conducted over the period 2014 to 2018 involving a total of 77 young adults (94% female) ranging from 19 to 29 years old. In three of the studies, participants were told to recall an actual rejection, and in the other one, they reacted to a hypothetical rejection.  During this exposure to the rejection stimulus, the researchers monitored brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In one study, for those reliving a past rejection, the researchers made the experience even more evocative by showing a photo of the ex-partner during the fMRI measurement.

The areas of the brain monitored by the research teams across the 4 studies included those involved in these three critical functions most relevant to relationships: 1. reward and romantic love; 2. pain, distress, and memory retrieval; and 3. emotional regulation and behavioral adaptation.

The findings showed that exposure to rejection led, overall, to increased activation in the areas involved in pain. Participants high in attachment anxiety, meaning that they were constantly primed to expect rejection, showed the strongest arousal in these areas. Thinking about rejection also triggered brain regions involved in memory, again particularly for those high in attachment anxiety.  As the authors noted, "In other words, rejection was more likely to trigger a flood of negative thoughts and feelings that anxiously attached individuals would have found difficult to ignore." This pattern of reliving the painful past could become the basis, the authors propose, for the "negative mental health sequelae" that can follow a romantic breakup.

Turning next to the areas of the brain involved in reward, the authors also found trends across the 4 studies suggesting why breakups are so difficult for the insecurely attached. In the study involving photos, the insecurely attached were especially likely to show spikes in both the reward and pain areas of the brain. Ordinarily, rewards and punishments are not associated with the same person, but when the rewarder is the same as the punisher, people high in attachment anxiety become flooded with conflicting emotions that they find difficult to resolve. Indeed, this set of dueling emotions could relate to the unhealthy tendency of anxiously attached people to stalk their exes on social media, the authors propose. 

To sum up, breakups in which you are the person who is rejected by a romantic partner may prove particularly difficult for your brain to process if you are unlucky enough to have an insecure attachment style. However, knowing that the struggles you experience following a rejection have a basis in the brain may help you take that first step of recognizing where those thoughts and emotions come from, and ultimately be able to use that experience to move on to more satisfying and rewarding relationships in the future.

References

van der Watt, A. S. J., Spies, G., Roos, A., Lesch, E., & Seedat, S. (2021). Functional neuroimaging of adult-to-adult romantic attachment separation, rejection, and loss: A systematic review. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings. doi:10.1007/s10880-020-09757-x