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The Hidden Shame of Romantic Heartbreak

Painful memories and unexpected opportunities.

Key points

  • The problem of heartbreak resides within our memories.
  • Post relationship grief involves universal response patterns of physical distress and emotional anguish.
  • Hidden shame often dominates the experience of romantic loss.
  • Old wounds can leave us with an intolerance of uncertainty.

Heartache is a way that humanity experiences the separation of the self from the other. When the unity of love is interrupted or ended we may become acutely aware of our vulnerability. Romantic separation can be considered an ambiguous loss since the person who is gone still exists among us. We may experience grief not only for the person we loved and lost but also for the fantasy of who we had thought or hoped the other could be. Love based on fantasy is often subject to the uncertainty that eventually accompanies it.

Heartbreaking Memories

The problem of heartbreak resides within our memories of emotional attachment to the person we lost. Exciting and enjoyable memories coupled with the anguish of loss keep the heartbroken person in pain. What haunts those who grieve from lost love is the ghost of everything good: Memories of desire and fulfillment. Distressing, angry, or bittersweet memories may temporarily hold positive memories at bay, but they represent our continued attachment. Negative emotions like anger, disappointment, or disgust do not signal the absence of love since all emotions make us care. Thus, to love is to care—to be emotionally invested in the other either positively or negatively. Indeed, the opposite of love is indifference.

The intensity of romantic heartbreak is roughly equivalent between men and women (Morris and Reiber, 201). Post relationship grief involves universal response patterns of physical distress and emotional anguish that may include anger, depression, anxiety, panic, worry, sadness, emotional numbness, nausea, sleep loss, loss of appetite, reduced immune system function, intrusive thoughts, and decreases in activity in brain regions linked to feeling, motivation, and concentration (Dürschlag, Hirzel & Sachser, 1998 ; Fisher, 2004; Morris & Reiber, 2011; Najib and Lorberbaum, 2004).

Whereas some people may disavow any wrongdoing for the demise of a relationship, others may self-blame or seek certainty for the separation decision. The anguish of circumstances where love is impossible or lost is sublimely expressed by the music, words, and vocal tones of numerous songs. The bereft may feel less alone in resonating with a song, since those who have lost love tend to silently hold their grief.

The Shame of Heartache

Hidden shame often dominates the experience of romantic loss, accompanied by a longing to restore what has been lost. The shame moods associated with relationship loss may become so toxic that they are perceived as depression (Nathanson, 1992). Shame is the emotion of indignity and alienation, felt as a sickness of the soul or as an inner torment (Tomkins, 2008). Such moments of shame leave us defeated, alienated, and lacking in dignity or worth (Nathanson, 1992).

We live through others and in them, so when another person turns away from us we become unseen in a sense that we may believe we cease to be (Campbell, Baumeister, Dhavale, & Tice, 2003). Some theorists have used the term “ego shock” or “cognitive shock” to refer to a state of psychological paralysis resulting from powerful blows to one’s self-esteem or pride, where we have an inability to think clearly and have shame-related thoughts that lead us to imagine our worst and most damaged self (Campbell, Baumeister, Dhavale, & Tice, 2003; Nathanson, 1992).

Recovering and Remembering

As humans, we have a capacity to recover from the wounds of heartache, but our memory system, which evolution designed to protect our future choices, does not seem to let us forget. Our brain actively engages with images of a remembered past. Memory can bring forth an earlier but unresolved experience of shame that may have involved a crushing betrayal or the recollection of an important personal relationship that had been surrendered.

Old wounds can leave us with intolerance of uncertainty that accompanies our vulnerability in seeking new love. Nevertheless, if we can recognize shame and our historical experience of it, we may use moments when the shame of a broken bond becomes an unexpected opportunity to look inside ourselves, to learn, or to make ourselves different.

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Campbell, W. K., Baumeister, R. F., Dhavale, D., & Tice, D. M. (2003). Responding to major threats to self-esteem: A preliminary, narrative study of ego-shock. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 22(1), 79–96.

Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. Henry Holt.

Morris, C. E., Reiber, C., & Roman, E. (2015). Quantitative sex differences in response to the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 9(4), 270–282.

Najib, A., Lorberbaum, J. P., Kose, S., Bohning, D. E., & George, M. S. (2004). Regional brain activity in women grieving a romantic relationship breakup. The American journal of psychiatry, 161(12), 2245–2256.

Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. W. W. Norton.

Sachser, N., Dürschlag, M., & Hirzel, D. (1998). Social relationships and the management of stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23, 891-904.

Tomkins, S. S. (2008). Affect imagery consciousness. Springer.

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