Why Breakups Are So Crushing for Some and So Easy for Others
3 reasons we get trapped in the past—and the way out.
Posted July 17, 2016
In the three years since Sabrina, now 29, and her boyfriend of one year parted ways, she remained heartbroken and unable to truly move on. While friends and family urged her to let the memory of her ex go, she secretly held out hope that one day he would return. He, on the other hand, had moved on swiftly after the split and began dating happily without giving her much thought at all.
Why do some suffer in the aftermath of a breakup, while others seem not only to survive, but thrive?
From a neurobiological perspective, as we now know, love in the brain is similar to addiction. When we fall in love, our brains are flooded with a host of "feel good" neurochemicals, including adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and, if the bond with our partner is particularly strong, oxytocin. These chemicals cause us to feel highly motivated to stay up at all hours of the night talking to the object of our affection, thinking about him or her for what seems like every minute of every day, and, of course, going to inexplicable lengths to do things we could have never possibly imagined doing for another human being. As the infamous Proclaimers song goes, "I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door."
However, as our relationship progresses and we begin to settle into daily life with our partner, those neurochemicals tend to settle, too. This is ultimately for the best: It would be quite costly to live a life where we think about our partner day in and day out; we'd never get anything done. Nevertheless, when a breakup occurs, our brains revert back to the heightened feelings of love we once had. This is because, without the love we've grown accustomed to, the reward center of our brain becomes desperate for the feedback it once received, and it continues releasing neurochemicals as a way to motivate us to re-attach. Without a partner, however, there is no reward. As a result, we feel terrible, even debilitating heartache, which the brain cannot separate from physical pain.
Why is this process so painful? From an evolutionary perspective, we are built to bond; it helps guarantee our survival as a species. And while we have evolved, these deep rooted parts of our brain have not. Losing a bond is painful so that we feel encouraged to avoid the pain, re-attach to another, and bond again. Still, the neuro-biological perspective doesn't particularly explain why some individuals move on from relationships with ease, despite going through a similar weaning process, while others remain addicted and heartbroken.
When it comes to broken relationships, barring abuse, trauma or mental illness, one major hindrance to moving on is the romanticized belief that there can only be one "true love" for us in the world. From this perspective, love occurs at first sight and it can conquer all. If we are wedded to the idea that there is only one person out there for us, and that we had found our soul mate in the man or woman who just broke up with us, overriding these deep-rooted beliefs about love can be a challenge. What can be particularly painful is not understanding that our former partner may have a different belief about love, seeing it less as a consequence of destiny and more as a process of growth, compatibility, and meeting each other's needs.
If you hold romanticized beliefs, one way to start the healing process after a breakup is to acknowledge that if your former partner were indeed your soul mate, then he or she likely would not have dissolved the relationship. Similarly, it can help to start reappraising your romanticized beliefs to think about love as a process which can be experienced multiple times with multiple people throughout the lifespan.
Another reason why we may hold onto old feelings may depend on our attachment style. Of the three main ways in which we can attach to another person romantically, those with an anxious attachment style (about 21 percent of the population) tend to be more dependent on their partners during a relationship and experience the greatest difficulty moving on. Even if the relationship was unhealthy, people with an anxious attachment style are more likely to ruminate and even stalk an ex, particularly if they were on the receiving end of the breakup. This hampers moving on, as psychological distance is crucial for a clean break. Deleting pictures, emails, texts, and the contact information of your past partner, and avoiding places which remind you of him or her can help. Reconnecting with old acquaintances, or making new friends (especially those who have secure attachment styles and can act as role models) can aid in adjusting your own attachment style, which research shows can change over time.
Lastly, because of the Zeigarnik effect—in which people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks more strongly than completed tasks—unfinished business can make it particularly difficult to move on. If you had discussed marriage, children, or future plans in great depth with your ex, it's a natural inclination to want to complete those tasks. Psychological closure can come by writing a final "goodbye" letter to the former partner and either sending it without expecting a response, or simply discarding it once written.
Breakups can be hard to bear, but there is hope for moving on.
Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. Macmillan.
Fisher, H. (2016). Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (Completely Revised and Updated with a New Introduction). WW Norton & Company.
Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2006). Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2173-2186.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of personality and social psychology, 52(3), 511.
Levine, a & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love. Penguin.
MacDonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychological bulletin, 131(2), 202.
Savitsky, K., Medvec, V. H., & Gilovich, T. (1997). Remembering and regretting: The Zeigarnik effect and the cognitive availability of regrettable actions and inactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(3), 248-257.
Wilcox, W. B., & Dew, J. (2010). Is love a flimsy foundation? Soul mate versus institutional models of marriage. Social Science Research, 39(5), 687-699.