Why Breakups Hit Some People Harder than Others

The reasons may come from childhood. That doesn't mean they can't be overcome.

Posted Mar 29, 2016

Breakups aren’t easy for anyone, but have you ever noticed that some people seem to cope with them better than others? While some who’ve loved and lost are barely able to get out of bed, others appear to bounce back immediately. Of course, every relationship is unique, and when one ends, we can expect our emotions to reflect the specific circumstances. However, certain people have the inherent tendency to suffer from romantic loss more than others, and research suggests that this might have something to do with our attachment style.

Our attachment style is formed early in our lives, between us and our influential caretakers. These attachment patterns become internal working models that affect how we relate as adults in our romantic relationships. Securely attached children grow up feeling “safe, seen, and soothed,” according to Dr. Daniel Siegel, co-author of Parenting from the Inside Out. Insecure attachments can lead a child to one of three other attachment styles: avoidant, anxious. or disorganized. To understand how one's attachment style can influence reaction to a breakup, it’s helpful to know a little bit about each category:

  • Avoidant Attachment: An avoidant attachment can form when a parent is emotionally unavailable. Children in such an environment often learn that the best way to get their basic needs met is to act like they don’t have any. As an adult, they may form a dismissive avoidant attachment with a romantic partner, in which they have the tendency to act aloof or resistant to closeness.
  • Anxious Attachment: A child who forms an ambivalent or anxious style of attachment usually has a parent who is sometimes available and nurturing but other times insensitive or intrusive. These children learn that if they cling or stay focused on the parent, they eventually get their needs met. As adults, people with this pattern may form an anxious preoccupied attachment, in which they feel needy or even desperate toward their romantic partner.
  • Disorganized Attachment: A disorganized attachment forms when children are terrified or traumatized by the very person they turn to for safety, usually a parent. This type of attachment is common among children who have a parent who has unresolved trauma from his or her own childhood, causing him or her to act disorienting and alarming with the child at times of stress. Children raised in this environment cannot develop an organized way to get their basic needs met, because their parent is unpredictable. As adults, they may have a fearful avoidant attachment, leaving them caught in a bind; when a partner pulls away, they become afraid and act clingy, but when their partner comes toward them, they can also become distressed and retreat.

The attachment style we had as a child makes a difference in how we feel in our adult relationships. (See "How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship.") It informs who we choose to date, what triggers us, and how we interact and react with our partner. It’s easy to see how our attachment patterns might influence our feelings and behaviors in the course of a relationship, but it also affects how we feel when a relationship ends.

A Pace University study reported:

"[I]ndividuals measuring high in rejection sensitivity and anxious attachment style experienced the most adverse effects to romantic break-up and rejection.”

This is not surprising. Someone who forms an anxious preoccupied attachment is more likely to feel insecure or have deep fears of being rejected. In a certain sense, they may attach their identity to their partner. They don’t do this intentionally, but instinctively, because it can feel like a matter of survival. As a child, they had to cling to their parent to get their needs met, which at that time, was indeed a matter of survival. As adults, they may feel like their relationship gives them their sense of self, and so breaking up would mean losing themselves and not just their partner.

Our emotional reaction to breakups may have a lot to do with our attachment style and emotional intelligence, but the good news is that neither are fixed: We can develop a secure attachment and heighten our level of emotional intelligence at any age. One essential way to do this is by making sense of our story.*

One proven way to change one's attachment style is by forming an attachment with someone who had a more secure attachment style than we’ve experienced. We can also talk to a therapist, as the therapeutic relationship can help create a more secure attachment. We can continue to get to know ourselves through understanding our past experiences, allowing ourselves to make sense of—and feel the full pain of—our stories, then move forward as separate, differentiated adults. In doing this, we move through the world with an internal sense of security that helps us better withstand the natural hurts that life can bring.

As adults, we don’t have the same needs we had as a child, so when emotions like intense jealousy, insecurity, self-doubt and anxiety start to seep in, it’s valuable to think about where these feelings originated. When we feel stirred up in a relationship, knowing our attachment style can help us start to separate the past from the present. When a triggering event like a breakup occurs, we can make connections between our current emotions and the past relationships and events from which they have emerged. In doing this, we can free ourselves to feel more secure in our present lives. We can start to separate from the insecurities and self-protective defenses that served us as children but hurt us as adults.

We’ll soon learn that we can survive rejection without having to give up on love altogether. We can feel complete within ourselves, and continue to look for someone with whom we can feel secure.

* In "Making Sense of Your Story: Understanding Your Past to Liberate Your Present and Empower Your Future," an online course I’ll be co-leading with Dr. Daniel Siegel, we will talk about how creating a coherent narrative of our experiences can help us build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen our own personal sense of emotional resilience.

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