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The Most Common Causes of Heartbreak

The many causes of heartbreak include breakups, infidelity, and rejection.

Key points

  • Heartbreaks are very common—most people (over 80%) have had their hearts broken at some point in their lives.
  • Being in a state of heartbreak at the present time is associated with singlehood, neurotic tendencies, and anxious/avoidant attachment.
  • It is healthier to interpret heartbreak experiences positively (e.g., as catalysts for growth) than negatively (e.g., as revealing flaws).
 islandworks/Pixabay
Source: islandworks/Pixabay

Dunlop and colleagues, in a paper published in the March issue of Personal Relationships, review recent findings on heartbreak, especially romantic heartbreak. Though loneliness, unrequited love, and romantic relationship dissolution (i.e., breakup) have been examined previously, the present research is the first to focus specifically on the experience of a broken heart.

The heartbreak investigation: Sample and methods

Note, unless indicated otherwise, participants in the investigations described below were recruited from Amazon's Mechanical Turk and YouGov.

Study 1: 2000 individuals; 46% male; mean age, 48 years; 71% white.

Participants were asked if they ever had their hearts broken, and if this was also true presently. (Note, both these questions were posed again in all subsequent investigations.)

Study 2: 720; average age of 35 years; 47% male; 77% white; 78% in committed relationships. Those who answered yes to having experienced a romantic heartbreak were instructed to provide more details. The coding of the responses resulted in the following classification of the experiences of heartbreak, from most to least frequent:

  1. Breakup (mutual) 41%
  2. Infidelity (i.e., cheating, adultery) 27%
  3. Rejection (i.e., romantic interest not reciprocated) 15%
  4. Other romantic experiences (e.g., was not single at the same time as the potential partner) 11%
  5. Other non-romantic experiences (e.g., a pet dying) 6%

Study 3a: 194 undergraduates; 26% male; average age, 22 years; 43% Asian, 37% Latinx, and 19% white. The participating students completed the Big Five Inventory (BFI)—measuring the Big Five personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Study 3b: 864; 37 years old on average; 45% male, 78% white; 78% in a relationship. Big Five Inventory and the Experiences in Close Relationships measure (ECR) were administered. Sample items from ECR include, “I’m afraid I will lose my partner’s love” and “I find it difficult to depend on my romantic partners.”

Study 4a: 198; 45% male; 36 years old on average; 81% white; 80% in a romantic relationship. Aside from completing the BFI, individuals who had experienced a romantic heartbreak were asked to provide the story of their “most personally significant heartbreak.”

The narratives were coded in terms of whether the individual interpreted the heartbreak as indicative of self-growth (like having taught them a positive lesson or insight), self-deterioration (as revealing a flaw or having other negative effects on the person’s view of self), or no self-transformation at all.

An example of self-growth was, “I was devastated and destroyed but we both grew as people from it.” An example of self-deterioration was, “I now no longer feel like I can trust anyone.”

Study 4b: 405 undergraduates; 35% male; mean age of 19 years; 49% Asian, 41% Latinx, and 11% white. Individuals who had their hearts broken (presently or in the past) were asked to provide a story of the heartbreak. These stories were coded as in Study 4a. BFI and ECR were administered.

The heartbreak investigation: Results

Analysis of the results showed:

Most people (82%) have had their hearts broken. In most cases, the heartbreak was romantic in nature and occurred approximately at the age of 20 years. The prevalence of current heartbreak was 14%. The most common cause of heartbreak was a romantic breakup, while the least common cause was a non-romantic event (e.g., a pet dying).

No strong association was found between the reports of having experienced a broken heart and either gender, age, personality traits, attachment styles, or relationship status (being single vs. in a relationship).

However, being in a current state of heartbreak was associated with being single and showing a higher degree of neuroticism, avoidant attachment, and anxious attachment.

Examining the participants’ heartbreak stories, researchers concluded those who had experienced a broken heart but showed higher levels of attachment security—as opposed to low levels of attachment security (i.e., high anxious attachment, high avoidant attachment)—“tended to construe their previous heartbreak experiences as leading to some form of character growth, rather than deficiency.”

In other words, those with a secure attachment style framed their heartbreak experiences positively and optimistically—e.g., as helping them grow and become stronger, or as allowing them to learn useful lessons about themselves, relationships, and life.

DtheDelinquent/Pixabay
Source: DtheDelinquent/Pixabay

Takeaway

If you are currently in a state of heartbreak, do not think of it as indicative of bad luck or a personal flaw or failure. Why? Because heartbreak is common. In the present research, four in five participants reported having experienced heartbreak.

Indeed, having one’s heart broken may not be preventable; what is important is how we interpret the events associated with the experiences of heartbreak. Interpreting the cause of the heartbreak negatively, as due to a terrible personal fault or permanent flaw, might have many negative psychological consequences. It can undermine one’s self-worth, romantic competence, resilience, strength, and ability to trust and form relationships in the future.

Of course, we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering. However, to move on, it is useful to try to find something positive or helpful about the experience of heartbreak. For instance, to see how the heartbreak reveals useful information about oneself or the nature of relationships, is a catalyst for growth and development, motivates self-exploration, encourages forming healthier relationships, helps us find more stable ways of relating to things and people we value, etc.

And this is what some participants in the above investigations were able to do: “I [learned] to always keep my eyes on the prize, no matter what life throws at me.” Or, “I had to break my own heart and have him make that choice for myself to be free again to live and find my happiness.”

Naturally, seeing the positive may not be easy, particularly for highly neurotic people (and those with high anxious attachment or high avoidant attachment). Potentially helpful treatments for this population include various narrative-based interventions. Such therapies may help these patients reconstruct their heartbreak experiences in a way that their story is no longer one of a heartbreak exposing their character flaws and inherent deficiency. Their new heartbreak stories will instead highlight their agency and potential for emotional and psychological growth.

Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

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