How Dangerous Is a Broken Heart?
New research explores the link between relationship breakup and suicide.
Posted Nov 30, 2017
“The broken heart. You think you will die, but you keep living, day after day after terrible day.” —Charles Dickens
According to Centers For Disease Control statistics, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with an estimated 44,193 Americans killing themselves each year. But that may well be the tip of the iceberg, considering that only one in 25 suicide attempts will actually be fatal. In addition, there may be no way to tell how many deaths believed to be due to natural causes or accidents are actually suicides. Still, while health statistics confirm that more people than ever are attempting suicide, advances in emergency medicine and new research into the psychological roots of suicide may succeed in reversing this trend.
Among the different risk factors for suicide identified by researchers, relationship or marital problems seem to stand out in particular. Not only are people dealing with relationship abuse or emotional conflict at particular risk for suicide attempts, but studies also show that terminating a relationship can boost suicide risk as well. In the same way that being in a committed relationship helps protect against stress or depression, this same sense of commitment may become dangerous once that relationship dissolves. Since any romantic relationship requires a significant investment of time, emotional bonding, shared friendship, and property, the sudden end of any relationship can have serious consequences.
According to attachment theory, the attachment adults feel towards their romantic partners greatly resembles the attachment an infant feels for his/her mother. For example, people look to their romantic partners for security, comfort, and close physical contact. In fact, adults who have been in a long-term committed relationship often find that all other emotional bonds become less important. As a result, this kind of relationship bond becomes an essential part of their sense of identity, especially in relationships lasting for many years. And so, when the relationship ends, it means losing the sense of identity and security that a committed relationship provides. Not only do they become emotionally vulnerable and depressed, they may also be at greater risk for suicide.
Unfortunately, while there have been numerous research studies showing that relationship loss is a strong risk factor for depression and other emotional problems, there has been relatively little looking at suicide risk and relationship breakups. With this in mind, a new study published in the journal Crisis examines the impact that relationship breakups can have on depression and suicide.
Conducted by Heather Love and a team of fellow researchers at Purdue and Kansas State University, the study was based on 208 adults recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 64 and reported experiencing a romantic breakup in the previous three months. The three-month cut-off period was used to allow enough time for people to become aware of the symptoms or feelings they were experiencing after the breakup.
Along with providing demographic information—as well as information about the relationship itself (how long it lasted, etc.)—all participants completed standardized questionnaires measuring suicide risk, depression, and level of perceived self-efficacy. They also completed the Commitment subscale of the Investment Model Scale. With items such as “I want[ed] our relationship to last for a very long time,” this seven-item subscale allowed participants to describe the level of commitment they had in their relationship before it ended. Participants also completed items from the Investment subscale to describe the amount of time and emotional investment they had in the relationship.
As expected, participants reporting a strong level of commitment and investment in the former relationship also reported significant levels of depression following the breakup. The breakup/depression link held up even when length of the relationship, the age of the participant, and level of perceived self-efficacy were all taken into account. Not surprisingly, there was also a significant correlation between level of depression and suicide risk (though no direct link between relationship commitment and suicide risk was found unless it was also accompanied by depression).
Heather Love and her co-authors admit that this study has limitations, especially since they didn't really look at the kind of reasons people had for ending a relationship and whether that makes a difference in terms of the emotions experienced afterward. There is also the question of causality: Is the depression the result of the relationship breakup or did preexisting depression cause the relationship to break up? These are important questions that need to be considered in future research.
Still, the results of this study show that people ending a serious relationship, especially one in which they had invested significant time and emotional commitment, may be especially prone to emotional problems, particularly depression. This, in turn, may also put them at a higher risk for suicide. Though the link between depression and suicide has been long established, it may also be important to consider relationship commitment and investment, as well as how people deal with a relationship that has come to an end.
As you can see, while a broken heart doesn't necessarily lead to suicide on its own, it may certainly make people more susceptible to emotional problems such as depression. Whether depression can make people more suicidal often depends on the kind of inner resources they have available, the presence of additional mental health problems, and the emotional support they receive afterward. It also means that people dealing with a breakup should consider mental health counseling to help them cope, especially if they were deeply committed to the relationship and are having difficulty with its end.
As you can see, the Wizard of Oz’s familiar adage that “hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable” remains as true as ever. For many people, however, it is essential to recognize the potential dangers that can come from a breakup and get help if they need it so they can truly move on afterward.
Love, H. A., Nalbone, D. P., Hecker, L. L., Sweeney, K. A., & Dharnidharka, P. (2017, October 20). Suicidal Risk Following the Termination of Romantic Relationships. Crisis. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000484