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Why Do Break-Ups Hurt?

Understanding attachment styles helps explain the pain.

The pain a break-up induces doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of the relationship. As a couple’s therapist, the question, “the relationship wasn’t that great, so why am I heart-broken?” is one that I hear often. The angst that a break-up causes is a result of several different factors which often relate to the concept of attachment.

Attachment is an individual's style of relating in a relationship that stems from their early experiences with a parent. If a parent was consistently responsive to a person's early needs, the person believes they are worthy of love. They have a secure sense of self and are able to access the deeper emotions because they are secure. For example, their experience of empathy allows them to be empathic. They are able to trust and understand their partner’s perspective and feelings. Caring deeply for their partner, they attach heartily.

Yet, if a person's early physical and emotional needs were not consistently responded to, the person does not believe they can trust. They resurrect extreme defense mechanisms in order to protect a fragile sense of self. They are often preoccupied with their own needs at the expense of their partner’s. Also, they exercise control and dominance in order to feel secure in the relationship. Frequently, this attachment style is referred to as avoidant or anxious. Due to extreme egocentrism, they put their needs first and attach superficially.

Regardless of attachment styles, a break up is a severing of an attachment. When two people attempt to get close, they share elements of who they are with each other. When both individuals are aware of what is important to the other person regarding who they are, and they validate those aspects, a bond begins to solidify. Feeling known, understood, and valued creates an attachment. When the attachment is severed by a break up, there is a loss of these feelings, which causes a vulnerability in a person’s sense of self. This leaves a person feeling isolated, confused, and sad. In essence, It’s not only the absence of their partner in their life, but it's also the deficit in their identity that a severed attachment creates. This experience evokes a good deal of emotional pain.

A second type of angst a break-up may cause occurs when the attachment is superficial for one person, but hearty for the other person. Essentially, the person with the avoidant or anxious attachment style pretends to know, care, and validate who the other person is in order to woo them and reel them in, but may not actually authentically care. It is more about manipulation in order to gain control. In this situation, the person that superficially attaches may sever the relationship easily and without a care. The person who attaches heartily, however, feels the loss profoundly. The hurt is then compounded when they become aware that their partner does not feel the loss significantly, and is able to move on without any trouble. Feelings of abandonment in this scenario may elicit intense emotional pain.

Moreover, if a person had a parent who had a superficial (avoidant) attachment style, the experience of being broken up with by someone who relates to them similar to their parent may reinforce old childhood wounds without the person's knowledge. This can be the most devastating of all emotions during a break up.

An additional nuance regarding this dynamic occurs when the person who attaches superficially relates to their partner as more of a possession than a human. Because this person attaches shallowly, they value their partner as an object meant to gratify them rather than a person with their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and perspectives. If the individual they are treating like an object, is capable of a hearty attachment, meaning they are empathic, introspective, accountable, remorseful, and have the ability to understand someone else's perspective, they may become tired of being treated as an object. Thus, after a certain amount of time, the person who is able to attach securely may feel compelled to sever the relationship because they are being mistreated. In this case, the superficially attached person usually feels rage while the partner who is equipped for healthy attachment feels guilt for attempting to leave the relationship. Guilt is a tough emotion to manage.

In many instances, a person with a secure attachment style develops hearty attachments to people in their partner’s life, such as friends, parents, siblings, and step-children. The severing of multiple attachments when the relationship ends may cause extreme strife and feelings of loss. They are not only losing one person, but multiple people in their support system. This is overwhelmingly devastating.

Also embedded in a break-up is a loss of future hopes and plans. Starting over is tough. Angst regarding the time invested in the relationship stings too. Realizing your perception of the person is false because they seemed like they really cared but ended up as hurtful and cold evokes emotional turmoil as well.

The amount of loss and pain a break up may cause makes sense if a person thinks about it in relation to attachment. A severed attachment may impact a person's sense of self, cause feelings of abandonment because of a childhood vulnerability, and create a loss of hope for the future, in addition to regret about the past. Finally, the break up may cause the loss of many other close attachments. These are difficult things for a person to deal with. People who feel heart broken after a break up are typically people who attach heartily and that is a valiant quality. Hang in there.

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