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Healing a Broken Heart During the Pandemic

Three lessons learned from patients.

Key points

  • Heartbreak is a form of invisible loss that is often unacknowledged by others.
  • Pandemic breakups confront your identity and values but also offer an opportunity to reconnect with yourself.
  • Pandemic breakups can tempt further isolation. Instead, seek to reconnect with sources of emotional nourishment.

After a year since the beginning of society shutting down, we adjust to the resemblance of normalcy with an indescribable feeling of melancholy and hopefulness. The pandemic has upended the basic foundation of safety for many: the loss of loved ones, the uncertainty of jobs/financial stability, and a close stare-down with our existential truth in a year riddled with social isolation and loneliness.

Among the many forms of loss that patients are confronted with, some are left with a broken heart from the dissolution of an intimate relationship. Those who are dealing with the emotional aftermath of a breakup are likely neglected and find it difficult to reach out for help, as breakups are an invisible type of loss that can seem inconsequential when compared with death. Similar to the loss of normalcy during the pandemic, breakups are ambiguous in the sense that while we are not grieving the death of a partner, they are gone from our lives. How do we understand and navigate the loss of a relationship compounded by a society plagued with isolation? How do you reclaim the “I” from “Us?” There are a few lessons I have learned from my patients on how to cope with the emotional pain of a pandemic breakup.

RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

1. Pandemic breakups can feel insufferable but are ultimately survivable.

The experience of being in love triggers a wide range of emotional reactions: the all-consuming infatuation, the intense longing and desire, the comfort of the other's physical presence, and a sense of belonging. Some of my patients report having vivid and intense dreams of their ex-partners during the pandemic; others made remarks such as “I will only be able to move on when she/he tells me it was not all my fault.” Research has drawn a powerful parallel between addiction and romantic love, finding that the same reward circuit that is activated by substance addiction lights up when we are madly in love (Fisher, Xu, Aron, & Brown, 2016). Unsurprisingly, our minds and bodies go through intense periods of withdrawal when a relationship ends. In the case of cohabitation, the body remembers the presence of another person, longing for affection and comfort. Given that our social interactions are limited during the pandemic, for many people, partners become the primary source of social interaction and emotional support, which further exacerbates the emotional pain. The mind finds ways to make sense of the loss by reconstructing remnants of the relationship in the forms of dreams and daytime rumination. For those who experience a deep state of despair after a breakup, take comfort in the fact that these emotional states are temporary, as research on hedonic adaptation suggests that humans have a remarkable capacity to gradually adapt to both positive (e.g., winning the lottery) and negative events (e.g., illness, divorce; Lyubomirsky, 2011). While our emotional experience and subjective well-being may fluctuate at first, we eventually return to a near-neutral baseline.

2. Pandemic breakups confront your identity and values but also offer the opportunity to reconnect with yourself.

The end of a romantic relationship often induces a period of intense introspection or desire for personal growth and change. I have witnessed an increased urge from patients to change and grow post-breakup, from lifestyle modifications to career changes. While these changes are often positive, I invite you to reflect upon the underlying reasons propelling your momentum for change: Are you looking for a new job because your partner commented on you not being ambitious enough? Take some time to reflect on whether you are engaging in changes as a steady step towards your values and goals, or as a temporary fix to alleviate the emotional pain of rejection. For some, the anguish of romantic rejection can only be countered by guilt and self-blame. The human mind is a reason-seeking machine and it is quite normal to want to find the “cause” that led to a breakup; perhaps it provides a sense of control. However, this normally adaptive response may inflict more pain on the broken heart as more information may only fuel the mind’s unrelenting obsession to overanalyze every interaction and text exchange with ex-partners to make sense of the loss. Gently remind yourself that emotional pain is normal and elucidative. It is a bridge to connect with our vulnerability, the part of us that illuminates who we are.

3. Pandemic breakups can tempt further isolation. Instead, look toward reconnecting with your source of emotional nourishment.

Breakups often leave one feeling depleted and incomplete. An increasing body of research suggests that the visceral emotional pain people go through when socially isolated overlaps with physical pain (Dewall et al., 2010; Einsenberger, 2012). Some cope by temporarily escaping the pain through a substance or an immediate return to the dating scene. Others cope by reflecting and reconnecting with themselves, family, and friends. In contrast to a thriving relationship that functions as fertile ground for growth, a depleted relationship lacks the vital elements that support our emotional wellbeing. Just as we need nutritious food and attentive care during recovery from physical illness, you can heal the psychological pain of a breakup through emotional nourishment. Fight the urge to withdraw, and instead surround yourself with those who love and care about you, and find engagement in life by changing up your routine, adding variety (e.g., try a different restaurant) and creativity (e.g., new hobby). When patients talk about their urge to contact ex-partners, I often encourage them to consider the underlying unmet needs they are trying to fill and whether it is possible to meet them on their own.

The nature of love is paradoxical in that opening ourselves up to vulnerability enhances our ability to connect. Humans are relational creatures; the pain we experience during the loss of a relationship reflects the depth of our humanity and our capacity to love. Mourning a relationship during the pandemic is incredibly challenging, but know that you are not alone. Use your emotional pain as a compass to move toward your values, hold those you love close, and recognize that adversity expands the range of our resilience.

For those interested in learning more about how to recover from a breakup, I recommend Dr. Guy Winch’s TED Talk:

References

Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13(6), 421-434.

Fisher, H. E., Xu, X., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2016). Intense, passionate, romantic love: a natural addiction? How the fields that investigate romance and substance abuse can inform each other. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 687.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Hedonic adaptation to positive and negative experiences. Oxford University Press.

DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., ... & Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological science, 21(7), 931-937.

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