Why Breaking Up Is So Hard To Do

Reasons for a break-up vary from couple to couple, but one thing is universal: They’re never easy.(Photo: Tumblr)

Virtually everyone goes through a break-up at one point or another in their lives — and it’s never easy. If you’re the dumpee, the sudden absence gives you space to question and wonder where the relationship went wrong. If you’re the dumper, the sudden absence gives you space to question and wonder if the relationship was really as bad as you thought it was.

Emotionally, it’s confusing to process. Mentally, we start missing our old way of life with our ex — who makes great chocolate-chip pancakes for Saturday morning brunch, and always knows what to say after a collapse at work. Physically, we start feeling a deep-seated ache in our chest, too. All in all, most of us don’t take break-ups so well — and usually contemplate crawling back to our exes and asking for a second chance at least once or twice.

Scientific Support Of The Rough Break-Up

In a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists scanned the brains of men and women who’d just been “intensely rejected.” The researchers did this twice: the first imaging session looked at participants’ brains as they viewed pictures of their exes, and the second session looked at their brains while they were receiving “noxious thermal stimulation” — basically, the pain-threshold equivalent of being stabbed with a red-hot poker in a lab setting.

When the research was published, study co-author Edward Smith of Columbia University called the results “beautiful” in the LA Times. Scientifically speaking, it sort of was, because the results were about as clear-cut they come: The researchers saw “neural overlap” between physical and emotional pain in two key brain regions that were, before, only assumed to be associated with physical pain. The heightened activity, both while participants gazed at their exes’ photos and while they were being “scalded” by the lab poker, was virtually identical.

The study showed the brain does not differentiate between physical and emotional pain. When you break up with your partner, it really hurts.

Related: What Your Reaction After A Fight Says About Your Relationship

Not only is breaking up painful, research also shows that it’s hard to do in a lot of respects. A 2010 Rutgers University study conducted by Helen Fisher, PhD, a biological anthropologist and chief scientific advisor for Match.com, showed that the mind does not easily let go of a partner, even if we’ve already said goodbye.

Fisher and her team were actually the first to scan the brains of men and women who’d just been dumped. To gauge their reactions, the poor souls were asked to look at photos of the guys and gals who’d justlaid waste to their hearts. (They deserve ice cream and pats on the backs, right?)

While checking out the images, researchers found increased activity in several brain regions. One system was associated with calculating gains and losses — conjuring thoughts of “What went wrong?” and “What have I lost?” Other brain regions were associated with deep attachment to another individual and willingness to take risks. And yet another system was known as the brain’s reward center — which means there’s an increase in motivation, focus and craving. Notably, this region of the brain is also linked to addictions like that of cocaine, gambling, and food.

That’s why letting go is so hard, says Fisher. You’re going through confusing, emotionally fueled bouts of withdrawal. “Romantic love is an addiction,” Fisher explains to Yahoo Health. “And when you can’t get what you want, it only gets worse.”


"The brain activity we saw shows that, after a break-up, people love harder, their attachment grows deeper, they’re craving the person they lost, they’re confused about what went wrong, and they’re experiencing physical pain like that of an intense toothache,” Fisher says. Ouch.

The Stages Of A Break-Up

Fisher has found there are two basic stages of a break-up — and these are especially pronounced if you’re the dumpee and feel the most dejected. The first is protest, and the second is resignation. “In the initial stage, protest, you fight to win the person back,” says Fisher. “This could mean acting seductive in his presence, or becoming jealous and possessive. Basically, you’re running in circles.”

Then you enter the resignation stage, where you realize it’s really, truly over. In other words: “Despair,” says Fisher. “You sink into a complete funk.”

This phase is where the healing begins, but it can be hard and long. Another reason the post-break-up fallout is so tough? Because we lose part of our identities when the relationship ends, says Jennifer Jill Harman, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University, who studies intimate relationships.

Related: Can 36 Questions Make You Fall in Love — With Anyone?

“As we become more intimate with a romantic partner, we start to integrate them and the relationship into our social identity,” Harman tells Yahoo Health. “We go from ‘me’ to ‘we,’ and there is considerable research showing how this happens mentally. For example, we confuse adjectives that describe our partners with adjectives that describe ourselves — even when they don’t — the more intimate we are with a person.”

And experiencing a big loss — both that of love and of self — is an inevitably painful form of grief, Harman explains. “We grieve the person, but we are also grieving other losses we have experienced at the same time,” she says. “This is when therapy might be particularly useful. It is also important to understand that we usually never totally ‘get over’ the person. They were part of our identity, and we cannot just rip that away. We can accept and move on, which is what the goal should be.”


Accepting and moving on, Fisher says, can take one to two years if you’re truly, madly, deeply in love with a person — and sometimes even longer. Fisher herself recalls one particularly bad break-up where, after three years, she was still attached.

Luckily for most, the old adage does seem to ring true: “Time really does help,” Fisher says. “After a while, the brain begins to heal itself. The farther you are away from the person, the less activity in those regions of the brain associated with attachment and addiction.” (This is why, in the aftermath of a bad break-up, remaining pals isn’t a good idea.)

Why Does Grieving A Relationship Take So Long?

If it seems counterproductive from an evolutionary perspective, Fisher thinks so, too. “Nature has really overdone this,” she says. “We can struggle for years.”

Fisher says she sees why the protest stage evolved: to win the person back. When you’re in love and want to avoid pain and loss, it’s easy to see the logic behind a manic rush to re-obtain the object of your affection. (You’ll see a lot of compromising and negotiating in this phase of the break-up… and some couples getting back together again, too.)

But the resignation stage? Why struggle for years in some cases? “Slumping into a depression is a very good signal to others that you need help,” says Fisher. “It is an honest signal” — and incredibly difficult to hide from the people who know you best.

Another possible reason the resignation stage may have developed is to get some perspective and identify key faults. “Research has shown that when you’re mildly depressed, you actually see the world more clearly,” Fisher says. “For instance, you’ll finally see that he was always sneaking around on you, or that just she never grew up. And when you see the situation more clearly, you see clearly how to move on.”

If you’re experiencing a break-up now, it’s not uncommon. January is traditionally considered a big month for separations. “This is where lines are drawn,” Fisher says. “The holidays really show where your priorities are. You bring your girlfriend to family dinner, or not, and either way it’s a big statement. And at the end of it all, many people think, ‘Oh, wow, that can’t work.’”

And so begins the painful process of unwinding the ties that bind… but how?

Getting over someone is really individualistic, explains Harman. “Once the initial grief and pain has passed, research has shown doing things that remind you of the person can actually help,” she says. “It can be initially painful, but the new memories formed that are independent of the person can help lessen the pain of the original memory.”

And yes, time really does heal all wounds — importantly, time you spend taking care of yourself, on your own. Don’t try to move on too quickly with a new significant other — “the grief remains there, and will need to be dealt with at some point,” says Harman. “It also makes it difficult to be close and intimate with someone new if the initial grief is not addressed.”

Spending time with close family and friends is a much better strategy for working through the grief of a failed relationship. “You can write letters you never actually send, recalling the good things about the relationship, look back at the challenges, and so on,” Harman says. “Doing an inventory of the relationship, what you liked and didn’t like, can really help.”

Harman likens it to housekeeping. “Cleaning up is time-consuming and painful, especially with emotions,” she says. “But it is possible.” Although breaking up leaves a big mess, at the end of the day, picking up the pieces is well worth it if it paves the way to the right relationship down the road.

So, to all those reeling in the wake of a split: Yes, it’s rough now, but take heart. We’ve all been there. The pain does go away in time, and something better is probably just around the corner.

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