Stupid biology: 7 reasons breakups wreak such emotional havoc

Breakups are the worst, right? Here are the neurochemical, physical and psychological reasons why

Published November 12, 2015 11:30PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Andrzej Wilusz</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Andrzej Wilusz via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet

AlterNetThere are plenty of good reasons why the death of a relationship is so unbearable. There's shame, failure, guilt, sadness, anger and incredulousness, plus the personal rejection of your very being. The Czechs have a lovely word for it: litost. "Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery," writes Milan Kundera in "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting."

But this torment is more than just the nature of breakups, the need to experience darkness to appreciate the light, blah blah blah. Breakups also activate all kinds of neurochemical, physical and psychological fuckery that makes the whole business even more painful. Stupid biology.

1. Breakups turn you into a jonesing addict.

If the beginning of a love affair is a kind of chemical-fueled madness, so is the ending, but in reverse. In one of the crueler aspects of neurochemistry, just when you're hitting the personal low of a breakup is also when dopamine—the reward chemical that made you feel so damn good in the beginning—decides to flee the scene, making you desperate for another hit. Dopamine acts in the same way as any drug of abuse, according to Helen Fisher in "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love": “If the beloved breaks off the relationship, the lover shows all the common signs of withdrawal, including depression, crying spells, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), irritability, and chronic loneliness. Like all addicts, the lover then goes to unhealthy, humiliating, even physically dangerous lengths to procure their narcotic.”

2. Breakups actually hurt, physically. 

In one study researchers had subjects “who recently experienced an unwanted breakup view a photograph of their ex-partner as they think about being rejected.” This was pretty rough and probably not worth the 50 bucks or whatever the subjects got, but we learned that psychic trauma activates the same parts of the brain that process physical pain. Meaning, your brain experiences emotional pain as it would if you spilled hot coffee on yourself. Or more accurately, keep spilling coffee on yourself every time you hear that one song on the radio, go on Instagram, etc.

3. Breakups are depressing, officially.

In a study of poor sods who had been rejected by a partner within the past eight weeks, 40 percent experienced clinically measurable depression, with 12 percent of those having moderate to severe depression. All breakups involve an amount of grief (and indeed, in another of those “think about your breakup while we MRI your brain” studies, the parts of the brain associated with grief lit up). But sometimes the grief becomes “complicated grief"—an unwieldy beast of grief lasting six months or more, featuring unpleasantries like over-rumination and mooning, bad dreams, and the excessive playing of Elliot Smith songs.

4. Your stupid brain can actually start to get off on your suffering.

Anyone who has looked in the mirror to examine their tragic selves mid-cry knows there is a certain joy in one's own deep suffering. But sometimes that sort of self-schadenfreude can become addictive. In some people, enduring grief triggers the reward center in their brains, making them seek the dark feelings so they can get a little happy chemical hit.

5. You lose your sense of self.

Without the identity created within the relationship (i.e., “We like paddleboarding”), some emerge bleary-eyed from a breakup with a hazy sense of self. That sort of psychic rootlessness is compounded by the loss of the sense of having a secure base within the relationship and with that partner. “Wherever that person is, that's your emotional home,” writes Emily Nagoski in "Come As You Are." Without that, you're kind of emotionally homeless.

6. It's even worse for people with “anxious attachment styles.”

Some people have a “secure attachment style,” that is, they have relationships easily and trust others like normal healthy beings. The rest of us flounder about, either clinging too much (anxious attachment) or preemptively cutting and running (attachment avoidant). Those with anxious attachment styles show “greater preoccupation with the lost partner, greater perseveration over the loss, more extreme physical and emotional distress, exaggerated attempts to reestablish the relationship, partner-related sexual motivation, angry and vengeful behavior, interference with exploratory activities, dysfunctional coping strategies, and disordered resolution.”

Meanwhile, the attachment avoidant (you know who you are) experience little such emotional fallout. Bastards.

7. Breakups kick in our survival biology.

Attachment is a survival mechanism. A baby needs secure attachment or it will die. “When (our relationships) are threatened, we do whatever it takes to hold on to them, because there are no higher stakes than our connection with our attachment objects,” writes Nagoski, citing Harry Harlow's “monster mother” studies. In a sickeningly cruel experiment, Harlow bonded infant monkeys with mechanical “mothers,” then rigged the mothers to shake the babies, spike them or jet cold air on them to force them away. The babies responded to this treatment by running right back into the arms of those unpredictably cruel, rejecting mothers. Not only that, they became desperate to fix the relationship and tried to win back the mother by flirting with her, grooming and stroking her. That is, behavior some among us may recognize quite well.

So yeah, it's bad. With the combination of biological, chemical and emotional havoc a breakup causes, it's a wonder any of us ever get over it. But we do. If you can just accept you're going to be miserable for a while, the appeal of spending car rides furtively weeping to Joni Mitchell's “All I Want” will eventually fade and you will indeed get over it. At some point. You might have to listen to a whole lot of “All I Want.”

In the meantime, take solace in the words of Nietzche and Louis C.K., two dudes not exactly known for being consoling. “Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love,” wrote Nietzche. That is, that passion is still in you regardless of who its recipient is. And the next person might be even better at appreciating it. And said Louis C.K., in a typically genius statement that could apply to any relationship: “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce. It's really that simple.”

In other words, you're probably better off without 'em.

Jill Hamilton writes In Bed With Married Women ( Follow her on Twitter @Jill_Hamilton.

By Jill Hamilton

Jill Hamilton writes In Bed With Married Women.

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