"Why are breakups so incredibly painful?"
There's no better way to put it...
If you're over 25, you've probably experienced a breakup before, and probably more than one. Probably many, many more than one. And, seeing as how you're reading this article, you might even be experiencing a breakup right now.
If so, I feel for you.
No matter your situation, no matter the reason for the breakup, no matter whether you initiated the breakup, or your partner did - breakups affect us in huge ways..
- We feel an intense grief and loss
- We feel lonely
- We feel confused - what happened?
- We feel conflicted - should we give up, or try harder?
- We feel rejected - are we not good enough?
- We feel angry, if we imagine that we were wronged, or disrespected
- We feel frustrated, if we invested a lot, and imagine that our partner did not appreciate our effort and sacrifice
- We feel unsupported, if there was a loss of our close friends circle. Now those mutual friendships are conflicted, confused, and distant.
- We feel horny and frustrated at the loss of our sexual partner.
- We feel cheated, because we worked hard, and deserved better than the way things ended up for us
- We feel derailed in life
- We feel lost and anxious about our future and what will happen next.
We feel a lot of things, and virtually none of the them are fun.
Even when the breakup happened for a very good reason, and is clearly the right decision for both people- the emotional pain we feel is intense, and long-lasting.
Why Do We Feel All These Things?
It might feel like your brain is going through a complete mental breakdown, but no... you have not gone crazy.
All of the emotions you're feeling are there for a good reason.
To understand these emotions better, start with this question-
Why do we want relationships anyway?
Reptiles seem perfectly fine without relationships, right? So why do we feel so strongly that we need relationships? Why do they make us so happy when they're working well, and why do we suffer so much when they end?
How Relationships Benefit Us
Mother Nature is one smart cookie. From an evolutionary standpoint, relationships maximize our chances of survival in a big way.
In all relationships, including friendships...
- We can sleep more safely, because someone else is nearby to possibly wake us when danger comes.
- We can gather food resources far more easily, and protect those resources too.
- We can build better shelters, and protect ourselves better.
- We can defend ourselves better, against a threat.
Romantic / family relationships offer all this, and more...
- We are far more likely to have children, which means survival of the species.
- We desire to protect our partners and our children, which means they have a far greater chance of surviving too.
- We nurture and teach our children, which means that adaptation is no longer just a genetic blueprint. As mammals, nature is part of our programming, but nurture is at least as significant, and possibly more.
Individually, these benefits might seem insignificant, but look at the difference between the "success" of reptiles, and and the "success" of mammals.
Dinosaurs didn't fare that well... yet mammals have thrived. Reptiles haven't changed much in the past 320 million years... however in the past 250 million, mammals have evolved from the earliest furry critters all the way to modern humans.
No doubt there are other major differences that set mammals apart- warm blood, fur, and other useful things. But I believe that much of the reason mammals were so successful can be directly linked to our social behavior and relationships.
Your Brain, on Relationships
This is why we have so many intense feelings about our relationships... our emotions exist to promote survival.
Evolution has discovered that relationships work. Relationships increase our survival rate. They increase reproduction. They increase the survival rates of our children. They make our species more successful.
The advantages are massive- therefore, our brains reward us with a lot of pleasure around relationships, and give us pain when when those relationships are not working.
Let's have a quick look at some of the key emotions we experience around relationships...
- Sexual Connection
- Negative emotions
- Being Protected and feeling Secure
- Horniness ( intense & unrequited )
- Grief over relationship loss
And there are many more. Mother nature clearly gives a lot of attention to relationships.
What's the mechanism behind these emotions?
Perhaps surprisingly, all of these relationship-category emotions are created primarily by a small handful of chemical neurotransmitters.
- Dopamine, Testosterone, and Estrogen are responsible together for sexual desire. We experience these as the feeling of "lust."
- Oxytocin is responsible for family relationships, including parent-child relationships and pair-bonding. We experience this as the feeling of "love," but also heartbreak, and the nurturing feelings around protectiveness and being-protected.
- Serotonin is responsible for social connection and tribe building, all the way up to the largest social groups. We experience this as "being liked," and "social approval," but also in relation to loneliness and rejection.
How Can We Handle Our Emotions Better?
It has helped me tremendously to understand what my emotions are, and why they exist. Without that awareness of how our brain works and why, we are more directly at the mercy of these feelings.
It's essential to understand is that our emotions are not always right.
Emotions represent the immediate mammal and reptile-brain view of our world, and are very bad at incorporating the bigger picture, or the future into their perspective.
Intuitively, we know this...
... We all know that eating that tub of Ben & Jerry's really isn't the best thing in the world for our waistline, and our future health. But our reptile brains just know that it's chock full of calories, and that calories will keep us from dying. We're flooded with intense cravings because "calories NOW!" is all our reptile brain can understand.
... We might feel that our job sucks, and that our boss is a turd, but our reptile brains just know that this job feeds us- and that if we quit, we might never find another one.
And we might know that this relationship isn't right for our future, and that we'd both be better off apart, or as friends. Despite this clear understanding, our mammal brains struggle to let go- because this is the only relationship we have, and we'd better hold on tight no matter how bad it is.
Sit down and reflect on this internal conflict deeply.
When you have a clear perspective on why your emotional mind reacts so intensely around relationships, and you understand the mechanics that drive those reactions- you'll feel a much greater sense of perspective and control over your emotional reactions.
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In pleasure and pain, our relationships offer a whole lot of both. We get phenomenally intense highs and lows that bring us to the heights of bliss, and to the depths of despair.
When I work with people who are struggling with a difficult breakup, I have to work with them on multiple layers. It's a bit like a doctor working on someone who has been through a car accident- where do you start?
I find that our reptile, mammal and human minds closely align with Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. Each has priorities at different levels of the pyramid.
Relationships hit almost every level, above "air, water, and food", and as a result they impact all 3 of our brains.