Monday, May 24, 2021

7 Reasons Why Breakups Suck So Damn Bad

Hey there, gorgeous. This ran in Salon a million years ago, but I thought you might like it delivered here to your virtual doorstep. I learned a ton of interesting stuff on this one, mainly that I have the emotional maturity/coping skills of a traumatized baby lab monkey.

There are plenty of good reasons why the death of a relationship is so unbearable. There's shame, failure, guilt, anger/incredulousness at the other person's inability to see how incredible you are and sadness over that very same thing, 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.
To wit:
--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.” (Note: Having tried the “unhealthy, humiliating” Plan of Action, I can advise with some authority that it's not gonna go well for you.)

--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 cruel 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, kept spilling coffee on yourself every time you heard that one song on the radio, went on Instagram, etc...

--Breakups are depressing, officially.
In a study of poor sods who'd been rejected by a partner within the past 8 weeks, 40% experienced clinically measurable depression, with 12% of those having moderate to severe depression. All breakups involve an amount of grief (and indeed, in another of those “think about how much your break up sucked while we look at your brain with an MRI” studies, the parts of the brain associated with grief lit up.) but sometimes the grief becomes “complicated grief.” Complicated grief is an unwieldy beast of grief lasting 6 months or more (or, way too much virtual hot coffee spilling), featuring unpleasantries like over-rumination and mooning, bad dreams, and the excessive playing of Elliot Smith songs.

--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 itself. 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.

--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 who they are. The 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, Ph.D. in Come As You Are. Without that, you're kind of homeless, emotionally.

--It's even worse for people with “anxious attachment styles.”
Only half of people in U.S. have a “secure attachment style,” that is, they have relationships easily and trust others like normal healthy people, while the rest of us flounder about, either clinging too much (attachment anxious) or preemptively cutting and running (attachment avoidant). Those with attachment anxious 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, for the attachment avoidant—you know who you are—there was little such emotional fallout. Bastards.

--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. 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 rather shabby 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 fucked for a while--and not in the way you'd like—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, a dude 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 hell, the next person might be even better at appreciating it.

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



Anonymous said...

Relationships seem to run a certain course. There are as many songs written about losing love as there are finding love. If you are looking for a song that will help you move on, I suggest this poignant love song written by Sam Kinison.

Your next relationship will fall in your lap when you get over the last one.

Jill Hamilton said...

Anon, Oh dear Sam Kinison. Haven't thought about him in years. thanks for that in my day!

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific article. The research done and the articulate manner in which the information is communicated is noteworthy.

I'm always intrigued with our biology and how it has evolved in such a finely tuned way in order to drive us to "bed" one another. (The purpose of that "bedding" is obviously for species survival by way of procreation.) When I consider that evolution, I gain a small glimpse of just how big a number 3.8 billion is and also just how long a time, in years, that it is.

Thank you, Jill, for offering all this within a perspective that your readers can relate to and for lending a bit more to the public dialogue of a subject that is always in need of "more", that, of course, being, The Theory of Evolution.

As to "relationships", I've had my share of the full range of emotion with them. What I think I've learned over time as I've aged though, is that the more I understand about myself and my evolutionary history, the less susceptible I seem to be to the unmitigated grasp those emotions tend to have. It's either that that I experience or I'm simply getting old and things are slowly shutting down now. Either way, that's my interpretation.

Bob W.

Jill Hamilton said...

Hey Bob W., thanks! I got a lot of feedback from people who wrote private emails to say this hit them deep. So if you are less susceptible, I say GOOD. I've heard from several older people that not feeling the intense sort of love/sexual compulsions is a huge relief. Like they are just damn happy to be able to focus on other things. Super interesting to me...

Anonymous said...

This is a Great Piece... Re: 'Breakups turn you into a jonesing addict' They really really do.... Sometimes, we are lucky enough that someone will go through withdrawals with you... That's always worth being thankful for.

Jill Hamilton said...

thanks bloodmagickprincess. hope is all w/ you in that dept. these days. xo

Unknown said...

Liked and shared on stumbleupon and facebook. Very well written

in bed with married women said...

Walter Prescott--thank you!
The rest of you--why can't you be more like Walter Prescott?

garota vip club models said...

Hot! PS: I loved the pic on the top of article.

Mongo, At The Moment said...

My first real love, the one where sex and emotion and commitment all came together, was in college in the mid-Seventies. It wasn't a simple relationship, but things worked and we lived together for a little over five years. It ended on a spectacularly low note and took quite a while to come back from.

We didn't see each other for seven years; I'd heard about her through mutual acquaintances, and one night around a Christmas in the mid-Eighties gave her a call. You know where this is going -- but we couldn't get past the original breakup and things ended on another spectacularly low note.

Years rolled by; decades. The emotional quality of every other relationship since hasn't really met the standard of that first connection (not possible to recapture, I know, and I haven't expected to). There have been different kinds of high points and physical intensity, but not that je ne sais quoi between two people that says you're home. I grew older, paid less attention to relationships and all that comes with them.

A few months ago, in a real Proustian moment, I got into an elevator and caught a whiff of perfume that lit up all the neurons connected with the Old Love. The connection was so sharp and immediate that I was actually breathless: it was... everything. A sense of history, time passing; not loss, so much as an absence of something; a line from a Delmore Schwartz poem (0 your life, your lonely life / What have you ever done with it). And it was like breaking up all over again.

This, just a counterpoint to Bob's comment about aging. Breakups do suck, even if you're not twenty-three. They suck triple-hulled oil tankers. I don't think it's aging, or being jaded with experience, or a lack of testosterone that affects how much we hurt. In the end, we need to remember not what was lost, but that we felt understood and safe for a while, and weren't afraid of being open to Another in a particular way. And maybe -- maybe -- we could do it again.

'scuse me; gotta go prove I'm not a Robot.

Jill Hamilton said...

Jesus, Mongo, that was so beautifully written. Saying anything about it is just gonna ruin it so. just. damn.

Jim said...

Good job!