Dating and Mate Selection — 29 April 2012
Healing from rejection in romantic love

Many people report great physical and emotional pain after a partner leaves. Some have viewed the reported suffering of jolted lovers as exaggerated, magnified and excessively dramatized depictions of loss. Are they indeed the reactions of only a few people or are they the normal, physiologically based reactions to loss of attachment?

You may have heard people lament that after they were rejected they felt sick, in deep physical pain, broken hearted, depressed and despondent with constant cravings and intense need to have their beloved return. Some even report feeling suicidal.

Even if you have not experienced a similar profound rejection by a desired individual, you may have a parting of the ways with a friend due to life circumstances or an occasional sexual rejection by your mate. Those occurrences, though less traumatic, may have felt uncomfortable as well.

Brain imaging studies confirmed that rejection does create physical pain, yearnings and mood alterations and that these changes do get alleviated with time.

Researcher Ethan Cross and colleagues confirmed that indeed, “social rejection hurts.” They state, “Social rejection and physical pain are similar not only since they are both distressing, but they share a common representation in somatosensory brain systems. The distress elicited in response to intense social rejection may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.”

Dr. Helen Fisher’s research used MRI images of brains of recently heartbroken subjects who reported feelings of obsession, passion, anguish, anger, regret and despair. Results showed the activation of those sections of the brain associated with basic reward and survival.

Researchers also identified that the forebrain that regulates emotions is the same part of the brain that is active in addictions and cocaine cravings.

Similarly, Dr. Arthur Aron answered the question of “why feelings and behaviors related to rejection are so difficult to control?” He reports, “The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that romantic love is a specific form of addiction and includes elements that are very much like craving for cocaine.”

As discouraging as these findings may be, it is encouraging to know that the physical and emotional suffering associated with being rejected does dissipate with time. Dr. Fisher’s study discovered that students who were still “intensely in love” with their rejecters and spent most of their hours thinking about and yearning for their lost lovers recorded less activity in their area of the brain associated with attachment as time went by.

To heal from rejection:

  • Accept that the physical and emotional pain you feel in response to being rejected is real and not a measure of instability.
  • Respect your need to grieve for the deep loss of connection and concentrate on reducing the doubts about your lovability.
  • Do not process the temporary unavailability of your partner as a rejection. Accommodate his/her needs with grace.
  • Remember that as painful as the loss and rejection feels it will subside with time and you will love and be loved again.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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