Divorce Managing Feelings — 12 May 2014
Recovering After a Relationship Breakup

The pain that abandoned lovers experience when their desired relationship terminates is a profoundly distressing emotional experience. Whether the relationship was long or short, a marriage or dating, being rejected by one’s beloved is devastating.

Individuals who mourn the loss of their relationship describe feeling pain, difficulties sleeping, eating or concentrating as they obsess about their abandonment. Recurring painful thoughts about the various reasons for the breakup exacerbate their profound regrets, grief, mourning and self-scrutiny. Tears often accompany dejected individuals’ thoughts as well as loss of appetite, depression, negative self-talk and addiction-like withdrawal symptoms that are painful and debilitating.

Cognitive Neuroscientist Edward Smith of Columbia University and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the physiological brain reactions of individuals in a relationship breakup crisis. They located the affected brain regions that produced the physiological pain and theorized that this type of suffering may have had a survival advantages in compelling primitive men to stay connected to a group.

Infants and young children cling to their parents for safety and comfort, intuitively knowing that their survival is other-dependent. Adults are not dependent but volitionally interdependent in love.

Professor Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine used fMRI images on brains of college age adults who had experienced an unwanted relationship breakup. She found that merely watching photos of their former partners activated the release of dopamine that created intense cravings, similar to addiction withdrawal.

Lacking clarity about the reasons for the abandonment leads sufferers to doubt their worth, desirability and lovability.

Being rejected by a beloved renders the abandoned mate impotent in reversing the unilateral decision and leaves him/her with a damaged sense of personal appeal. How can people in this condition recover their self-worth, sense of value as a mate and restore comfort about their desirability?

The predictable part of this grief process is that it heals with time and through the support of family, friends and associates who help the dejected individual regain his/her sense of value.

Time also allows the wounds to heal and a distance from the rejecting party gives one’s body and soul an opportunity to calm down, re-orient his/her focus and become whole again.

Of course, any positive experiences that validate one’s worth, competency, success or likeability are major remedies for restoring one’s emotional balance.

To heal from a breakup:

  • Remind yourself that you are still the same worthy and lovable individual you were during this relationship – even if your partner chose to leave.
  • Be assured that your grief is part of the healing process necessary for self-reflection and acceptance of a loss.
  • Engage in distracting and/or pleasurable activities.
  • Validate your competence at work and be reassured by the feedback of loving friends.
  • Replace your finite statements such as: “I will never find deep happiness again” with: “My grief is about a deep loss that will subside in time to allow me to create a satisfying connection with a new loving mate.”

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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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