Because our nervous system is wired to need others, rejection and recovering from breakups are painful. Loneliness and the need for connection share the evolutionary purpose of survival and reproduction. Ideally, loneliness encourages us to maintain our relationships and reach out to others. Rejection in an intimate relationship especially hurts. It’s particularly difficult in the romantic phase of a relationship when you have unmet hope for the future.
A UCLA study confirms that sensitivity to emotional pain resides in the same area of the brain as physical pain – they can hurt equally. Our reaction to pain is influenced by genetics. If we have increased sensitivity to physical pain, we’re more vulnerable to feelings of rejection. Moreover, love stimulates such strong feel-good neurochemicals that rejection can feel like withdrawal from a drug, says anthropologist Helen Fisher. It can compel us to engage in obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. This proved true even for tsetse flies in lab experiments. (See “Obsessions and Love Addiction.”)
Most people start to feel better 11 weeks following rejection and report a sense of personal growth. Similarly, after divorce, partners start to feel better after months, not years. However, up to 15 percent of people suffer longer than three months. (“It’s Over,” Psychology Today, May-June, 2015) Rejection can feed depression, especially if we’re already even mildly depressed or have suffered depression and other losses in the past.
Factors Affecting Resiliency
Other factors that impact how we feel in the aftermath of a breakup are:
- The duration of the relationship
- Our attachment style
- The degree of intimacy and commitment
- Whether problems were acknowledged and discussed
- Foreseeability of the break-up
- Cultural and family disapproval
- Other current or past losses
If we have an anxious attachment style, we’re prone to obsess, and have negative feelings, and attempt to restore the relationship. If we have a secure, healthy attachment style (unusual for codependents), we’re more resilient and able to self-soothe.
If the relationship lacked true intimacy, pseudo-intimacy may have substituted for a real, binding connection. In some relationships, intimacy is tenuous, because one or both partners is emotionally unavailable. For example, partners of narcissists frequently feel unimportant or unloved, yet strive to win love and approval to validate that they are. (See Dealing with a Narcissist.) Lack of intimacy can be a warning sign of relationship problems.
The Effect of Shame and Low Self-Esteem
Rejection can devastate us if our self-worth is low. Our self-esteem affects how personally we interpret our partner’s behavior and how dependent we are upon the relationship for our sense of self. Codependents are more prone to being reactive to signs of disfavor by their partners and tend to take their words and actions as a comment on themselves and their value.
Additionally, many codependents give up personal interests, aspirations, and friends once they’re romantically involved. They adapt to their partner and their life revolves around the relationship. Losing it can make their world crumble if they’re left without hobbies, goals, and a support system. Often the lack of self-definition and personal autonomy beforehand prompted them to seek someone to fill their inner emptiness, which not only can lead to relationship problems, but it resurfaces once they’re alone.
Internalized and toxic shame causes us to blame ourselves and/or blame our partners. It can foster feelings of failure and unlovability that are hard to shake. We might feel guilty and responsible not only for our own shortcomings and actions, but also for the feelings and actions of our partner; i.e., blaming ourselves for our partner’s affair. Toxic shame usually starts in childhood.
Breakups can also trigger grief that more appropriately pertains to early parental abandonment. Many people enter relationships looking for unconditional love, hoping to salve unmet needs and wounds from childhood. We can get caught in a negative “Cycle of Abandonment” that breeds shame, fear, and abandoning relationships. If we feel unworthy and expect rejection, we’re even liable to provoke it. Healing our past allows us to live in the present and respond appropriately to others. (Read how shame can kill relationships and how to heal in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.)
The Stages of Grief
One thing that I see over and over is that people recovering from breakups expect themselves to just “move on.” Well-meaning friends and relatives may urge you to, only to make you feel worse. Or they devalue the ex you still love and yearn for, which can make you ashamed of your feelings or that you may still want the relationship. Many victims of abuse still miss their ex. It’s more helpful to honor your feelings and recognize that they’re normal. You may find yourself cycling through these stages of grief:
Denial – can’t believe it’s over, the reason given, or denial that your ex doesn’t want or love you
Anger – anger and resentment toward your ex, and maybe jealous of someone taking your place
Bargaining – trying to get your ex back, even if just in your head
Guilt – about your behavior – can be tied to the shame of feeling not enough
Depression (including sadness)
You might feel angry in the morning and believe you’ve moved on, only to break down in tears by the afternoon. This is normal, as you process your emotions. It’s natural to long for your ex more when you’re lonely, so balance alone time with activities with friends. Read more on “Why I Can’t Get Over My Ex.”
Healing Tips for Recovering from Breakups
For optimal results when recovering from breakups, start making changes in your relationship with yourself and with others; first, with your ex. Experts agree that although it’s difficult and maybe more painful in the short-run, no contact with your former partner will help you recover sooner. Avoid calling, texting, asking others about or checking up on your ex in social media. Doing so might give momentary relief, but reinforces obsessive-compulsive behavior and ties to the relationship.
(If you’re engaged in divorce proceedings, necessary messages can be written or conveyed through attorneys. They should not be delivered by your children. (See “Co-Parenting After Divorce.”) Read about “The Stages of Divorce” and “Letting Go and Moving on After Divorce“.
Here are 10 more suggestions:
- Meditate with healing recordings, such as exercises for self-love, self-soothing, and confidence on my YouTube channel.
- Practice the “14 Tips for Letting Go,” available free by joining my mailing list.
- Prolonged feelings of guilt can limit your enjoyment of life and your ability to find love again. Forgive yourself for mistakes you made in the relationship with the e-workbook Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness.
- Write about the benefits that the relationship is over. Research shows this technique to be effective.
- Challenge false beliefs and assumptions, such as “I’m a failure (loser),” “I’ll never meet anyone else,” or “I’m damaged goods (or unlovable).” For a 10-step plan to overcome negative self-talk when recovering from breakups, read 10 Steps to Self-Esteem.
- Set personal boundaries with your ex. This is especially important if you will continue to co-parent. Establish rules for co-parenting. If you tend toward accommodation, defensiveness, or aggression, learn to be assertive and how to set boundaries with the techniques provided in How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.
- If you think you may be codependent or have trouble letting go, attend a few Codependents Anonymous meetings, where you can get information and support for free. Visit www.coda.org. There are also online forums and chats, as well as telephone meetings nationwide, but in-person meetings are preferable. Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies.
- Although mourning is normal, continued depression is unhealthy for the health of your body and brain. If depression is hindering your work or daily activities, get a medical evaluation for a course of anti-depressants lasting at least six months.
- Avoid triggers, like going to places you frequented together or listening to “your song” or love melodies. There’s a tendency to want to do this as a way to feel connected to your beloved, but it unnecessary brings up painful feelings.
- Write letters you DON’T mail to your ex to express your feelings. If you were rejected, write a dialogue with your ex. Write with your left hand to “channel” what your ex would say. This can help you see things for his or her perspective, have empathy, and accept the new reality.
You will recover, but your actions play a considerable role in how long it takes, as well as whether you grow and better yourself from your experience. To join my mailing list and receive a free PDF with 15 additional strategies to deal with rejection and help when recovering from breakups, email me at [email protected]. Download the seminar Breakup Recovery to learn more about healing from breakups and relationships with emotionally unavailable partners.
© Darlene Lancer 2016