When the relationship breaks

We couldn’t do a series of love blogs without mentioning the pitfalls.

The thing about relationship break ups is that it’s way less fun than falling in love. It can be like jumping into a pile of hot wet garbage. It can also feel like trying to come off some wild and intoxicating illicit drug.

The message of social rejection often hits us in the centre of our ego and shakes up our self-worth.

And we would have all felt the sting along the spectrum of social rejection at some point in our lives. Whether it be being the last person to be chosen for a sporting side in PE class, people not coming to our party or not being selected for the job we really wanted.

I've experienced it. You've experienced it. Even The Beatles experienced it. Yet every time it happens, we're reminded again how awful it is to be rejected.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the human experience of rejection goes back to our ancient roots. In our hunter/gatherer past, the result of being ostracised from our tribe was pretty much death as we were unlikely to survive for long alone. It’s assumed the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk of rejection. Because it was so important to get our attention, those who experienced rejection as more painful (i.e., because rejection mimicked physical pain in their brain) gained an evolutionary advantage—they were more likely to correct their behavior and consequently, more likely to remain in the tribe, survive and pass on their genes.

There's a physiological basis to this theory as well. Research shows that rejection triggers the same brain pathways that are activated when we experience physical pain.

The brain system that helps us to attach to somebody else is at the very same level of thirst and hunger systems. That level is in what we might call the ‘old’ or ‘reptilian’ parts of the brain, operating at an unconscious level. When we get really thirsty, it’s this part of the brain that blocks out anything non-hydration related so that we finally get a drink of water. And when we do get a drink of water, it tastes really, really good.

Drugs of abuse also work on this same reward system. As does attraction. When we fall in love with someone we really, really want to be with them. All the time. It’s like being very, very thirsty.

But it’s a bit less conscious. But still so incredibly painful.

Brain imaging research shows that the discomfort people experience when looking at a picture of their ex-partner shows up in the insular cortex: the same brain area that that’s active when you strike a nerve in your tooth, which scientists say is the most extreme physical pain you can feel. Furthermore physical pain medication has been found to reduce the emotional pain that rejection can elicit. In a study testing the hypothesis that rejection mimics physical pain, researchers gave some participants acetaminophen (Tylenol) before asking them to recall a painful rejection experience. The people who received Tylenol reported significantly less emotional pain than subjects who took a sugar pill.

We can also relive and re-experience social pain more vividly than we can physical pain. When I attempted to recall the pain of my first tattoo recently, my brain pathways responded with "Meh." (They were wrong). In other words, that memory alone didn’t elicit physical pain. But if I tried to relive a significant relationship break-up (I’m not going to, I’d like to do other things today), I can be flooded with many of the same feelings I experienced at the time (and my brain will respond much as it did at the time, too). Our brain prioritises rejection experiences because at our core we are still social animals who live in "tribes." This leads to an aspect about rejection we often overlook

So whilst not a physical wound or injury, we’re in distress. At an emotional and conceptual level.

Furthermore when we form intimate partner relationships we fold the other person into our identity. Whether or not we’re head over in heels in love with the person we’re consciously uncoupling with, we lose part of our self when we split. We brought them into our sense of who we were — they were our partner after all, our “other half” — and now that half is gone.

The end of a relationship is confusing to us when it comes to our identity. After the end of a relationship researchers have found a drop in a construct called self-concept clarity - that subjective sense we have in knowing who we are, and the belief that our identity is cohesive and consistent.

When we're in romantic relationships, our identity changes in a host of different ways. After a relationship ends, the same thing is true.

Researchers have shown that people often attribute the end of a relationship to such changes as their appearance, hobbies and even goals and values. However, depending on the relationship itself there are some marked differences.

If a relationship helped to expand our sense of self — meaning that we gained new characteristics/attributes through our relationship with our partner — then our self-concept actually shrinks after a breakup. That being said, if we feel the relationship didn't help us expand our self-concept while it was happening, we can actually experience feelings of self-growth or rediscovery of who we are after a relationship ends.

To make matters worse rejections also send us on a mission to seek and destroy our self-esteem. We often respond to romantic rejections by finding fault in ourselves, bemoaning all our inadequacies, kicking ourselves when we’re already down, and smacking our self-esteem into a pulp. Obviously this is not incredibly helpful. Blaming ourselves and attacking our self-worth only deepens the emotional pain we feel and makes it harder for us to recover emotionally.

It’s probably also not a good idea to go around blaming ourselves too harshly either because as it turns out rejection temporarily lowers our IQ. Being asked to recall a recent rejection experience and relive the experience was enough to cause people to score significantly lower on subsequent IQ tests, tests of short-term memory, and tests of decision making. Indeed, when we are reeling from a painful rejection, thinking clearly is just not that easy.

The better news is that there are ways to treat the psychological wounds rejection inflicts. Thank the Heavens! It is possible to treat the emotional pain rejection elicits and to prevent the psychological, emotional, cognitive, and relationship fallout that occurs in its aftermath. Stay tuned for some of the healthy ways to move on.

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