I was running some seminars over the summer and asked the audience what other topics they would want to hear about. A few people mentioned break-ups, how to deal with them, but also how to go about it. Here I explore why it’s difficult to do.
While most of us have probably been on one or both sides of the ‘break-up experience’, I’m sure we can all agree that it is rarely nice, from a mild annoyance to inconsolable grief. The experience can be so unpleasant that people would rather stay in poor relationships for years, because the thought of breaking up is terrifying. Why is it so difficult to break up?
We explored this last week. There are several explanations, one is an evolutionary perspective. In this view, we are social animals and essentially need each other in order to survive. We have a build-in unconscious mechanism that prevents us from ‘straying’ away from society. Back in the day this would have been the clan or tribe with which one lived with. This mechanism is also known as ‘fear of rejection’. It is extremely sensitive. If we find ourselves in situations that just looks like rejection, our body reacts automatically. Our pain receptors get triggered and we feel hurt.
Studies have demonstrated this. In one study (WillIiams 2003), people, represented as dots on a screen, were asked to play a computer game in which they passed a ball to two other people (they were in fact not real but just part of the computer program). In the beginning the dots would pass the ball around to each other (including the dot the was a real ‘study’ person), but then the two dots that were part of the program excluded the study person, only passing the ball to each other. Even though the study person did not know the people (and who weren’t even real), the person felt rejected. Being excluded from the ball throwing game, made the person feel hurt to such an extent that it felt painful. Pain receptors in the brain lit up. The same areas in the brain where physical pain is felt. Rejection, even when benign, has a very tangible effect.
We are also equipped with mirror neurons. These allow us to mimic others expressions and feelings. So when we see someone feeling down, we are likely to be influenced by that feeling also. This makes it more difficult to inflict pain on others, as we would feel that pain too. So breaking up is hard to do, because the other person is likely to feel pain and you seeing that pain will affect you also.
Of course this varies from person to person, some people like sociopaths do not have the capacity to feel such emotions. Nevertheless, there is a biological explanation to why and how we experience break-ups.
There is no way around pain as such, but you can do things to help alleviate it. One is to acknowledge that it will be there. And it’s OK. And it will go away with time, because no emotion can go on infinitely. Distractors such as work, friends, family and hobbies are helpful too. Above all, be kind to yourself.
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