Heartbreak is universal, few of us escape it. I've certainly had my share. Years ago, after a particularly painful breakup with weeks spent ruminating as to why the relationship hadn't worked out, I realized I was dwelling on all that had been right with us while ignoring all that had been wrong. To make matters worse I was agonizing over the fantasy of what might have been, not the reality of what was.
It turns out I was not alone in this tendency. In our grief we often idealize the one we've lost, remembering only their best qualities and our most cherished moments together. We put these scenes on a loop and play them over and over, longing for a different outcome while searching for an answer as to what went wrong.
Our biology plays a role in reminiscing through rose-colored glasses, especially if the loss happened within the first two years of the relationship. Nature provides us with a neurochemical cocktail designed to help us fall in love and reproduce ensuring survival of the species. Fluctuating levels of dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline and other neurochemicals can cloud our reasoning allowing us to overlook our lover's flaws. These neurochemical levels may take some time to return to normal after a breakup.
A healthy or secure attachment to someone who supports, respects, and loves us, someone who has our back, helps to regulate our nervous system creating a sense of calm and safety in the present. If we felt this sense of refuge with our ex, heartbreak will likely be present even if we chose to call it quits or mutually agreed to end things.
After a breakup we may mourn the loss of another kind of security, the security of a future we envisioned for ourselves, a safe place to land. Our minds are drawn to security, yet deep down we know there are no guarantees. Still the illusion of a secure future makes us feel safe, so we seek it out. Once I realized that much of my heartbreak was tied up in what my ex represented, possessing many of the qualities I was looking for in a partner, I was able to separate out the fantasy of what I had envisioned with the reality of what was. Making this distinction helped me to heal my broken heart.
My Achy Breaky Heart
Research has shown that rejection by a romantic partner fires up the same part of our brain that lights up when we have a craving for something we're addicted to, in fact it's similar to an addict going through withdrawal. In order to move on you have to treat the relationship as though you are quitting an addiction, cold turkey. In his Ted talk How to fix a broken heart, Psychologist Guy Winch explains, "as compelling as the urge is, with every trip down memory lane, every text you send, every second you spend stalking your ex on social media, you are just feeding your addiction, deepening your emotional pain and complicating your recovery."
"Heartbreak is a master manipulator. The ease with which it gets our mind to do the absolute opposite of what we need in order to recover is remarkable." - Guy Winch
His big takeaways are stop the idealizing and to let go of searching for answers. Winch stresses the danger in ruminating over why, "There is no breakup explanation that's going to feel satisfying...Just accept the one you were offered or make up one yourself and then put the question to rest because you need that closure to resist the addiction."
Check The Idealizing
Several years back while working with a brokenhearted client I came up with a similar strategy to one Winch shares in his TED talk. I asked my client to compile a list of the values she holds most dear. Then we made a second list of all of the ways her ex had and had not aligned with these values. There were some pretty huge gaps, she realized that she never would have chosen this person on paper.
Even still, it was hard for her to give up idealizing; yet this was a big step in the right direction. She began to see the relationship from a clearer perspective and eventually stopped mourning the fantasy of what might have been. She grew from the experience and went on to find a wonderful partner, someone aligned with her values and much better suited for her.
If you're struggling with heartbreak over someone who treated you without respect, who was highly critical, or who betrayed your trust I suggest you do the same.
First, get some paper and a pen, then take a few deep breaths and center yourself.
Next list what you value most, think of what's important to you in all areas of life: family, friends, health and fitness, work, money, play, creativity, social justice, community, spirituality, animals, the environment and planet.
Pay attention to any information you get from your body, such as a feeling of warmth in your stomach, a sense of expansion or openness around your heart...
Now put a star next to any values on the list that you would like your future partner or partners to embody. If more come to mind add them to your list.
Finally, put a check by those values that your ex aligned with and see where you matched up.
You may find that you were overlooking some big red flags. Now you have a clearer sense of what to look for in a future mate. Conversely you may find that you were in alignment. If so, the next installment of this blog is for you, it will address the stages of transition and how to tap into your abundant source of love. For now allow yourself time to grieve, try not to idealize your ex or the relationship, and be especially kind to yourself. It may not feel like it now, but this is an opportunity for immense growth.