Heartbreak: why do we get heartbroken – and how do we survive it?
In my work as a professional relationship counsellor, couples’ therapist and love addiction specialist, I work every day with people who know first-hand the emotional pain of heartbreak, and the traumatic aftermath of rejection and loss.
Whilst thinking about the emotional pain felt in unrequited love and rejection, I came across this definition by Dr Dorothy Tennov (Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, 1979): ‘Limerence is an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.’
When we experience heartbreak, there is often self-blame and unworthiness sitting at the very centre, a response to the rejection we have felt in not having our feelings reciprocated. What is then experienced in the hearts of many is a hollow space that shuts out all the light and with it, the hope of one day finding the perfect person that will complete us.
If any of the following apply to you, then I hope that you will find this article useful:
- Do you feel heartbroken after experiencing the loss of a loved one?
- Do you find it almost impossible to let go of the beloved after a painful break-up?
- Do you experience an avalanche of intense emotions such as loss when a significant relationship has come to an end?
- Do you feel abandoned and unable to move on with your life, as if you are longing for the beloved to return with the same intensity, or caught in an addictive love cycle?
- If you are in a relationship, does the fear and anticipation that it might end cause acute grief-like symptoms or painful withdrawal symptoms (love withdrawal)?
- Does the fear of abandonment keep you stuck in an unhealthy relationship?
Any of the above can be emotionally and physically devastating, even life-shattering, and you may swing passionately from one extreme emotion to another – one moment feeling that you will get through this emotional distress, that you will survive; the next, feeling needy, emotionally dependent, angry, sorrowful, or humiliated that the relationship has ended.
I want to begin by saying this: however heartbroken you may feel, it is a natural and real response to an acutely traumatising experience of lost love and abandonment, provoking very real feelings of grief.
So how can that one person whom we loved so deeply cause us such heartbreak and have the power to rock the very core of our being?
Many of my private clients describe how the loss of a loved one, or a failed relationship, can feel like an assault on the very essence of who we are. They speak about how they truly believed they had found their soulmate, and are left utterly bewildered and devastated that this feeling of love isn’t reciprocated.
If our desire and love for a significant other is impeded, thwarted, or unrequited then intrusive ruminative thoughts of self-doubt, self-blame and shame come to the surface of our internal dialogue. These thoughts are often experienced in the most self-deprecating way, as self-blame and feeling unworthy is often one of the only ways that many can make sense of the heartbreak felt. Common thoughts and questions are:
“Could I have done anything differently?”
“It’s my fault, I was too needy and wanting.”
“If only s/he would come back, I’ll be different next time.”
“I feel disposed of, as if I meant nothing.”
“I’m not good enough, not worthy enough and certainly not special enough.”
Heightened emotions of distress continuously drag us into a vortex of why/how/what if/if only, whilst we yearn for our beloved to return, to text, email, phone – to make any kind of contact. This is often a component of grief, the mounting disquiet that our love interest has “disappeared” forever, leaving us without closure or understanding.
“She loved so much she lost herself” Unknown
In such a situation, we may find ourselves unconsciously and habitually reflecting on only the most positive and happiest memories of our time together, accompanied by continuous obsessive thoughts about the issues that might have led to the break-up, and exploring multitudes of ways we could reunite with our lost love, making every possible effort to ease the debilitating pain of heartbreak and abandonment.
In situations where a painful rejection is involved, there is often an inherent belief that we are unworthy, disposable, undesirable, unacceptable, unlovable and unwanted. Rejection therefore becomes a specific feeling: “I haven’t been chosen.” And if we have been left for someone else, the heartbreak we feel is even more shocking.
What are the causes of heartbreak?
There are many reasons we may find ourselves the victim of heartbreak:
- unrequited love
- impossible love (due to the beloved being married, overseas or unable to commit to the relationship)
- disappearance and desertion
- rejection and separation
- betrayal or infidelity
- loving too much (if the beloved becomes distant and withdraws emotionally, an intense feeling of love and passion can make it impossible to let go)
- narcissistic attachment
- love addict vs. love avoidant
- insecurity and possessiveness (due to the beloved shutting down emotionally).
I will be covering these in more detail in later posts.