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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.

What are the symptoms of heartbreak that lead to love withdrawal?

Love withdrawal may be described as a grief that has gone beyond the normal stages of the grieving process, becoming stuck in one or more levels of grief, turning into extremely painful withdrawal (Jim Hall MS, Love Addiction Specialist). The very real symptoms of heartbreak which can lead to love withdrawal include:

  • shock
  • desperation
  • despair
  • numbness
  • anger
  • fear
  • denial and disbelief
  • depression
  • disorganisation
  • anxious attachment
  • feelings of helplessness or powerlessness
  • separation anxiety
  • low self-worth and self esteem
  • longing for the beloved to return
  • anxious, intrusive, repetitive thoughts of this one person circling your mind.

I truly believe that unrequited love and lost love are perhaps some of the most profound experiences we can ever encounter; an acute sense of sorrow and abandonment.

Many have said in my practice that they no longer know themselves and feel a loss of identity and self-worth. This is because quite unknowingly we have invested our entire sense of belonging and purpose into the beloved, forming a powerful attachment bond, only to suddenly find that this emotional link has been severed, putting us into a vulnerable, childlike state of abandonment with an intense longing for the beloved to return.

Heartbreak and lost love is the most infinite burden of unrequited love and loss, but it is often a fertile time to heal and begin anew. Helen Mia Harris

The physiological impact of heartbreak

As our love is thwarted, it can feel as if the burning passion to be with this one person is all that exists. So why might we feel the way we do? The body can react physically to our loss in any number of ways:

  • stress-related hormones pour into our sympathetic nervous system
  • a heightened state of arousal can be experienced as intense emotional and physical pain through the body
  • acute vulnerability and sensitivity
  • changes in cognitive functioning, for example experiencing confusion
  • intense sadness
  • hypersensitivity to noise, daylight and people who seem happy
  • changes in sleep patterns – sleeping too much, or suffering with insomnia
  • changes in eating patterns – loss of appetite or binge eating
  • numbness
  • fatigue and low energy
  • separation anxiety/agitation
  • an inability to self-care and nurture one’s emotional and physical wellbeing
  • depression, anxiety and sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How does heartbreak impact on daily life?

Coping with heartbreak can seem impossible at times, as we attempt to deal with:

  • lack of concentration, focus and motivation – an inability to focus 100% on our professional life or our studies, or on our role as a mother or a primary caretaker
  • confusion and disorientation, unable to make sense of the situation, continuously searching for the reason the relationship has ended
  • a constant agitation with family and friends who might suggest we should be “over the break-up by now.”
  • a preoccupation with the beloved, a constant need to speak about the lost lover
  • weight loss or gain as a result of eating behaviour being influenced by our emotional state
  • excruciating loneliness due to an inability to participate with life and social friendship groups
  • continuous crying
  • some people who feel heartbroken will ‘self-medicate’ by drinking alcohol, smoking, or resorting to drugs
  • some who find it difficult to let go of the beloved may develop an anxious attachment and an addiction to love (love addiction) – a form of obsessive love that feels incomplete and empty without the significant other
  • an inability to let go, stuck in an addictive love cycle and a co-dependent attachment with the beloved
  • more complex conditions and behaviours including love addiction, emotional dependency, co-dependency, insecurity, obsession, jealousy, anxious attachment, abandonment and rejection, and irrationality behaviours in an attempt to bring the beloved back. These, and more, will be covered in depth in later posts.

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Common beliefs while heartbroken

As discussed earlier, being heartbroken can lead to many self-deprecating and damaging thought processes, with some of the most common being:

  • not feeling good enough, feeling undeserving and rejected
  • putting the beloved on a pedestal (god/goddess projection) whilst undermining our own authentic sense of self-value and worthiness
  • loss of a sense of specialness, identity and uniqueness
  • feeling alone as if we will never find someone to love or be loved in return
  • loss of a sense of purpose; the world can feel depopulated without the beloved
  • a lack of self-respect and a feeling of self-blame for the break-up/separation
  • unable to make sense of the disappearance
  • believing that we will be alone for ever.

What is the addictive love cycle?

The most profound experience I had – and the foundation upon which I developed this life affirming programme – was my own personal experience during my early thirties.

I experienced first-hand this affliction of the heart when we love too much, and the grief-like symptoms of loss and emotional trauma that came with it. Throughout that time, I wrote journals to try to make sense of the overwhelming emotions. This has now become the foundation of the “Heartbreak and Love Addiction Recovery Programme”

Going through this myself has helped me to understand that anyone could suffer from an addiction to love, from loving too much, from heartbreak and love withdrawal following lost love and rejection.

But after a rejection, some women are caught in an addictive love cycle. Why are they unable to let go? Before I answer this question, take a look at the following story, which highlights feelings typical of co-dependency in heartbreak.

A client in her mid-thirties was suffering desperately with heartbreak and lovesickness (lovesickness, or limerence as referenced above, is a chronic grief-like condition of heartache). She speaks with honesty about what this felt like for her while she was still with her partner. Please note I have the client’s full consent to speak about this and for the sake of this blog I have called her Patricia.

Patricia’s journal extract

  • “I’m in this awful place, acting out of character, I feel utterly heartbroken… My complete lack of self-control is driving a wedge between us; I’m beside myself with fear and panic, unable to know what to do or how to get through this heartbreak, it literally feels like a real physical pain all around my chest. I can’t take his silence seriously. I can’t hear him say he can’t give me anything and he doesn’t feel the same way. It feels like a sickness in me that disables my ability to hold my life together, participate in anything normal. I’m hiding it from my friends, parents, and work colleagues. I am acting in a way that I never believed I was capable of… For years, I have run my own business and even that is crumbling under the strain of holding these two worlds together.
  • I convince myself that we’ll get through this together, that the next time he comes around things will be different. We’ll talk and talk and get closer. I hope that we’ll be able to find a way out of this collapse in our communication, and yet after a fiery all-consuming passionate evening, somehow, out of nowhere, he’d shut down, pull away, literally holding back from me emotionally, unable to make eye contact. Any question from me would repel him further into a tiny closed cocoon unable to reciprocate any affection, and the more he shuts me out, the more I crave his love, pleading, begging him not to leave.
  • I display uncontrolled behaviour and a fierce desire to hold on tight, and the more I do this the further away he goes. He leaves, and despite the harm we cause one another, I just can’t let him go and cling more in desperation to have him back. I might wait weeks to see him again and then he’ll make contact and the whole thing begins all over again as if I’m going around and around in some kind of destructive loop that I can’t break free from.
  • I wait for him to arrive in fear and trepidation, and at the same time feel a furious desire to hold him close, yet I know deep down that I must leave him as I know with all my heart that it’s not going anywhere and he is not good for me…”

This  is exactly what I mean by the addictive love cycle in heartbreak; it truly is one of the most shattering experiences we can ever encounter. Happily, I am able to say that by doing my “Heartbreak and Love Addiction Recovery Programme” and with some face-to-face therapy, we were able to find a way through her painful break-up, address how she completely lost herself in this relationship, and ease her traumatic symptoms of heartbreak and loss.

In the words of Anne below…

Dear Helen, I just want to say how much your online recovery program has helped me to get through each day of feeling powerless, weak and heartbroken. I had been constantly anxious and insecure and my work life, family and friends were compromised because of my partner distancing himself from me, causing me to feel these anxious grief-like symptoms. I now understand entirely from what you say in your videos and the workbook, which miraculously has changed the way I am with him and we are closer than we ever have been, I’m so much stronger and no longer feel needy and weak. Thank you more than I can say Helen I feel myself again! Best wishes Anne 

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  • eBook – 8 Practical Self-Help Strategies to support you after a relationship has ended
  • Meditation for healing after heartbreak and loss PDF for you to read yourself
  • Meditation for healing after heartbreak and loss MP3 I have recorded for you

Much love

Helen x