Why does getting dumped hurt so much?
First, it’s an obvious blow to the self-esteem. If we assume that we’re always going to be accepted by others, we see no need to edit ourselves, and can just be… ourselves. There’s a reciprocal relationship between our self-evaluations, how we present ourselves, and how well others like us; being at ease with ourselves puts others at ease.1S. Srivastava & J.S. Beer. (2005). “How self-evaluations relate to being liked by others: Integrating sociometer and attachment perspectives.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89 (6), 966–977. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1686 Link
When we feel like we’re at risk for being excluded from a group—or by people whose opinions matter deeply to us—our self-esteem goes down, and we start doing more things to make sure that our spot is secure. We’ll mirror others, ingratiate ourselves, bring people treats, and try to associate ourselves with positive things—because we don’t feel like our presence is enough. Thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all linked in the brain—feelings are just really fast pieces of information that take a longer time to get updated. When we start to feel like we’re at risk of being rejection, people with an unstable self-esteem pay attention to words related to rejection faster. People whose sense of self depends on a certain area of life (appearance, achievement) who feel at risk of being rejected are faster at detecting words like unattractive and unsuccessful. Seeing these warning signs everywhere makes them feel more insecure; it’s a sticky downward spiral.2Amanda Ravary and Mark W. Baldwin. “Self-esteem vulnerabilities are associated with cued attentional biases toward rejection.” Personality and Individual Differences 126 (2018): 44-51. Link.
The big bucket of self-esteem includes a few other things:
- The value of our future self—we feel better and better if we get the sense that our life is going in the right direction.
- The value of our collective self: who are are, when we include our relationships.
- A breakup stings because we’ve lost the part of ourselves that we felt we gained from being with that person.3Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Arthur Aron, Sharon Bassis, and Johnna Kunak. “Losing a self‐expanding relationship: Implications for the self‐concept.” Personal Relationships 13, no. 3 (2006): 317-331. Link.
Every time I go through a breakup, I have to take a step back and think about how much of my loss is coming from an actual loss, vs. what I imagined my future would be like with that person. Most of the time, breakups are more about grieving our imagined future. And the further into the future we go, the more we start thinking about abstract concepts. When we have something concrete (or someone real) to attach to this future, it gets easier to bring all of our desires into focus, and attach tangible places, events, and scenes to these dreams. After all, the future with a significant other has everything you want: no traffic, no dishes—just our imagination, all of it fueled by sex.
1. List of what you didn’t like about that person: some people do this, but guess what? Sad stuff makes us sad. Thinking negative things about our past relationship can cause cognitive dissonance: we can start to feel like an idiot for spending so much time with someone with lots of bad qualities.
2. List what you’re gaining or getting back in the breakup.4Lewandowski Jr, Gary W. “Promoting positive emotions following relationship dissolution through writing.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 4, no. 1 (2009): 21-31. Link to PDF Yes! Here’s the magic: we get to re-imagine our future, nice and rosy. Think about not having to put up with those in-laws; that work schedule; those neuroses.
To stop grieving, remember: be kind to yourself.
Give yourself time.