(G.Winch – Scientific American, 07/08/18) – Melissa and J.J. met on the finish line of an obstacle course race. “We were both winded and covered in mud yet we still managed to flirt. It felt weirdly authentic,” Melissa told me in our first psychotherapy session. “He was into triathlons and obstacle courses like I was. We had very similar lifestyles.” Melissa and J.J. moved in together after eight months. A year and a half into the relationship, Melissa began raising the issue of marriage. J.J. didn’t feel ready. Soon thereafter, he broke up with her.
Melissa was a wreck. She cried for days and could barely function at work, “I’ll never find a better match for me. It was the best relationship I ever had.” Melissa came to see me after several months had passed and J.J. was still all she could think about. “Aren’t my feeling supposed to fade?” She asked me. “Why does it still feel so painful?”
We’ve been experiencing heartbreak for millennia and yet most of us still use the same coping and recovery mechanisms we did thousands of years ago, time, social support, and unfortunately, substances (e.g., alcohol, drugs, food). Despite recent advances in our scientific understanding of how we are impacted by heartbreak, little has changed in how we go about recovering from this emotionally devastating experience. As I describe in my book How to Fix a Broken Heart, the biggest mistake we make is that we go on “autopilot” and assume the only thing we can do to recover is give it time. Yes, time helps, as does social support, but new studies are verifying that there are all kinds of other steps we can and should take to soothe the emotional pain we feel and expedite our recovery.
A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology examined cognitive and behavioral strategies for recovering from heartbreak. The premise of the study was that to recover from heartbreak we need to diminish our feelings of love for our ex-partner. While that might seem terribly obvious, consider that heartbreak often makes most of us do the opposite: We enact thoughts and behaviors that actually reinforce our love feelings (e.g., stalking our ex on social media, reliving our best moments, pouring over old images and video of happy times). The goal of the study was to examine three kinds of emotional regulation strategies to see which of them would help heartbroken subjects reduce their love feelings.
In the first condition, subjects focused on negative reappraisals of their ex-partner (e.g., by responding to prompts about their ex’s annoying habits). In the second condition they were asked to reframe their loving feelings as less problematic (e.g., by endorsing prompts such as ‘It’s okay to love someone I’m no longer with’). The last condition used distraction (e.g., questions about the subjects’ favorite food) to get the participants’ mind off their heartbreak. The researchers found that only negative reappraisals were truly effective in reducing love feelings. However, doing so did increase feelings of unpleasantness.
Unfortunately, it is those very feelings of “unpleasantness” that make it challenging to use negative reappraisals as a way to recover from heartbreak. We might accept, on an intellectual level, that by focusing on our ex’s faults we’re doing something important but it can still feel wrong (unpleasant), unbalanced, unfair, and even disloyal.
As a clinician, I’ve found that there are two things we can do to minimize these feelings of unpleasantness and thus feel freer to practice negative reappraisals of our ex. First, we need to frame the task differently. Specifically, we need to consider that when we are heartbroken, our mind is likely to bombard us with highly idealized snapshots, memories and thoughts both about our ex and about our relationship. We tend to remember only the best times and our ex’s best qualities. In other words, our mind is already creating unbalanced and inaccurate perceptions that are highly skewed to the positive. Therefore, our introduction of negative reappraisals does not create an imbalance, it corrects an existing one.
Second, negative reappraisals should include not just our perceptions and memories of our ex but of the relationship as well. We tend to idealize the relationship just as much as we do the person and think almost exclusively of the good times and the happy moments. We are far less likely to consider the compromises we had to make, the fights that hurt our feelings or frustrated us, or our unmet emotional needs. People often grieve both the person and the relationship itself—the experience of being a couple, having a significant other, the companionship and partnering. Therefore, it is necessary to address idealized perceptions of the relationship by introducing negative reappraisals of our couplehood, as well as of our ex as a person, in order to more effectively reduce feelings of attachment and love.
If you are trying to get over heartbreak, make a list of the person’s faults as well as of the shortcomings of the actual relationship and to keep that list on their phone. Whenever you find yourself having idealized thoughts and memoires, whip out your phone and read a few reminders in order to balance your perceptions and remind yourself that your ex was not perfect and neither was the relationship.
One crucial aspect of recovery from heartbreak that was not covered in the current study is that breakups leave all kinds of voids in our lives. Our social circle gets diminished, our activities change, our physical space changes (e.g., their ‘stuff’ is no longer there), some of the things we did as couples we no longer do, and the list goes on. A significant part of the emotional pain we feel after a breakup is related to these other losses, the ripple effects that go beyond the loss of the actual person. Finding ways to recognize these voids and fill them is an important task of recovery from heartbreak and one that is often neglected.
Heartbreak is a form of grief and loss that can cause insomnia, changes in appetite, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts and behavior and as such it should be taken very seriously, as should our efforts to recover. However, to do so, we have to assert control and consciously and willfully prevent ourselves from making mistakes that will set us back (like staying in touch or trying to be friends while we’re still heartbroken) and encourage ourselves to take steps that might feel unpleasant or counter-intuitive, but that will ultimately diminish our emotional pain and expedite our recovery.