The end of a romantic relationship is a painful experience. It is common to experience a variety of feelings such as anger, hurt, sadness and fear during a break-up. It is common to cry, yell and obsess about what went wrong. It is common to fantasize about fixing things so the pain will stop. Indeed, for some people, the break-up is so traumatic that they experience exaggerated versions of these normal feelings that accompany a significant loss. Feelings of panic and depression can become debilitating and render normal day to day functioning impossible to maintain. These extreme reactions often present themselves in the form of, for example, people not being able to go to work, having difficulty eating or sleeping, abusing alcohol or drugs, and obsessively thinking and talking about the ex-partner and the details of the break-up. Patterns of desperate calling and texting partners proclaiming promises, apologies, rationalizations, or threats, occur in an attempt to stay connected, even if that connection is not leading to positive changes to the problems which caused the break-up in the first place.
Some of the most common causes for a break-up becoming more of a “break-down” are: 1) low self esteem; 2), early abandonment by one or both parents in childhood; 3) past physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; 4) immaturity; and 5) untreated underlying psychological problems.
How Backgrounds Affect Processing of a Break-up
How we grew up, what we saw happen within our family relationships, and what we experienced (or do not experience) directly with our parents, affects how we attach to and bond with romantic partners later in life. Those also affect what we feel entitled to in a relationship, as well as how much deprivation or abuse we will accept from a partner. For example, growing up in a home where feelings are not modeled, encouraged, or acknowledged, can set off a process of detaching from our own healthy feelings and needs. This emotional deprivation sets off a hunger for a deep, validating relationship that was not experienced with a parent. Normal children are born with a normal desire to bond with, feel safe with, and be unconditionally loved by their parents. When this healthy connection does not occur due to circumstances within the family (eg., alcoholism, other addictions, mental or physical illness, divorce, etc.), a person begins to seek relationships based on a desperate sense of loneliness, anxiety, or the need for validation of their worthiness from another person. These emotional issues result in weak or non-existent boundaries, and a lack of accurate awareness of one’s authentic self.
Low Self Esteem: A Guaranteed Indicator of Falling Apart After Break-up
Feelings of unworthiness create several dysfunctional patterns in dating and mating. The most prevalent of these patterns are: 1) settling for less than what we want and need; 2) accepting and/or not even recognizing forms of abuse; and 3) becoming obsessive about finding a partner to the detriment of self actualization, and the establishing and maintaining of family relations and friendships. Some people can function with a strong underlying sense of unworthiness and not even know it. For example, underlying a person with extreme self grandiosity can be that very feeling of unworthiness. Other people consciously think about themselves and treat themselves in abusive or self-sabotaging ways. Based on negative internalized messages received from experiences in childhood, one or another version of these low self esteem patterns will eventually either sabotage a good relationship, or cause the acceptance of, and inability to end, a negative relationship. Despite feeling lonely, hurt, scared or unhappy in a relationship, people with low self esteem will rationalize, justify, excuse and deny any healthy reasons to end their relationship. The low self esteem tape says, “No one else will want me, I will be alone, I will fall apart, I am weak, I am flawed… “, so stay and keep things together no matter what. This extreme form of fear and neediness creates an intense experience of anxiety, almost like when a toddler cannot see their mom who has just stepped out of the room. Accepting verbal abuse, cheating, over criticism, coldness and incompatibilities, therefore, is tolerated to avoid the pain of a break up.
Early Abandonment and Break-up Anxiety
Babies and small children need to be physically close to their parents in order to feel safe and calm. The need to be touched is crucial for creating a loving, secure experience. The need to hear parental voices is also a part of connecting and feeling emotionally and physically safe. When parents inadequately provide these physical and sensory experiences, children will typically have anxiety reactions such as crying or sleep issues. As children grow, their needs mature and the need to hear positive feedback and a strong show of interest and attention to their presence becomes crucial to the development of their self esteem. A child deprived of these healthy needs is being emotionally damaged, and without knowing it goes into coping mode in order to establish emotional equilibrium.. However well a child may seem to cope at the time, gaps in the development of a healthy accurate identity and healthy sense of self esteem occur. Experiencing this lack of parental connection will lead to difficulties establishing healthy intimacy skills. One coping mechanism is to seek a romantic relationship in order to alleviate feelings of loneliness and unworthiness. Looking for love feeling desperate and anxious severely impairs judgment in the choosing romantic partners.
Past Abuse and Its Contribution to Enmeshment
Break-ups are difficult for people who become enmeshed. Ironically, many people who were abused or neglected by parents or other caregivers attach to romantic partners in an enmeshed way, despite the break in trust that accompanies the physical or emotional abandonment they suffered as a child. Emerging from abandonment or abuse often results in a fantasy reality, one that defends against acknowledging pain, rejection or failure. On the surface it may seem illogical to become closely attached to a partner that is abusive, dismissive or just not what you really want. However, if there is past abuse in a persons life, the current abuse or lack of fulfillment may feel familiar and therefore create a bonding that is instinctive and magnetic. In the unconscious mind of a person with low self esteem and enmeshed patterns of bonding, is the belief that winning over their rejector creates the opportunity to feel a sense of worth and power that they have never felt before, “I could never get the attention or love from my dad, but I will do whatever it takes to get the love and attention from my partner. I will show dad that he was wrong and that I am worthy of what he never gave to me. I am worthy of never being left or alone.”
Bonded by this need to end chronic feelings of hurt and rejection, the enmeshed person will often become highly agitated and act in desperate ways when someone breaks-up with them. The break-up becomes a frightening sign of terminal unworthiness and rejection. This explains why some people begin having panic attacks and desperately depressed during the break up of a relationship.
Immaturity Impairs Logical Thinking and Behaviors
When we look through the lens of immaturity, we miss a lot of nuances and truths about the situations in our lives. In relationships, immaturity causes people to attract and bond deeply around issues such as 1) physical looks and attraction; 2) the desire to look good to their peers and to feel “cool”; 3) to have a quick avenue to sex; 4) to prove their worth based on a conquest they view as “prized”; or 5) to be wanted and desired (and therefore validated as a person). When young people experience love for the first time, seeing love and relationships through an immature lens is normal. Being young and inexperienced makes a person more vulnerable to bonding quickly and having unrealistic expectations of a relationship. It also limits the ability to perceive deeper qualities in people that are more meaningful long term, than the more superficial ones on which they are currently focused or obsessed. With this limited depth of perception and understanding of the complexities and realities of relationships, young people are ill prepared for the pain of rejection and loss, and can quickly become overwhelmed with anxiety and loss of self esteem.
Many people in full adulthood, despite having had experience with relationships can also fall victim to the overwhelm of a break-up if they have not moved forward in emotional intelligence about themselves and the risk and realities of romantic relationships. No matter what the age of a person, if they continue to look at love through an immature, romantic lens, they are susceptible to feeling “broken” when a relationship ends. The immature view of relationships is more about desire and the need to be validated than it is about realistic, healthy love. Immature people crave the drama of romantic intensity and when reality hits, like someone deciding to move on and break up, their minds are ill-prepared to process the situation with stable emotions and rational thought.
Underlying Mental Conditions Weakens Resiliency During a Break-Up
People suffering from diagnosable mental issues are easily disabled by a break-up. Depression reduces a persons ability to think clearly enough to process thoughts that help with coping. Although it usually helps during a break-up to be around people who can be there for support and love, depressed people will often isolate, therefore potentially increasing feelings of depression and anxiety. People who are already anxious by nature will tend to over-think the experience in a negative way, usually resulting in destructive thinking styles, such as black and white thinking, negative projection and personalization. These styles of thinking, called cognitive distortions, increase the incidence and severity of mood disturbances and make the experience of a break-up more intense and disturbing.
People suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction are poor candidates for relationships. Chemical abuse blocks rational thinking and access to feelings. Addicts tend to be self centered and therefore not particularly good at reciprocal participation in their relationships. Alcoholics and addicts will excessively turn to chemicals to cope with loss and this can lead to excess use that can become emotionally or medically dangerous. Staying away from using chemicals to cope with a break-up is an essential part of the process of getting through a painful experience in a healthy way.
How To Cope With Loss and Move On
The best way to insure that you won’t feel like you are breaking down because your relationship is ending is to make sure that you are in a strong emotional state before getting into one. Strong people deal with their emotions outwardly, immediately, and effectively. They don’t judge or shame their feelings, but instead accept and communicate them. Strong, stable people do not isolate during a break up but rather reach out for support and indulge in healthy distractions. Despite the fact that relationships can be wonderful, they can go very wrong in the blink of an eye. Becoming emotionally strong helps develop positive coping skills that are so needed during the end of a relationship. Seeking professional help from a counselor can be instrumental in finding constructive ways to better cope with the pain of the break-up. Talking to a therapist can help maintain emotional stability while developing a plan for moving into the future without a partner. Therapy can also help repair resulting damage to the self esteem. Continuing to do activities that give you pleasure and connect you to your strengths is crucial to being able to believe that you still have a purpose in life and that you can still feel positive feelings.
Having a strong base of friends and family that care about you and who you can trust is also crucial in reducing feelings of desperate loneliness and hopelessness that can accompany a break-up. It is important to be open with the people in your circle that can listen, not judge your process, and who can hold off on giving advice unless you ask for it. Also crucial during a break-up is having personal and professional goals. Goals are reminders that your life is not only about being in a romantic relationship. They are reminders that you have passions, talents, interests and curiosities which make your life purposeful, meaningful and enjoyable. The person who makes having self worth, a strong identity and happiness contingent on being in a relationship is the same person who will desperately be calling their friends, family and therapists in a panic about being left or being alone when the break-up happens. When you have a strong, positive, and accepting relationship with yourself, a break-up will not break you down, but will remind you that although life can be hard, you are a strong and worthy person deserving of being wanted, respected and loved once again.
Rebecca Sperber, M.S., MFT