Rejection hurts and it hurts a lot. Whether the dumping happens directly or indirectly, subtly over time or quickly as if ripping off a bandage the hurt is disturbing and frightening to the partner left behind. In my experience with clients, the end has come by direct conversations or indirectly by text messages. Rejection has arrived by coming home to an empty house, a hastily scrawled note or it can be a drawn out and confusing “dagger to the heart” by coldness and blank stares. In whatever manner a person is dumped, the pain is acute and can be devastating.
We are at the core social creatures whose connections are important to our survival. In some sense our losses, whether in a relationship, at work or on the playground mimic some primitive and primal panic. If I’m not attractive enough, or good enough or worthy enough then I will be alone and defenseless. In other eras, banishment meant not only loss of status but, loss of property, loss of family and almost certain death. Social ostracizing creates the feeling that our survival is threatened.
Romantic rejection is the strongest of all social losses. Brain scans by Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher found that just thinking about our romantic partner triggers the same sections of our brain as would be triggered by addiction. This is no surprise to anyone who has ever been in love. If Love can be seen as addictive, then rejection engages us in a neurological stew of pain and withdrawal which brings about strong levels of anxiety and obsession. A heady and pleasurable addiction becomes an overwhelming need and hunger for lost sustenance. It is also common for the spurned lover to feel actual physical pain. Being broken-hearted is more than a metaphor. Romantic loss will trigger the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
Studies have shown that most of us will recover and even thrive fairly quickly. When the rejected person can embrace the reality of the situation, most have found a sense of personal growth and freedom within a matter of months following the breakup. On some level, most of us know when a relationship is not working and even though the loss is painful can come to see the healthy aspects of moving away from a bad choice.
For some, though, a romantic rejection can be destructive. David Sbarra, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, stated that 10 to 15 percent of rejected lovers “struggle mightily” at the end of a relationship. They are at risk for major depression, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, as well as, dramatic and risky behaviors.
Researchers in the field of attachment find that our early experiences with caregivers will influence our response to breakups. The Psychologist, John Bowlby noted different types of infant attachment. Those with a secure attachment to their caregivers will feel more worthy of love and less devastated by its end. In contrast, insecure or anxious attached individuals will exhibit needier behaviors and be harshly affected by the end of the primary relationship.
Anxious attachment individuals can tend towards aggressive and sometimes violent behavior. Lies, attacks on Twitter and Facebook, character assassination with family and friends, stalking and threatening behavior while, at the same time, trying to romance their partner with expressions of love, forgiveness and gifts will mimic infantile strategies and behaviors. These behaviors are trying and failing to repair past primal wounds.
Other insecure or disorganized individuals may be less aggressive, but no less focused on the loss. These sad and heartbroken partners talk, with anyone who will listen, their pain and their observations. Their pain is “the worst” and its spoken about in a narcissistic, self-involved manner that keeps others at bay who might be present for them. This pain is revisited without much in the way of any healthful change. Those with a more secure attachment style, by contrast, will eventually be able to use their pain and hurt to help restore their sense of a healthy self.
If a person is crushed by rejection, certain factors seem to help with recovery. The sadness, hurt and anger of romantic loss can be mitigated with support and validation from others, especially a trained professional. Often an individual’s loss is discounted and minimized and a therapist can both provide genuine support while, at the same time helping the hurting person seek the answers he or she so desperately needs. “Why am I not worthy?”, “What did I do wrong?” or “Why did he do this to me?” are all valid questions that can be explored.supp
Recovery is greatly fostered by focusing on self rather than the relationship. Experts agree that it is destructive to obsessively focus on the other. As difficult as it is to not drive by their house or “accidentally” bump into her or look at his Facebook page, healing will be delayed. These actions only keep the rejected person away from the reality that the relationship is over. Focusing on self means finding ways to have fun, new relationships and personal goals that will expand, rather than contract an individual’s self-worth and recovery. This type of loss is extremely painful and may take months or years to fully recover from. A person who is open to focusing away from the rejecter and towards one’s own health will shorten recovery time.
Andrew S. Holzman, MPS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He works with individuals, couples and families. 317-457-8668 or email@example.com