“They Say That Time’s Supposed to Heal Ya, But I Ain’t Done Much Healing”: The Science Behind Break-Ups

Break-ups: We’ve all been through them. Even Adele has. I once broke up with a guy because kissing him was like kissing a bucket of water. Two years later, I got dumped two weeks before my junior prom (and even worse — he took another date with him). It took me weeks to get over that guy, and I’m sure my freshman year boyfriend took a little time to move on, too. But is there a science behind getting over an ex? Is there a method to the madness that is the break-up? Some romantics may say “no way, it’s all just sweatpants and Ben & Jerry’s,” but I disagree.

Before we look at the science of the healing process, we need to look at the break-up itself. It turns out that when you’re suffering from heart-ache, you may actually be experiencing pain. A 2011 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the relationship between “social rejection” and physical pain. Researchers tried to prove a link between the two “by having people who recently experienced an unwanted break-up view a photograph of their ex-partner as they think about being rejected.” Through a series of MRI’s, they found that the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula, the parts of the brain that are normally associated with physical pain, lit up. Maybe this is why break-ups are so hard to get over: it’s a physical healing as well as an emotional one.

For all of you heartbroken people out there, you’re going to want to pay attention to this next part: studies show that you shouldn’t spend too much time wallowing. A little dwelling on the past is okay,  but it’s often better to calmly reflect — one study conducted at Northwestern University showed that reflection can help people “sort through their emotions and build a stronger sense of who they were as single people.” They arrived at this conclusion by gathering up people who had gone through a break-up in the last six months and splitting them into two groups. The first group completed an initial questionnaire at the beginning of a nine week period, and then completed a final questionnaire with no reporting in between. The second group, however, continuously reported their emotion status and coping mechanisms for the course of nine weeks, which included interviews and monitoring their heart rates. After nine weeks, the researchers concluded that the second group, who were consistently forced to face their emotions, “had a better overall recovery from their break-ups.” While dwelling on the break-up helps one recreate their self-concept, too much of it can inhibit our ability to move on.

It can be hard not to dwell on the past, especially when you’re coming out of a long, emotional relationship. Despite all this, there is still hope: another study from Northwestern shows that people often overestimate how long it will take to get over your ex. Researchers from the university ask the question, “how accurately can people predict the magnitude of this post-breakup distress?” 69 Northwestern freshman were chosen to be part of the study, and were asked to fill out an initial questionnaire where they stated the length of their current relationship. Every two weeks after that, each participant had to report if they were still involved in their previously mentioned relationship. If they reported that they weren’t, they then had to rate if they agreed or disagreed with certain statements such as “In general, I am pretty happy these days,” or ‘‘I am extremely upset that my relationship with [name] ended.” These questionnaires were meant to predict “actual distress.” To find “predicted distress” among the participants, they were asked questions like “If your relationship were to end in sometime within the next two weeks, to what degree will you agree with this statement in two [four, eight, twelve] weeks?” After a series of calculations and further questioning, it was found that on average, the participants’ predicted distress was significantly longer than their actual distress.

Despite what studies may show, there are plenty of anecdotal cases out there. Dwelling in the past with buckets of ice cream and sweatpants that are so big they fall off may work for some people, and there are plenty of people who end a relationship and hop right into another, no questions asked. It depends on what works best for you, and just like a lot of the cases we learned about in class, there could be third variables at play when it comes to predicting how long you’ll be heart-broken for or feeling physical pain from a break-up. A break-up could be the result of a lot of outside stress from a job, family problems, or personal issues, which could all also cause physical pain. Not only that, but other issues could make getting over your ex a lot harder. There can always be other variables at play, as well as chance — but if you’re looking to get over a break-up, you can always turn to science for the answer.

4 thoughts on ““They Say That Time’s Supposed to Heal Ya, But I Ain’t Done Much Healing”: The Science Behind Break-Ups

  1. Gabriela Isabel Stevenson Post author

    Jenny, I’m glad you enjoyed it so much! I really enjoyed writing it, but I was a little disappointed when the first thing few things I found said that wallowing wasn’t good for you after a break-up. As you must know, though. there’s a lot of research out there, and I did a little digging to see who thought that tons of chocolate and pajamas and tears helped at all. While the article I referred to about heart ache talked about physical pain and how wallowing wouldn’t help get rid of it, I found this article from SAGE journals that says psychologically it could help. Since you took an interest in my blog post and wrote about broken hearts yourself, take a look and let me know what you think! http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/18/1948550614563085.abstract

  2. Jenny Eberhardt

    Great article! I love the Adele title, very spot on with the times. I also like the way that you incorporated what we have learned in class here in your article and have made them very obvious by bolding them. I did not realize that there was such extensive science behind a breakup; although I did write a blog earlier about broken heart syndrome; so I suppose it makes senses. It is interesting that studies show that one should not wallow too much. I also like that you looked at a breakup beyond sweats and Ben & Jerry’s, although they are great momentary/temporary fixes. I found this article about breakups and how science can help. Thanks for sharing! http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/13/376804930/breaking-up-is-hard-to-do-but-science-can-help

  3. Gabriela Isabel Stevenson Post author

    Jose, I think that from from a scientist point of view, your first true love can definitely have a special meaning for you. Your first true love is the person that you want to share certain, and sometimes even life-changing experiences with, which I think can have some major impact on the memory. If you’re like the majority of the population who doesn’t end up spending their life with their first love and finds themselves committing to someone else or dating around, then you find yourself engaging in those experiences repeatedly, which I think can trigger something in the mind and take you back to the first time. It’s an interesting thing, how memory connects to emotion like that. What are your thoughts on that special meaning?

  4. Jose Ignacio Arango De Diego

    I’ve had very dramatic break-ups before in my life so I can totally relate to your blog. Also I found really interesting and made me realize that there is actually a relationship between emotional and physical pain. After being heartbroken I would feel nauseous at some times so I decided to investigate a little bit more about and i found this article which talks about it, http://www.science20.com/variety_tap/science_behind_heartbreak-33900
    Also, there are other myths that say that your first true love will have a special meaning for you throughout your life. Some might say its false, some might say its true so I also decided to search more about it.

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