Why does the sadness come in waves?

One of the most valuable lessons there is to learn about weathering the emotional storm of a breakup is realizing that the pain, the sadness, the negative emotions, all come in waves. When we’re experiencing the emotion, and the experience is such that we are “inside” the emotion, it’s easy to forget that what we’re feeling is not some kind of permanent condition. Halpern calls this “Infant time“, where we forget the concept of time because we’re transported into some type of emotional experience analogous to how we would have experienced it as a child.

But why does grief hit us in waves? Why isn’t it more like a bruise, where it heals slowly, feeling slightly better day by day? Heartbreak seems to be different from other things we go through in its ability to make us feel like we’ve gone one step forward and two steps backward. Sometimes it may even feel like we’re back at zero and we’ve made no progress at all. The waves of negativity are interspersed with brief flashes of relief – and this is what makes it so confusing.

You might have caught yourself saying:

“I thought I was doing alright, but now I feel like I’m back at square one.”

“I don’t understand, I wasn’t even thinking about her at all for over a week!”

As is usually the case with understanding these things, we need to draw from different sources in order to piece together a theory of what’s going on. A great resource in this respect is this short interview with evolutionary biologist Brett Weinstein where he talks about the biological purpose of grief. Here are some key insights from the exchange:

Grief is the downside of love, and what I mean by that is when you love somebody you prioritize them in your mind. Sounds trivial almost, but you prioritize them in your whole conscious schema. You expect them at certain places and times, you depend on them, you integrate them into your understanding of the world. And when they are lost, you have to unintegrate them. That doesn’t mean that you forget them, but it does mean that to the extent that somebody was very important to you, that that expectation has to be excised from your active program, so that you do not continue to expect them. So that you do not depend on them when they can no longer show up.

What Brett is saying here is that grief is a process of unintegration, where we go through a process of removing from our brains the part of the “active program” that we were running which we were using to depend on another person. This process kicks off as soon as it becomes clear we won’t be able to depend on them any longer.

He goes on to explain why this process of unintegration leads to “interspersed periods of anguish,” which we’ve been referring to as waves of pain:

And I would argue that the pattern of grief that we experience, where you have these intense periods of anguish that are interspersed with periods of normalcy and that the periods of anguish become farther and farther apart but they don’t become less fraught until finally they do — that that is emblematic of the fact that your brain keeps discovering places that the person who has been lost, was wired in, and at first you find all of the obvious ones, all of the circuits that become active regularly. It becomes apparent that, oh, this has changed, and that has changed, and as time goes on the remoteness of the circuitry that the person was connected to grows, and so the frequency with which you encounter one of those circuits goes down. And so in this way the person finds their memory re-categorized, so that you no longer are depending on them in a living way.

So, as our brains go through the process of unintegrating someone from our lives, it will initially encounter many memories and associations, corresponding to the ciruits that were regularly active during our relationship. Waking up together, seeing, touching and smelling each other daily, speaking with each other. All of these activities correspond to circuits in our brain which you were activating multiple times a day during your relationship. Now that we’ve started this process of unintegration, we’re updating these circuits every time they get activated – and that process is painful (more on that later). Every time you would have heard your former partner, every time you would have called her, smelled her — every time a circuit is triggered that involved them, you will be put through this unintegration process.

Initially, there will be many of these circuits “nearby.” As you get used to the fact that your ex-partner is no longer part of all your daily routines the amount of unseen circuits becomes less and less. Where you might be reminded of your ex multiple times a day in the initial weeks, the frequency tapers off as you establish new habits and new routines. As time goes on, occurrences of this unintegration process become less and less frequent – although not necessarily less painful. Here’s my impression of what the process looks like:

So although the sadness may come in waves, the waves aren’t necessarily periodic and their intensity doesn’t drop off as gradual as you would expect. Instead, the frequency of the waves gradually decreases as your brain re-categorizes your former partner so you can go along living without depending on them.

What is the point of the waves being painful? Pain is our brain’s software for teaching us lessons and making sure they stick. From an evolutionary point of view losing your partner could mean losing your only (or one of your only) opportunities to raise offspring and propagate your genes. Remember that our evolutionary wiring is such that we’re programmed to survive and reproduce. We tend to feel strong negative emotions whenever we do something that negatively impacts our odds of doing so.

As we go through the process of unintegrating someone from our “active program”, the experience of sadness and pain draw our attention to the areas where – at least according to our programming – we have lessons to learn. If some thoughts keep coming back, as Dr. Jordan B. Peterson likes to say, it’s because you haven’t learnt what you need to learn in order to prevent whatever triggered them from happening again in the future.

I shouldn’t be feeling this way!

Here’s another common trap I see guys fall into. They say something like this:

I shouldn’t be feeling this way it’s been 6 months (or longer)!

or

I shouldn’t be feeling this way, we only date for 6 months (or shorter)!

or

I shouldn’t be feeling this way, she’s obviously moved on!

What trap are they falling into?

They’re judging what they’re feeling. By passing judgment to what you’re feeling, you’re introducing another level of feelings. You become angry because you’re sad, or you become sad because you’re angry.

Ask yourself what am I feeling? Identify the emotion. Label it. “I’m feeling sadness right now.”

Labelling the emotion puts us outside of it. It creates some space around it. It makes it less overwhelming. It’s the difference with “I am sad.”

Then ask yourself: What am I not accepting? Let the answer arise naturally. Perhaps you’re not accepting that you feel this intensity of emotion. Perhaps you’re not accepting that you feel this much out of control.

Identify what you’re not accepting. Label it. “I feel like I cannot accept that I am this sad about this.”

Then focus on your breath. Identify, label and focus on your breath.

What we resist persists. Judgment is a form of resistance. Instead we must accept fully and unconditionally accept the emotions that are there at the present moment.

Remember, they may feel REAL but that doesn’t make them TRUE.

Sometimes I’m able to forget you

Here’s one of the poems I wrote when going through my breakup. It’s translated from Dutch to English and doesn’t rhyme,  but that shouldn’t matter:

Sometimes I’m able to forget you and then I can go on with surviving,

but why would I want to survive if it makes me forget you,

maybe you don’t think the same way as I do,

somewhere I feel that you do,

but that feeling counts for nothing.

How a breakup builds character

The breakup that was the catalyst for this website was back in 2010. I went through a lot of different emotions and only once I had overcome most of them, did I start writing this blog.

Sometimes, however, something will happen to me in my daily life, and I’ll feel something, and it will take me back to those times. It will be a challenging situation, and I can pause for a moment, and recognize the feeling. Not only is it something I’ve felt before, it’s a challenge I have overcome before – it’s a lesson I know.

Here’s what happened.

I’m living in Switzerland at the moment, sub-letting a nice room from a very friendly girl that’s been living here for a while. I remember our first encounter, which she set up for her to see if she could live with me and would want to sub-let the room to me.

We really hit it off. We had a two hour long conversation which was supposed to be half an hour. We laughed and talked like old friends and I left with a very good feeling. She called me a couple of hours later that I would get the room, I remember being ecstatic.

Over the months, our relationship dwindled. We had different jobs, different schedules, different lives, different priorities. She is neat, I’m a bit untidy. She cooks late, I cook early. The result was our lives became disconnected, we were living in different dimensions, yet we were still living together. I knew this – sort of – but was indifferent.

Today she surprised me. She said “can I talk with your for a sec” – sound familiar? Now I had no romantic relationship with this girl, but there are some parallels in our friendship to a romantic relationship, that I think are instructive.

She sat me down at the kitchen table and told me she would like me to move out. Things had not gone as she had expected. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t me – it was her. I hadn’t done anything wrong – it was just a feeling. She was very unspecific about everything, but very specific about ending things with me – our living together. Sound familiar? There’s more.

My initial reaction was a mild state of shock. I had been blind sided by this. Although I realized we had had very little contact over the last several months and that we were not getting along as he had once done before – I had not been aware of the growing discontentment she was obviously feeling.

I had thought about moving out myself several times during the same period. The fact that we were not interacting anymore played a part. But I didn’t pull the trigger. She did. And I would be lying if I said that didn’t hurt.

My mind raced. “How could she do this to me?”. Why didn’t she talk to me about this when she was feeling this the first time? This could have been averted! Why was she dropping this bombshell on me now?

That’s when I was able to pause – to become aware of the moment, of the girl that was sitting in front of me. All the lessons I learnt during my breakup and the time after, now came naturally to me. The shock – and slight anxiety – sunk away.

This moment of awareness opened a channel of compassion for me. I could now see this girl, obviously torn by the situation and struggling with her life in general. She had told me her job had not been fulfilling anymore, that life was hard for her – frustrating even.

Only now could I see that she had been struggling all along. Her sister who she had a good relationship with had moved to another city and she had broken up with her boyfriend. In a roommate she had hoped for a connection, she had hoped for a companion – perhaps not consciously, but when it didn’t materialize she recognized it as problem.
Her life feeling as struggle – she realized she needed change. That change could have come from within. But not everyone is in a place where they have that capacity – or will ever be able to use it at all.

So the change had to be external.

She undoubtedly sensed my indifference, our different lives our different characters. I was fine with not connecting – I didn’t need it, but I think she did.

It’s too late to change that, even if I wanted to. She associates me – our relationship – with a situation where she is not getting that companionship. It is very hard – if not impossible – for her to conceive of the same situation which would include a meaningful bond. And it’s very hard – if not impossible – to provide that, even if I wanted to.

My shock, anxiety and I have to admit, resentment, were gone. I smiled. “I understand” I said. She looked surprised. “Listen, you need to follow your feeling, I understand that. I’m not part of that feeling, that’s okay.”

She was relieved – and a bit surprised – I took it so well. I’m glad I took it the way I did. I am glad I have the capacity to take it the way I did. I did not use to have that capacity. I cultivated that capacity, it is part of the person I have become. A process which started with my breakup.

Now the emotions did not flare up once and now they’re gone. Quite the contrary. On a daily basis I am faced with the reality of having to find a new place, having to live with another room mate who was not asked to leave and having to keep up appearances to both. Emotions flare up all the time.

I feel flares of frustration, resentment, antagonism, annoyance – you name it. Sometimes the idea of being deliberately inconsiderate pops into my mind. But as I’ve learnt, and as I try and teach, that’s okay. I can’t control my emotions – but I can choose not to let them run my life.

I can choose to observe my emotions, rather than live through them. I can choose to observe my thoughts for I am not my thoughts. I choose how I respond and I shape how I feel. I respond to my best capacity and I feel the very best I can.

This approach of present mindedness helps the emotions to dissipate. It takes conscious effort, and it’s a skills that needs developing. I started learning this stuff after my breakup. It’s made a me a better, stronger person with a capacity for compassion and level of resilience I am proud of.

The Role of Testosterone in Breakups

Whether you’re in a relationship or not makes a big difference for your physiology and bodily chemistry.  A host of neurochemical constellations are involved in a series of complex processes that drive sets of physiological responses and behaviors. In a relationship, one of these constellations you’re likely to experience is that of attachment to your beloved. These feelings of fusion with your lover are now widely attributed to the “paternal instinct” chemical of oxytocin and the “cuddle” chemical of vasopressin.
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