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.

The easy let-down

There’s a class of reasons for breaking up with someone that I call “The easy let-down”. It’s when someone’s feelings have changed to the point where they don’t want to be in a romantic relationship with the other person anymore (Passionate Love). At the same time they still feel camaraderie and Affectionate Love for the other person and don’t want to hurt their feelings. They may even want to keep that person in their lives for all the non-sexual non-romantic needs they fulfil. Essentially they would like to move the relationship from a romantic relationship to a friendship. So instead of saying the truth (I don’t feel sexually attracted to you anymore/I don’t see a future with you anymore) they say something like:

  • I don’t know if I want to be in a committed relationship anymore
  • I need time to be on my own
  • I need to be single for a while
  • I need time
  • I need space
  • I need a break
  • I need time to improve myself

This can be mediated by her getting attention from another guy. I’ve seen many breakups where the ex-girlfriend gives the guy an easy let-down only to move on to the next guy shortly after. Read more about why that happens here.

Continued hope for reconciliation

From “Why we love” by Helen Fisher:

Why do lovers continue to hope, even when the dice of life come up relentlessly against them? Most still hope the relationship will spring back to life—even years after it has ended bitterly. Hope is another predominant trait of romantic love.

I think this tendency to hope became implanted in the human brain eons ago so our ancient forebears would doggedly pursue potential mates until the last flicker of possibility had expired.

The Romeo and Juliet Effect

From Why We Love:

Adversity often feeds the flame. I call this curious phenomenon “frustration-attraction” but it is better known as the “Romeo and Juliet effect.” Social or physical barriers kindle romantic passion. They enable one to discard the facts and focus on the terrific qualities of the other. Even arguments or temporary breakups can be stimulating.

How ironic: as the adored one slips away, the very chemicals that contribute to feelings of romance grow even more potent, intensifying ardent passion, fear, and anxiety, and impelling us to protest and try with all our strength to secure our reward: the departing loved one.

As adversity intensifies, so does romantic passion.

As you know, dopamine is produced in factories in the “basement” of the brain, then pumped up to the caudate nucleus and other brain regions where it generates the motivation to win designated rewards. If an expected reward is delayed in coming, however, these dopamine-producing neurons prolong their activities—increasing brain levels of this natural stimulant. And very high levels of dopamine are associated with intense motivation and goal-directed behaviors, as well as with anxiety and fear.

Psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon maintain that this protest response is a basic mammalian mechanism that activates when any kind of social attachment is ruptured.

And these psychiatrists believe, as I do, that this protest reaction is associated with elevated levels of dopamine, as well as with norepinephrine. Rising levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, they say, serve to increase alertness and stimulate the abandoned individual to search and call for help.

Addicted to your ex-girlfriend

The dictionary definition of being addicted is being physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance.

Typically we associate this condition with drug use, but doesn’t heartbreak display a physical and mental dependency as well?

Author of How to break your addiction to a person, Howard M. Halpern, would agree. He identifies four characteristics to an addiction:

  1. Compulsiveness.
  2. Panic — felt at the possible absence of the substance.
  3. Withdrawal — felt when not indulging in the substance.
  4. Liberation — felt when breaking the addiction.

As you can imagine, all four could apply to a relationship as well.

As Helen Fisher from Why We Love points out, all addictions are associated with elevated levels of dopamine.

Dopamine involvement may even explain why love-stricken men and women become so dependent on their romantic relationship and why they crave emotional union with their beloved. Dependency and craving are symptoms of addiction.

Is romantic love an addiction? Yes; I think it is–a blissful dependency when one’s love is returned, a painful, sorrowful, and often destructive craving when one’s love is

Are you an addict?

Here are some questions to help you explore whether or not you are, or were, addicted to your relationship.

  1. Despite ample evidence telling you that the relationship was bad for you and that you could not expect improvement, you did not take steps to break it off.
  2. You convinced yourself to stay in the relationship using arguments that don’t hold water.
  3. The thought of ending the relationship caused you to feel anxious.
  4. When you took steps to end the relationship, you suffered withdrawal symptoms that could only be relieved by re-establishing contact.
  5. When the relationship is really over, you feel lost and empty, often followed or even accompanied by a feeling of liberation.

The fundamental attribution error

The fundamental attribution error says that when we react to another person’s behavior we tend to overestimate that person’s character and we underestimate the situation.Continue Reading

The despair phase

Academic psychologists and neuroscientists frequently use the distinction between the “Protest” phase of romantic rejection and the “Despair” phase.

During the protest phase, deserted lovers obsessively try harder to win back their beloveds. As resignation sets in, they give up entirely and slip into despair.

Once you transition from the protest phase to the despair phase, life can feel meaningless. Your ex-girlfriend gave meaning to your life and without her it can seem dull, or even emptyContinue Reading

The protest phase

Academic psychologists and neuroscientists frequently use the distinction between the “Protest” phase of romantic rejection and the “Despair” phase.

During the protest phase, deserted lovers obsessively try harder to win back their beloveds. As resignation sets in, they give up entirely and slip into despair.Continue Reading

Why it hurts a lot

In the Why it hurts we learned that, essentially, a breakup is supposed to hurt. The pain we feel is Nature’s way of telling us that there is something here we need to avoid to improve our odds of survival.

That being said, the pain can also be utterly debilitating. It can completely paralyze us, disrupt our eating and sleeping patterns and remove all the joy from our lives.

Surely there can’t be any added benefit there for our survival, can there?

And what about those who suffer heartbreak over and over again? Are they not picking up on Nature’s lesson? Or is something else going on?

I seems that while most will suffer some degree of pain following a breakup, especially one they didn’t initiate, some suffer more than others.

What do those that suffer more have in common with one another?

I believe what they have in common is one or more older, unhealed wounds.

Those of us that are the most lost, the most hopeless and the most crushed after breaking up, have also been carrying the most pain with us from the past. Perhaps a difficult childhood, unavailable parents or an traumatic event.

Invariably it is the older wound, that we are unaware of, that gets re-opened when we are hurt again. This opens the floodgates to pain, past and present.

The severity of pain that we feel after the breakup is not the only indication that there may be underlying pain. How we relate to those we love is shaped by our experiences growing up. Pain, more than anything else, colors these experiences.

Loosely interpreting Professor Gabor Maté’s work on understanding drug addicts — addicts seek out drugs to self-medicate the pain they are feeling. It is often only through drugs that they are able to briefly escape the constant pressure of sadness that pushes down on them day after day.

I believe those that suffer the most after a breakup are also the ones that relied on the relationship, and their ex-girlfriend’s, the most to help them escape past pain.

Much in the same way as the addiction assumes control of the addict’s life, the relationship assumes control over the dumpee’s.

Why it hurts

An excerpt from my book:

In order to alleviate some of the pain you’re feeling, it’s worth understanding why those emotions are there in first place. By understanding their purpose, it will become easier to deal with them.

Our emotional circuitry evolved over the course of millions of years. Like any other biological system we carry around with us, it evolved because it helped our ancestors survive and reproduce.Continue Reading