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 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