How Breakups Work


Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, breakup experts? See more pictures of famous historical couples.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would've made a compelling case study in the neurological and psychological underpinnings of breakups. The old Hollywood couple initially set the tabloids a-smolder when they were caught in flagrante during downtime from filming "Cleopatra" together. Taylor cut ties with her then-husband Eddie Fisher and tied the knot with her Welsh leading man in 1964. Ten years later, Taylor and Burton divorced, only to get remarried a year later and divorced again for good in 1976 [source: Nashawaty].

One wonders how their psyches could've weathered the romantic ups and downs in such quick succession. Especially since many adults rate relationship breakups among the worst events of their lives, the Burton-Taylor double divorce seems like the emotional equivalent of a hurricane on the heels of a tornado [source: Tashiro and Frazier]. At the same time, the pair remained close friends even after the final divorce, and Taylor remarried two more times, which also implies that they were somehow better equipped than some other people for saying goodbye to past love. After all, everyone handles breakups a little bit differently.

The permutations of breakup methodology and aftermath are as infinite as the number of relationships that sprout and wither across time. But from the ashes of those countless lost loves, relationship research has condensed individual experiences into averages that allow us to architect a framework of generalized expectations for handling heartbreak -- and learn best practices for tending and mending bedraggled spirits. This type of interpersonal instruction comes at a serendipitous moment as well, since American adults are likely to endure more breakups these days before settling down, care of the modern trend of them delaying marriage until their late 20s. While simultaneously affording people more time to find a suitable match, this delay leaves open a wider window for romantic letdown in the meantime.

To get started with this primer on parting ways, let's take a bird's-eye view of breakups and find out how, when and why they tend to happen.

Anatomy of a Breakup: When, How & Why?

Glad tidings: Christmas is the least likely time to get dumped.
Glad tidings: Christmas is the least likely time to get dumped.
ballyscanlon/Getty Images

Is there ever a good time to breakup with someone? Is one day of the week more amenable to calling it quits than others? According to data compiled from Facebook status updates in 2009, the most common day to pull the plug is the first Monday in December [source: Byron]. That statistical torrent of turmoil is likely explained by people's resistance to breaking up during the holidays, doing the dirty work before having to endure a season's-worth of pecking under the mistletoe. Aside from breakup announcement spikes in early December and early March, when many college students take a week off for spring break, the rate of relationship dissolution remains fairly steady throughout the year.

As the world has gone mobile, so have breakups. Consider this generational difference in how the bad news is delivered: Men and women born before 1975 will break up with a significant other in person 74 percent of the time, whereas younger heart-breakers born after 1984 only do so 47 percent of the time [source: Byron]. Generation Y is more likely to call someone up (30 percent), send a searing instant message (14 percent) or type out an e-mail (4 percent) [source: Byron]. Because of this technological interference bereft of interpersonal sensitivity, some psychologists warn that romantic rejection stings more acutely for young lovers [source: Svoboda].

The rationales for breaking up aren't as easily boiled down to sterile statistics, however. Not surprisingly, cheating is one of the most common relationship deal-breakers, along with -- and possibly related to -- sexual dissatisfaction [source: Durex]. One study from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, analyzed detailed accounts of breakups and found a macro-level divergence in how men and women decide to break up. Whereas female respondents tended to present itemized lists of grievances, such as wanting more time together, loyalty and support, men's explanations were more nebulous. What they missed was an inexplicable, magical quality of bonding and romance [source: Baxter]. On the micro level, a snapshot of breakup-related Twitter updates in 2009 cited the economy, politics, jealousy, boredom and even vocal pitch as the final straws for various couples [source: Byron].

Once that Band-Aid rips off on the first Monday in December or anytime else and for whatever reason, how does the psyche handle that heartache?

The Emotional Mechanics of Heartache

Men may weather breakups worse than women.
Men may weather breakups worse than women.
Jodie Coston/Getty Images

The psychological symptoms of a breakup aren't pretty. Relationship psychologists identify a spectrum of negative effects, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicide. Moreover, those on the receiving end of a breakup understandably experience a steeper mental freefall [source: Davis, Shaver and Vernon]. Recovering from the blow isn't a quick process, either. Eight weeks after getting dumped, 40 percent of people in one study exhibited signs of clinical depression, and 12 percent appeared moderately or severely depressed [source: Fisher].

Humans' profound emotional reactions to splitting up don't reflect an evolutionary weakness. Rather, it's a visceral response rooted in our mammalian drive toward social bonding that helps guarantee species survival and reproduction [source: Fisher]. That primitive compulsion undergirds the formation of romantic attachments, and how a person attaches to a partner partially determines how well he or she will manage a breakup from a psychological standpoint.

Just like men and women exist somewhere along a sexual spectrum that encompasses both opposite- and same-sex attractions, they're also scattered along a range of attachment styles. At one end sits anxious attachment, characterized by relational neediness and insecurity, and at the opposite is avoidant attachment that dodges commitment and openness. Anxiously attached partners have the most difficulty accepting breakups and are more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drugs and alcohol, to soothe their distress [source: Davis, Shaver and Vernon]. Avoidant types may simply cut ties with little care for providing closure.

Despite stereotypes of women as the clingier partners in heterosexual couples, attachment style, rather than gender, is more predictive of how strongly someone responds to breakups [source: Davis, Shaver and Vernon]. Also, considering that women initiate two-thirds of divorces, in a way, that gives them a statistical edge over men in terms of getting over relationships [source: Brinig and Allen]. And along with the psychological advantage of calling the breakup shots, women also tend to have more finely tuned emotional intelligence that may alert them to relationship red flags before men pick up on the signs of danger ahead [source: Choo, Levine and Hatfield].

But while people might be able to prepare the heart for hard times, the brain has a mind of its own.

This Is Your Brain on a Breakup

Breakups affect the heart -- and the head.
Breakups affect the heart -- and the head.
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

To the brain, getting dumped is the pain equivalent of getting burned by a hot cup of coffee. A 2011 study conducted by a team of neurologists at the Einstein College of Medicine found that merely looking at a photograph of an ex-partner energized the neurological regions -- the second somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula, to be precise -- that also process physical discomfort [source: Kross et al]. Defensively, the dejected brain also signals the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and amplifies the body's immune defenses as though warding off emotional pathogens [source: Fisher]. Indeed, as additional research further confirms, matters of the heart and mind are intimately connected.

Compare functional MRI (fMRI) scans of people recovering from recent breakups and those of people overcoming a cocaine addiction, and the irrational behaviors that go along with breakup coping become even more understandable. In other words, getting over a relationship engages the same neural circuitry as overcoming an addiction, which is why the absence of lost loves is felt so potently that it stimulates literal cravings for their presence [source: Fisher et al].

In people who had been dumped, looking at photographs of former romantic partners stimulated their brains' reward systems, which initially secreted pleasure-inducing dopamine at the sight of those breakup initiators in anticipation of their company. But the sad recognition that an ex-partner won't be coming around anymore deprives the reward system of its stimulus, or love drug, kick-starting the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens in the central brain. That duo triggers the motivational urge to possibly see the person and also reanalyze the benefits and drawbacks associated with the relationship -- as manifested by the rehashing of past events people often engage in while processing a breakup [source: Fisher et al]. And in a domino-like effect, that unsatisfied reward system trips the nearby prefrontal cortex, which elicits feelings of frustration and anger [source: Fisher].

On a more positive note, the fMRI data also revealed that the sting of heartache eases with time. Follow-up brain scans months after breakups found lowered levels of activity in regions associated with romantic motivation [source: Fisher et al]. By the same token, that also underscores the hard reality that there's no quick and easy route to dissolving amorous attachments. And during that challenging recovery period, it's often tempting to satisfy that neurological craving and rekindle the flame.

Let's Get (Back) Together

Getting back together with an ex is becoming more common.
Getting back together with an ex is becoming more common.
Tooga/Getty Images

During the initial throes of post-breakup angst, the quickest route back to happiness might lead straight into the arms of the most recent ex-partner. Re-evaluating life without someone special in it can burnish the positive aspects of a relationship and push the negative patterns into the background. Missing the sexual intimacy that comes with longer-term mating can also cause couples to rethink whether staying apart is really that wise. Certainly, it took Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton some practice to part ways.

Although it can be unhealthy to fixate on getting back together with an ex-partner, slowing the psychological process of relinquishing the romance, it's happening more often these days. According to a 2010 study at Texas State University, San Marcos, about 20 percent of adults will engage in an on-again, off-again relationship with a significant other over their lifetime [source: Crook]. Young folks are even more likely to change their minds about leaving someone behind, with as many as 60 percent of teenagers breaking up and getting back together down the road -- and doing so twice, in a majority of cases. This represents a sharp uptick from related research in the late 1980s and early 2000s, which estimated a get-back-together frequency of only 3 to 40 percent [source: Crook]. Based on research regarding motivations for reviving relationships, that tendency toward mending fences might imply greater insecurity among up-and-coming dating pools.

For instance, a 2011 study by the University of Texas at Austin assessing people's reasons for getting back together with an ex highlighted a common theme of relational ambiguity. Along with the expected lingering sentiments, participants noted misunderstandings about the ramifications of a breakup and its negative impact on the couple's post-split relationship as grounds for giving it another shot [source: Beck]. But on-again, off-again relationships may inherently restart at a disadvantage, according to related research. On average, men and women involved in cyclical romances report more negative aspects than positive ones, particularly communication problems and instability [source: Dailey et al]. That isn't to conclude that cyclical relationships are doomed for failure, but to emphasize that getting back together doesn't dissolve past problems. Instead of framing it as a fresh start, it would be more accurate to consider reuniting as a redefinition of the existing relationship, warts and all [source: Dailey et al].

Whether or not someone decides to grant an ex a second chance, moving on from the emotional trauma inflicted by a breakup is crucial.

Moving On From a Breakup

Moving on from a breakup can feel like a marathon.
Moving on from a breakup can feel like a marathon.

Trite but true, the only cure for breakups is time. It's impossible to wrestle a romance-addled brain into submission and silence the echoes of past love at will. But as mentioned earlier, the brain's reward system gradually stops craving the presence of an ex-partner, and life returns to normal for all intents and purposes. In that way, adjusting to post-breakup existence centers on regaining the sense of self that was absorbed as a natural byproduct of coupling. A 2010 study from Northwestern University found that the longer the relationship, the more change participants anticipated experiencing post-breakup [source: Cosier]. Put another way, moving on from a breakup involves unraveling the "we" identity and finding the "me," a process academics are investigating further.

That personal evolution instigated by a significant breakup isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. In fact, heartbreak and recovery can lead to positive developments that may leave people better prepared for future romance. In seeking out the health-promoting aspects of a breakup, newly singles might pursue hobbies, fitness goals or reconnect with friends. Psychologists refer to that type of pain-fueled progress as "stress-related growth" [source: Tashiro and Frazier]. However, a 2003 study involving college students who had experienced difficult breakups found that post-breakup self-cultivation doesn't apply equally to everyone. For instance, rejected women reported the greatest breakup-fostered development [source: Tashiro and Frazier]. Perhaps by having to overcome the steeper emotional hurdles associated with getting dumped, as opposed to initiating a breakup, those women were more determined to positively learn from the heartbreaking incident.

On the bright side, the reality of breaking up ultimately isn't as bad as we might imagine. In 2007, Psychologists at Northwestern University asked participants who were in romantic relationships at the time to forecast the emotional fallout if a breakup occurred, then followed up with them soon after the affairs ended [source: Northwestern University]. It turned out that the men and women were on the mend much sooner than predicted. Counterintuitively, the more in love someone is, the better that person fares post-breakup, compared to his or her expectations [source: Northwestern University]. In that case, even romantic diehards can take heart that while falling out of love often comes with a hard landing, humans' emotional immune systems will quickly kick in to heal the cuts and bruises and get us on our way.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Baxter, Leslie A. "Gender Differences in the Heterosexual Relationship Rules Embedded in Break-Up Accounts." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Vol. 03, No. 03. September 1986. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2004-20749-003
  • Brinig, Margaret F. and Allen, Douglas W. "These Boots Are Made for Walking": Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women." American Law and Economics Association. 2000. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.unc.edu/courses/2010fall/econ/586/001/Readings/Brinig.pdf
  • Byron, Lee. "Breakups -- The Visual Miscellaneum." November 2009. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://leebyron.com/what/breakups/
  • Choo, Patricia; Levine, Timothy; and Hatfield, Elaine. "Gender, Love Schemas, and Reactions to Romantic Break-Ups." Handbook of Gender Research. Vol. 11, No. 05. 1996. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.elainehatfield.com/96.pdf
  • Crook, Brittani. "A Roller Coaster of Love: Examining Perceptions of Intimacy, Commitment, and Satisfaction in On-Again, Off-Again Relationships." Texas State University-San Marcos. May 2010. (Feb. 08, 2012)
  • Cosier, Susan. "Breakups Cloud Sense of Self, Study Finds." LiveScience. March 02, 2010. (Jan. 27, 2012) http://www.livescience.com/6211-breakups-cloud-sense-study-finds.html
  • Dailey et al. "On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?" Personal Relationships. Vol. 16, No. 01. March 2009. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2009.01208.x/abstract
  • Dailey, Rene M.; Rossetto, Kelly R.; Pfiester, Abigail; and Surra, Catherine A. "A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships: "It's up and down, all around." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Vol 26, No. 04. June 2009. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://spr.sagepub.com/content/26/4/443.abstract
  • Davis, Deborah; Shaver, Phillip R.; and Vernon, Michael L. "Physical, Emotional, and Behavioral Reactions to Breaking Up: The Roles of Gender, Age, Emotional Involvement, and Attachment Style." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol. 29, No. 07. July 2003. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.sierratrialandopinion.com/papers/PSPBBREAKUPS.pdf
  • Durex. "Sexual Wellbeing Global Survey." (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.durex.com/en-us/sexualwellbeingsurvey/pages/default.aspx
  • Fisher, Helen E. et al. "Reward, Addiction, and Emotional Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love." Journal of Neurophysiology. May 05, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.helenfisher.com/downloads/articles/Fisher-et-al-Rejection.pdf
  • Fisher, Helen. "Lost Love: The Nature of Romantic Rejection." Rutgers University Press. 2006. (Jan. 26, 2012)
  • Haupt, Angela. "Health Buzz: Romantic Rejection Causes Physical Pain." U.S. News. March 29, 2011. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/pain/articles/2011/03/29/health-buzz-romantic-rejection-causes-physical-pain
  • Kross, Ethan et al. "Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Feb. 22, 2011. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.pnas.org/content/108/15/6270.full
  • Lannutti, Pamela J. and Cameron, Kenzie A. "Beyond the Breakup: Heterosexual and Homosexual Post-Dissolutional Relationships." Communications Quarterly. Spring 2002. (Jan. 27, 2012) http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=c60492b9-a069-4dba-b20d-af1d01243ad2%40sessionmgr4&vid=1&hid=24&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=9218077
  • Nashawaty, Chris. "Elizabeth Taylor and 'The Scandal of the Century': A look back at the romance that rocked the world." Entertainment Weekly. March 23, 2011. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/03/23/elizabeth-taylor-richard-burton-scandal/
  • Northwestern University. "Breaking Up May Not Be as Hard as the Song Says." ScienceDaily. Aug. 20, 2007. (Jan. 27, 2012) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070820123608.htm
  • Spielman, SS; Macdonald, G. and Wilson, AE. "On the rebound: focusing on someone helps new anxiously attached individuals let go of a loss." Personal Sociology and Psychology Bulletin. October 2009. (Feb. 02, 2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19625631
  • Svoboda, Elizabeth. "A Thoroughly Modern Guide to Breaking Up." Psychology Today. Jan. 01, 2011. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201012/the-thoroughly-modern-guide-breakups?page=4
  • Tashiro, Ty and Frazier, Patricia. "I'll never be in a relationship like that again": Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups." Personal Relationships. Vol. 10. 2003. (Jan. 26, 2012) http://www.psych.umn.edu/courses/spring06/stegerm/psy1905/articles/tashiro_frazier_2003.pdf