Dating is inherently tragic. If you don’t end up together forever and ever, a breakup is inevitable. Sure, some breakups barely register emotionally, and you find yourself refreshed and relieved like you’re taking off an ill-fitting wet shoe. But let’s be honest — those kinds of breakups aren’t with someone we’ve chosen to emotionally invest in.
Ending those relationships can make us feel like we just got run over by a subway train in a dark tunnel. They jolt us awake and we gasp: What the heck happened and how am I even still alive?
So we binge on memories from the relationship and in our emotional haze we start to convince ourselves the breakup was a mistake — even if it wasn’t. But there are quite a few reasons why our mind goes in a loop after we end a relationship. And these reasons have nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the breakup.
You’re grieving your attachment
It can seem disingenuous to label our feelings as “grief” when our ex is very much alive, but that’s exactly what we’re feeling. Grief — real, raw grief. No, your beloved didn’t pass away, but they’re no longer with you. Even if they’re somehow still in your life (and sorry about that — it will make things harder), their role has fundamentally changed. They’re gone, and they’re not coming back. Unlike real death — where there’s an actual ceremony to say goodbye, we’re instead told to just “get over it” and “get out there.” Our grief isn’t validated, so many of us don’t give our feelings real space, which can push us to ruminate in shame.
Dr. Jeanette Raymond, PhD explains that how one grieves a relationship has a lot to do with our attachment style, which was established when we were infants. This, in turn, tells us a lot about ourselves and how we navigate relationships. “It's not about the actual ex, but what they represent to the one who is thinking about them,” she tells me. For instance, if they represented a protective and reliable figure in your life, the loss of that relationship can feel massive and unbearable, returning you to the helplessness of a young child.
“If you grew up with an anxious or fearful attachment then you will think of your ex often, often obsessively because … you had something that you were moored to — something that made your life meaningful,” explains Raymond.
Yet even if you have a normal attachment style, breaking up from an intense relationship will inevitably be painful. “It's part of the bonding and unbonding process,” Raymond says. Grieving after a breakup isn’t just normal, it’s part of being human.
In fact, if you’re not missing someone who played a crucial role in your life, it might be a sign that the loss hit you even harder than you realized. “If you didn't miss your ex, you have a deficit of attachment and connection,” Raymond says. It could indicate that you have “split the whole relationship off from your conscious awareness because you can't manage the loss — a sort of defense of detachment.”
You’ve established strong neurological pathways
“Anyone that has been an important part of your life will always live inside you — including pets, nannies, etc. Even more, an ex!” explains Raymond. So it’s perfectly natural to recall them later in life when some sort of experience triggers a flashback, good or bad. “Significant relationships live in our emotional DNA and are expressed — just as are genes — when the environment evokes it,” she explains. Essentially, this recall of a loss is our brain’s way of continually processing pain, all while putting our current experiences in context.
Your loved one became a fundamental building block for your daily routine. These routines became a part of you — and established neurological pathways, which can be tough to rewire. This is especially true when the relationship contained a lot of firsts — if they were your first girlfriend or boyfriend, first love, or if you were continually experiencing new things with them. An intense first relationship can create a clear pathway in your mind that can shape the movement of other relationship experiences. You might end up comparing all of your other romantic relationships to that powerful first — for better or for worse.
Hormonally, you’re basically going through withdrawal
Heartbreak isn’t limited to mere neural pathways and memory recall. If only! Hormones play a major part in how we feel and act after a breakup. Romance triggers our brain’s dopamine system, which is a bit addictive. Natural opiates in the brain record the experience as positive and warm — the brain’s chemistry holds on to that feeling of closeness.
According to a 2010 neuroimaging study conducted by Syracuse University, researchers found that several euphoria-inducing chemicals, such as vasopressin, adrenaline, oxytocin, and dopamine — are released in 12 areas of the brain when we’re in love. Romance literally hits us like a drug.
So when a romance ends suddenly, we’re gutted. In this study conducted by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, brain scans show us that losing love activates the same mechanism in the brain as withdrawal from hard drugs like cocaine or opiates. “All participants responded that they thought about their rejecter more than 85% of their waking hours,” the study reports. And just like a drug, “All participants also reported that they yearned for the rejecter to return to them and reestablish emotional union. They all also reported signs of lack of emotion control on a regular basis since the initial break up, in all cases occurring regularly for weeks or months.”
If you’re dealing with a breakup now, these findings might make you wince — but they’re probably not surprising. Remember, just because you’re feeling a knife in your heart doesn’t mean that the breakup was a bad idea. It just reveals that in an ever-changing world, our brains seek the stability of attachment. It’s up to us to sift through our emotions to find what’s true and good.