The pain of getting dumped really hurts
Why your brain is wired to keep wanting her and what you can do about it
There’s no doubt that both men and women can suffer from the ending of a romantic relationship — we all use words like hurt and pain to describe what we’re going through. But a new study shows that rejection actually hits the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
Researchers at the University of Michigan and Columbia University rounded up 19 men and 21 women in Manhattan who felt intensely rejected as a result of a recent unwanted romantic relationship breakup.
They subjected them to the physical pain of a hot thermode on the forearm and the social pain of having to look at a headshot of their ex-partner while thinking about their breakup experience.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scientists demonstrated increased activity in the same brain areas in both painful situations. They concluded that social rejection and physical pain are similar in that they are both distressing and they share a common representation in somatosensory brain systems as well.
Dr. John Demartini has spent almost 40 years studying the bio- logical basis of human behaviour, moving from his roots as a Texas chiropractor to his role today as an international speaker (he’s in Edmonton and Calgary this month, along with offering a free online presentation; find details at drdemartini.com).
He says these findings are not at all surprising. He compares being rejected to the phenomenon of referred pain, in which a person who has a leg missing still feels pain, or the way our posture demonstrates our emotional state. He also notes when people have a broken heart, they sometimes activate cardiac symptoms.
“The idea that a person can have emotional pain and a somatic effect from that makes total sense to me,” Demartini says.
“We tend to externalize internal conditions and sometimes internalize external conditions, so their mapping in the brain makes total sense to me. I don’t think you can even have emotions without having physical demonstrations of that, and the metaphors in our linguistics give them away sometimes.”
So, who handles breakups better: men or women? Men’s Health magazine put that question to its readers in an online survey. About a quarter of the readers advised the newly dumped to go out and get drunk with male friends.
However, 36 per cent of the respondents suggested a guy should look at his new ex, smile, and thank her. The Men’s Health author, Dave Zinczenko, sagely comments that both of these responses are masks for a guy’s true feelings.
Zinczenko writes that women face their relationship blues head on, and get them out of their systems earlier. Many men tend to repress their reaction, so it lingers. He also cites research from Carnegie Mellon University that women adjust better to the end of a relationship because they’ve already given consideration to the possibility of a breakup, whereas men are typically unprepared for it.
A study from Wake Forest University gives further insight into why men may suffer more from breakups than women do. Men take rejection as more of a shot to their self worth, and also tend to have a weaker network of friends for support. One commentator notes that male friend networks tend to be competitive, so you’re not likely to go cry on a buddy’s shoulder the way women do.
Demartini agrees that men can suffer more than women in a breakup, especially if it means dealing with their ego and challenging their normal facade and persona. He also suggests that if men realize they are getting physical symptoms from relationship issues, they may take it harder than if, say, they were working out and just hurt themselves.
As for a coping strategy, Demartini says a guy who’s just been dumped needs to analyze what parts of his ex-partner he was attracted to, and find those traits in himself. We only minimize and subordinate ourselves, and become dependent on, somebody who we think has something we don’t. He also suggests listing the benefits of her being gone.
It’s worth mentioning, as Lance Armstrong does on his livestrong.com blog, that professional counselling may also be helpful. Armstrong quotes the counselling staff at the University of Saskatchewan, who advise avoiding entering into a new relationship while you’re still struggling to get over the prior one.
Of course, if that relationship involves some buddies and a few beers, it’s probably just fine — even if the emotional scars haven’t quite healed over.