Breaking up is one of the most painful experiences. Is there any way to do it well? Learn about the psychology of breaking up: why heartbreak literally hurts, why ghosting happens, and how your beliefs about love play into how you treat your partner. LIFE Intelligence, a complete app for optimizing your self, career, and relationship, shares science behind grieving the loss of love.
Whichever way a breakup happens, whether it be mutual or not mutual, done by text or in person, or done after dating for weeks or years, they are not easy. Feelings are hurt and usually we do and say things that we do not mean during the breakup. In more recent years, with the increase in popularity of dating apps and relationships over phones and internet, the concepts of “ghosting” and “breadcrumbing” have appeared. Ghosting is defined as the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone suddenly and without any explanation, and completely withdrawing from all forms of communication. On the other hand, breadcrumbing is leading someone on while having no interest in the other person, and eventually abruptly ending the relationship. It is leading someone on with no intent of following through.
Whichever way someone is broken up with, the grieving period is always hard. Therapists and psychologists have been researching the psychology behind breaking up, ghosting, and breadcrumbing. They want to understand why people do it, and what the best way is to break up with someone to preserve the feelings of the people in the relationship.
If you have ever felt physical pain when you have gone through a breakup, you are not alone. Cognitive neuroscientists at Columbia University used brain fMRI scans to look at the brain activity of unmarried people who had gone through an unwanted breakup in the previous six months. The participants were given pictures of their ex-partners while they were hooked up to the fMRI machine, while thinking about their experiences that they had while they were still in the relationship with this person. The researchers compared the scans to the scans of when participants were looking at pictures of their friends, and when they were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when participants looked at the pictures of their ex-partners and when they experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the pictures of their friends. The parts of the brain that lit up include the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are both associated with physical pain.
A similar study was done to assess whether or not breaking up with someone is like getting over an addiction. The brains of fifteen young adults were scanned and studied. They had all recently experienced an unwanted breakup and they all reported still felt passionately in love with their ex partner. Many of them tried various ways to get their partner back, including calling at inappropriate times, sending multiple emails and texts, and showing up at places where they were uninvited to try to speak to their ex partner. Others were feeling incredibly depressed and despondent.
When these participants were shown pictures of their former partners, the scans showed activity in multiple brain areas, including the ventral tegmental area, the ventral striatum, and the nucleus accumbens. These brain regions are all part of the reward and motivation system that communicates via the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is both involved in drug addiction and the early, obsessive stages of love.
Hence, those that feel that they have been rejected may experience cravings for their ex partner, similar to the way addicts crave a drug. A fascinating point that this study uncovered is that the brain of these rejected partners may have actively been trying to get them to feel better or to act more mindfully. Along with the reward pathway, there was also increased brain activity in the orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus. These brain areas are associated with regulating emotions and inhibiting impulsive reactions. In other words, our brains appear to be wired for recovery and wise decision making as we are simultaneously craving and obsessing over a person.
Another study was done to ascertain why people ghost, and do not properly break up with their partner in a meaningful way. Two different ideas of implicit theories of relationship (people’s basic assumptions of themselves and their world) were studied in relation to ghosting: destiny and growth.
Destiny beliefs are similar to fixed mindsets and are characterized by the idea that relationships are going to work or they are not going to work. Those with stronger destiny beliefs are more likely to believe that individuals within relationships are either meant to be together or they are not—that is, individuals have soul mates— compared to those with less strong destiny beliefs.
Growth beliefs are similar to growth mindsets and are characterized by the idea that relationships grow over time. Individuals with stronger growth beliefs think that relationships are malleable and can be improved upon through communication and overcoming hurdles in the relationship, compared to those with less pervasive growth beliefs.
In one study, participants were asked via questionnaire different questions about ghosting and their relationships, such as if they knew what ghosting meant, what behaviors they thought ghosting consisted of, and their perceptions and experiences with ghosting. They were then asked to indicate whether they agreed with a series of statements, such as if they thought ghosting was socially acceptable, if they had ghosted someone, and if they had been ghosted before. Lastly, they were asked how likely they were to ghost someone to end a short-term, casual relationship, and how likely they were to ghost someone to end a long-term relationship.
Results indicated that participants with stronger destiny beliefs were more likely to find it socially acceptable to use ghosting to end both short-term and long-term relationships, were less likely to think poorly of a ghoster, reported a higher likelihood of using ghosting in the future, and were more likely to have ghosted or have been ghosted than individuals with weaker destiny beliefs.
On the other hand, participants with stronger growth beliefs were less likely to indicate that ghosting is an acceptable way to end a long-term relationship compared to those with weaker growth beliefs. Overall, destiny beliefs were associated with more positive perceptions of ghosting as an acceptable way to end romantic relationships, whereas growth beliefs were less frequently associated with participants’ perceptions. Participants with stronger growth beliefs were less likely to feel that it was acceptable to use ghosting to end a long-term relationship than those with weaker growth beliefs.
People may ghost others because of a fear of conflict, even though studies have shown that ghosting is costly for both parties. Ghosting can essentially be seen as avoidance of confrontation, even though this can actually lead to bigger confrontations down the line. Ghosting is likely to trigger more anger and hurt for the recipient than a typical breakup, and it can actually cost the ghost much more in the long run, as frustrated recipients often track down and confront the ghost, often in front of family or in public situations.
For someone who tried to hide from conflict in the first place, a showdown is the worst outcome that a ghost can ask for. Most people generally do not look forward to tough conversations, and breaking up with someone certainly falls into this category. People have the fear of disappointing others, of seeming like the “bad guy”, and angering others. All of these things cause anxiety, which may lead people to become a ghost as opposed to dealing with the confrontation of breaking up. However, the more that you avoid the conflict, the more the anxiety builds over time. Someone that ghosts probably tends to run away from all of the problems that come up in a relationship, even if they could have been sorted out through open communication.
Although breakups are always difficult no matter the circumstances, there are some ways that breakups can be easier, according to psychology:
1. Tell the truth, but don’t be cruel. If you are the one ending the relationship, you owe it to your partner to explain why. Getting over a breakup is always extremely painful when you do not understand or know the reason why it is happening.
2. Do it face to face. Breakups that are done in-person are the most considerate and mature, and it should be done in a private place to avoid a public spectacle.
3. Be sure about it. Sometimes a breakup is done hastily, done in a moment of anger or embarrassment. Develop self-awareness to understand why you're really breaking up with this person.
4. Respect their space afterward. It may seem like the kind thing to do to check in on your ex or to maintain a friendly rapport after the breakup, but rests the urge. The person that gets “dumped” should be the one to decide when, or if, they want to reopen contact. In some cases, it is the healthiest to break off contact.
5. Hug a bear. As silly as it may sound, get yourself a stuffed animal after you go through a breakup. Our limbic system still pumps all of the “happy chemicals” after a breakup, such as oxytocin and dopamine, and we crave the physical touch of our ex partner that causes these chemicals to get released. Give that old stuffed animal that you got when you were a newborn a good squeeze. You may get that good shot of happy chemicals that you are looking for, as hugging a stuffed animal may have almost the identical effect as hugging a partner.
If you'd like more resources on maintaining a good relationship, improving an unhappy relationship, working through conflicts, or getting over a breakup, check out the LIFE Intelligence app. An app for couples and singles alike, it can teach you a lot -- about yourself, and about how to love and when to leave.