Breakups can cause some of the worst pain imaginable, but have you ever wondered why it hurts? Love is deeply rooted in psychology, and looking at how we process hurt can help us understand why breakups affect us the way they do. 

Breakups hurt because our brains sees emotional pain and physical pain the same.
Our brains interpret breakup pain as physical pain
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1. Emotional Pain vs Physical Pain

We don’t just process breakups emotionally. A study done by the University of Michigan found the same areas of the brain light up in participants shown a picture of an ex-partner as it did in participants who were hurt by being physically burned. Our brains react to emotional pain the same way it does to physical pain and doesn’t differentiate between the two after a breakup,

We react to the emotional pain of a breakup as if our partner is physically hurting us. We perceive the breakup as a threat to our survival, so we fixate on it and ingrain the hurt into our memory for when we encounter it again.

2. Rejection Warps Our Thinking

Our need to belong is fundamental to our survival, and the pain of social rejection destabilizes that instinct. Think of the worst injury you as a kid: it hurt, but you healed. Now think of the most mortifying moment of high school. Agony, right?

Rejection doesn’t respond to reason, and the social pain it causes can flip the script on us. When something is difficult to achieve, we instantly focus our attention on obtaining it. The scarcer it is, the more we want it and hurt when we don’t get it. If our partner leaves us for someone else, the pain of that rejection ignites our competitive nature, and even if we didn’t care much for the relationship before, we’re now driven to prove we’re worthy.

We end up on a seek-and-destroy mission targeting our self-esteem. If my partner didn’t want me, it must be because something is wrong with me, right? This cycle magnifies the hurt we’re already feeling from the breakup and only causes us more pain. 

3. People Are Addictive

A drop in Dopamine causes the pain after a hurtful breakup
Breakups hurt because we lose a chemical source of happiness
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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter found in both drug addiction and the obsessive stages of love. High levels of dopamine are released by the brain when we interact with a romantic partner, and it gives us a euphoria similar to cocaine.

We become addicted to that feeling, and a breakup denies us the source of our addiction. People experiencing the painful aftermath of a breakup are essentially being forced to quit their significant other cold-turkey. It’s why we can experience cravings for our ex-partner, similar to an addict in withdrawal.

4. The Pain Of Grief Is Universal

Grief contributes to the hurt felt after a painful breakup
Breakups hurt because we’re grieving a loss
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Breakups hurt because we’re grieving the loss of a relationship and the hope we associated with it. We respond to that pain the same way we would a loved one dying because they are essentially the same situation: a person we cared for is gone, and now there’s a gaping hole of hurt left behind.

The pain we feel after a breakup is an expression of our love. Repressing the hurt or denying yourself the time to grieve the relationship only prolongs the process. It’s important to stay kind to yourself while you heal from the hurt the breakup has caused you.

The greatest damage inflicted by a breakup is almost entirely self-inflicted. We dwell on the memories left behind and hurt for the ones we will never make. Just when our self-esteem is hurting, we damage it even more. Remember, the hurt is temporary and taking care of yourself is key to working through the pain of a breakup.