Why Breakups Hurt


Breakups hurt us even when there is no love lost.

Having your heart broken is gut-wrenching; it’s like the emotional version of jumping off a ten story building and getting your eyelid caught by a nail on the way down. It’s so powerful, in fact, that it can make us physically ill, destroy us mentally, and cause us to max out our credit cards on cartons of Cherry Garcia and Boone’s Farm.

For anyone who has ever dated, it’s pretty easy to understand why this heartbreak is so horrid: you love someone who doesn’t love you back… not “in that way” (at least those are the lame words they left on your voicemail). Not being loved is often, as humans, our biggest insecurity and, because heartbreak pretty much throws that in our face, we see it as a bitch.

But, what about breakups that don’t actually involve heartbreak? Why does it still hurt when new relationships come to an end? Or, even, when people we don’t necessarily like all that much decide to dump us?

There could be a lot of reasons (we were just dumped by someone with a boat or season tickets to the Knicks) yet human nature has a tendency to point to these five of them:

A breakup is a blow to our ego
Even the most humble of people still have egos; according to Sigmund Freud (star of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) we can’t function without one. Our egos make breakups hurts even when our hearts don’t really care. It’s pretty simple, really: our pride has a hard time digesting why someone just doesn’t want to be with us.

A breakup signals wasted time
Some relationships are so short that a breakup will probably not have that much of an effect: if your relationship ends after a week or two, no harm done. But, if you are with a person for several months or even years and then you call it quits, well it can feel like you’ve lost out on a major investment. This feeling is probably compounded in people who feel rushed to get married, have children, and build a white picket fence in the front yard of their tree-lined street.

A breakup takes away your control
I once worked with a guy who absolutely hated his job; his version of “work” consisted of surfing the internet and writing a fantasy novel when the boss wasn’t looking. He constantly said he was going to quit; he was simply waiting for something better to come along. One day, he was a victim of a massive layoff and he came to my desk upset. I asked him why he was mad (considering his plan all along was to turn in a resignation letter) and he said he was upset because it wasn’t on his terms. He wanted to do the quitting, not be the one who was fired.  A breakup can sometimes have a similar slant: even if you were planning on dumping the person you’re dating, when they do it first, it can be startling and, surprisingly, hurtful.

A breakup adds to your list
When people date a lot, their family and friends seem to be acutely aware of it. They might make comments like “Krissy has yet ANOTHER boyfriend” or “John has had more women than Shawn Kemp has had kids.” While all of this is – typically – in good fun, no one really wants to be known as the person who can never make a partnership work.  In other words, they don’t want to add to their list. So, they become like Ross when he drunkenly married Rachel on Friends: they become willing to stay in a bad relationship just so they don’t have to have another failed one.

A breakup is unpleasant
Breakups, in general, are quite unpleasant - no one wants to be dumped nor do they want to do the dumping. At best, they’re awkward; at worst, they’re painful. And then there is the fallout: what happens when you run into your ex at a yoga class or on the subway. All of these unpleasantries merge together to make us look at breakups like we look at teeth cleanings or colonoscopies: dreadful, but necessary.

To learn more about breaking up and making up, click here.