Why It Hurts So Freaking Much To Get Over An Ex, According To Research

The truth about why heartbreak is so painful.

Last updated on Sep 27, 2023

Woman sitting with her grief after a breakup Karolina Grabowska | Canva

Breaking up isn't hard to do. It's getting over the breakup that's tough. Sometimes the recovery period after a failed relationship lasts as long as, or longer, than the relationship.

The circumstances in every relationship may be different, but post-breakup emotions are as universal as the stages of grief. And, oh man, is it a long journey from denial to acceptance? Why do breakups hurt so much? 


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Falling in love is a chemical reaction. Your brain runs on a cocktail of dopamine and the bonding hormone oxytocin. Eventually, you develop a tolerance for these chemicals. But when you break up, they surge again.


"Dissolving feelings for an ex is equivalent to withdrawing from a cocaine addiction," says Dr. Denise Wade, a relationship coach and couples counselor.

Like any other threat to our well-being, emotional pain fires up adrenaline and cortisol. The result? Nausea, increased blood pressure, loss of appetite, and accelerated heartbeat. Breakups aren't just emotional — they physically hurt. 

And then there's the psychological aspect of it. Surviving the fallout of a broken relationship isn't entirely different from being in a car crash or losing a loved one. It often results in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even your childhood plays a role. Our attachment to romantic partners is generally a reflection of our attachment, or desired attachment, to our parents.


"We tend to transfer the surrogate parental role onto our partners," says Dr. Wade. "This makes for relationship enmeshment and a difficult detachment during breakups."

How long should it take to move on after a breakup?

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People say that healing from a breakup requires half the time spent in a given relationship. If only it were as simple as a mathematical formula. The amount of time it takes to learn how to move on varies, whether you dated your ex for 10 months or 10 years.

Unsurprisingly, your role in the breakup determines how quickly you move on. Dumpers recover more quickly than dumpees. The length and intensity of a relationship, as well as the identity and support system you had outside the relationship, are other important factors.


Dr. Lee Bowers, author of Divorce-Proof Your Marriage Before You Say "I Do", thinks the biggest factors to moving on are ego and self-esteem.

"If a person recognizes that it's better to learn sooner rather than later that a relationship isn't going further, and that differences don't mean that either party is a bad person, then he or she will move on much faster," he says.

Why can't people get over their exes?

Yes, it's hard to get over a breakup, but it does happen. And if it's not happening for you, you might be holding yourself back. To get over a breakup, you have to take some personal responsibility, even if you were wronged. 

"If I see myself as the innocent victim that got cheated on and dumped, then I'll never move from the place of unforgiveness," says Dr. Wade. "But if I take some responsibility for ignoring bad behavior when I saw the signs, or for trusting too easily, then I'm empowered."


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Is there a golden answer for getting over an ex?

Unfortunately, no. We would've told you a long time ago if there were.

In a survey conducted by YourTango, 71 percent of respondents (including those who were married) said they think about their ex too much; 50 percent had called, texted, or messaged an ex "when they shouldn't have."


Experts agree that those who are hung up on exes should take the following steps:

  • Break off all contact (email, phone, or social networking) with your ex or his family and friends.
  • Get rid of items, including pictures, that remind you of your ex.
  • Stop being intimate with your ex.
  • Start over (cut your hair, plan a trip, see a therapist, start an exercise routine, take up meditation). In other words, do whatever you need to feel whole, happy, and positive again.
  • Give yourself time to grieve. Go through the stages of denial, anger, and loss at your own pace. Sweat, talk, and cry the pain out. Don't feel pressured to date immediately, but don't feel discouraged to pursue love again.

And most importantly, know that you're not alone.

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Amanda Green is a writer with experience in copywriting, branded content, social media, and editorial.