Because our nervous system is wired to need others, rejection is painful. Romantic rejection especially hurts.
Feeling lonely and missing connection share the evolutionary purpose of survival and reproduction. Ideally, loneliness should encourage you to reach out to others and maintain your relationships.
A UCLA study confirms that sensitivity to emotional pain resides in the same area of the brain as physical pain – they can hurt equally. Our reaction to pain is influenced by genetics. If we have increased sensitivity to physical pain, we’re more vulnerable to feelings of rejection. Moreover, love stimulates such strong feel-good neurochemicals that rejection can feel like withdrawal from a drug, says anthropologist Helen Fisher. It can compel us to engage in obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. This proved true even for tsetse flies in lab experiments.
Most people start to feel better 11 weeks following rejection and report a sense of personal growth; similarly after divorce, partners start to feel better after months, not years. However, up to 15 percent of people suffer longer than three months. (“It’s Over,” Psychology Today, May-June, 2015) Rejection can feed depression, especially if we’re already even mildly depressed or have suffered depression and other losses in the past.
Factors Affecting Resiliency
Other factors that impact how we feel in the aftermath of a breakup are:
- The duration of the relationship
- Our attachment style
- The degree of intimacy and commitment
- Whether problems were acknowledged and discussed
- Foreseeability of the break-up
- Cultural and family disapproval
- Other current or past losses
If we have an anxious attachment style, we’re prone to obsess, and have negative feelings, and attempt to restore the relationship. If we have a secure, healthy attachment style (unusual for codependents), we’re more resilient and able to self-soothe.
If the relationship lacked true intimacy, pseudo-intimacy may have substituted for a real, binding connection. In some relationships, intimacy is tenuous, because one or both partners is emotionally unavailable. For example, a partner of a narcissist frequently feels unimportant or unloved, yet strives to win love and approval to validate that he or she is. Lack of intimacy can be a warning sign that the relationship is troubled.
The Effect of Shame and Low Self-Esteem
Rejection can devastate us if our self-worth is low. Our self-esteem affects how personally we interpret our partner’s behavior and how dependent we are upon the relationship for our sense of self and self-esteem. Codependents are more prone to being reactive to signs of disfavor by their partner, and tend to take their words and actions as a comment on themselves and their value. Additionally, many codependents give up personal interests, aspirations, and friends once they’re romantically involved. They adapt to their partner and their life revolves around the relationship. Losing it can make their world crumble if they’re left without hobbies, goals, and a support system. Often the lack self-definition and autonomy beforehand prompted them to seek someone to fill their inner emptiness, which not only can lead to relationship problems, but it resurfaces once they’re alone.
Internalized shame causes us to blame ourselves and/or blame our partner. It can foster feelings of failure and unlovability that are hard to shake. We might feel guilty and responsible not only for our own shortcomings and actions, but also the feelings and actions of our partner; i.e., blaming ourselves for our partner’s affair. Toxic shame usually starts in childhood.
Break-ups can also trigger grief that more appropriately pertains to early parental abandonment. Many people enter relationships looking for unconditional love, hoping to solve unmet needs and wounds from childhood. We can get caught in a negative “Cycle of Abandonment” that breeds shame, fear, and abandoning relationships. If we feel unworthy and expect rejection, we’re even liable to provoke it. Healing our past allows us to live in present time and respond appropriately to others.