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Tragic Love: The Finest Romance and Soul-Wrenching Heartache

Haunting internal struggles within each partner can vex the love between them.

Key points

  • A tragic ending to a relationship may result from haunting internal struggles within each partner.
  • The emotions we experience in the present have histories.
  • A primary and helpful role of shame informs us that an interpersonal bond has broken.
  • The intense emotions that emerge in tragic love are dreadful, yet imbued with the potential for insight.

Stories and screenplays have been written about tragic love, where circumstances or other people come between lovers and end what was once a beautiful romance. However, there are relationships where no outside influences lead lovers to a tragic end. Instead, the tragic ending results from haunting internal struggles within each partner that plague their beautiful love.

Emotional Memories and Scripts

Each time a particular emotion is triggered, we are pulled backward to experience some representation of a similar or related emotion (Nathanson, 1992). The emotions we experience in the present have histories. These emotional memories become compressed into mini­theories that automatically help us make sense of patterns and changes in our lives and provide information concerning ways of living in the world (Tomkins, 1995). Therefore, our narrative scripts involve emotional experiences to which we have assigned meaning and in reaction to which we have developed learned responses or scripted behaviors (Singer, 2004).

Along with remembrances of painful emotions are recollections of how we have made ourselves feel better when we hurt (Nathanson, 1992). Within us is a library of coping responses to painful emotional experiences.

Shame and Sense of Self

When we are disconnected from our positive feelings toward another person, shame's primary and helpful role is to inform us that an interpersonal bond has broken (Kaufman, 1974). Ideally, an emotional bridge is restored, but that is not necessarily the case in tragic love. Some researchers have speculated that shame experiences in interpersonal contexts activate maladaptive cognitive–affective spirals that result in depression (Thompson and Berenbaum, 2006). Shame can worsen depression, and it can compound itself.

Emotion theorists who have associated the sense of disconnection, indignity, self-consciousness, and alienation with the emotion of shame emphasize that how we and others perceive the self makes a difference (H. B. Lewis, 1971; Nathanson, 1992; Tomkins, 2008). Shame is prominent in tragic love. Our experience of ourselves changes as a consequence of shame in that shame shakes one’s self-esteem and self-respect (Czub, 2013). We feel shame as a sickness of the soul or as an inner torment, making us feel defeated, alienated, and lacking in dignity or worth (Tomkins, 2008). We may feel the intensity of separation from a loved one, but an inability to express inner pain and need also separates one from the rest of humanity (Kaufman, 1974). In tragic love, the shame of disconnection may lead us to attack ourselves or the other, withdraw, or use avoidance as a coping strategy (Nathanson, 1992).

Distress and Longing

Love involves a mixture of emotions, such as excitement or joy, that leads to happiness or sensory pleasure. Along with shame, sadness is a painful disconnection from someone or something we value. Profound sadness can be triggered by an observation, event, or acknowledgment that the object of your affection is inaccessible. Unrequited affection also causes sadness. Beautiful memories, not ugly ones, trigger what we might describe as tragic love.

The emotions we experience in recalling enjoyable moments with a loved one may vacillate rapidly between positive and negative. We automatically reappraise situations in light of our present circumstances. As a result, we experience nostalgia and the bittersweet, which researchers call “ambivalent affect” (Vaccaro and colleagues, 2020). A similar mixed positive and negative state was found in addiction cravings (Veilleux and colleagues, 2013). Ambivalent affect is a universal experience, although such feelings are described differently across individuals, cultures, and contexts (Vaccaro and colleagues, 2020).

Separation distress can become anguishing simply because it motivates us to reconnect or repair a broken bond when it is not feasible or even possible. Thus, within the grief of relationship loss, we must psychically reorganize, dealing with the absence of the emotional connection with the lost loved one. Replacing someone with whom we have had a deep emotional attachment is not easily accomplished. Losing a loved one leaves us dangling: We have a store of positive experiences that we cannot repeat in the future. Our memory system needs time to adjust to changed circumstances. Moreover, joyful moments experienced together cannot be shared through reminiscence.

Regret and a Painful Past

If we can learn something from reviewing our past experiences, they are more likely to become neutralized and no longer so painful. Ruminating about them is different. Also, as we live, many past unpleasant events become buried beneath new emotional memories, and these more recent memories can shield us from a painful past.

We cannot necessarily erase memories or think them away, but we can learn further from them, modify our responses to present situations based on what we have learned, or inhibit our ruminations when we realize they do not necessarily better a current situation or help us learn. Sometimes suppressing memories may be healthier than delving into them, especially given that they may bias our perceptions, interpretation of a current situation, and attention in the present (Daleiden and Vasey, 1997).

When we experience the shame of regret, we are motivated to temporarily alter memories by imagining what might have been had we taken a different path or seized an opportunity (Nathanson, 1992). Although we cannot erase the past, considering the choices we made and the alternative possibilities can help us learn something for the future and positively shape us. Yet regret can linger where opportunity exists and where we have missed tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal (Davidai and Gilovich, 2018; Roese and Summerville, 2005). Despite how uncomfortable regrets and unfinished business may feel, they represent internal feedback about our decisions or information to assess our behaviors retrospectively.

The Pain of Tragic Love

In tragic love, there is pain that hurts and pain that has the potential to help us learn. Partners learn and grow together from navigating through conflict. Yet, if the past becomes the present in overwhelming ways, it may limit their ability to talk or listen. The intense emotions that emerge in tragic love are dreadful, and yet, whatever the outcome, they are also imbued with the potential for insight, but only if we can step back and think deeply about the experience.

[Excerpted in part from Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over: Finding a Home For Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]


Czub, T. (2013). Shame as a self-conscious emotion and its role in identity formation. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 44(3), 245–253.

Daleiden, E. L., & Vasey, M. W. (1997). An information-processing perspective on childhood anxiety. Clinical Psychology Review, 17(4), 407–429.

Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion,18(3), 439–452.

Kaufman, G. (1974). The meaning of shame: Toward a self-affirming identity. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 21(6), 568–574.

Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. W. W. Norton.

Singer, J. A. (2004). Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult lifespan: An introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), 437–460.

Thompson, R. J., & Berenbaum, H. (2006). Shame reactions to everyday dilemmas are associated with depressive disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30(4), 415–425.

Tomkins, S. S. (1995). Script theory. In E. V. Demos (Ed.), Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins(pp. 389–396). Cambridge University Press.

Tomkins, S. S. (2008). Affect imagery consciousness. Springer.

Vaccaro, A. G., Kaplan, J. T., & Damasio, A. (2020). Bittersweet: The neuroscience of ambivalent affect. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(5), 1187–1199.

Veilleux, J. C., Conrad, M., & Kassel, J. D. (2013). Cue-induced cigarette craving and mixed emotions: A role for positive affect in the craving process. Addictive Behaviors, 38(4), 1881–1889.

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