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How Do You Heal a Broken Heart?

Can science stop your sobs after true love ends?

Key points

  • The loss of a loved one can mimic physical pain in the brain.
  • Breakups in early adulthood may contribute to greater resilience in later adulthood.
  • The words you use when texting your friends may predict the fate of your relationship.

So your heart is in a million pieces. Now what?

Unfortunately, getting your heart broken is part of the process of becoming an adult, especially now that more people are choosing to postpone marriage and children until they are older. On the upside, there is a great actually a great deal of evidence that points to the fact that surviving and understanding a breakup makes us stronger. 2

It turns out the feeling of heartache, or rejection, activates the same area of your brain that senses pain. That emotional pain you feel when you think about the loss of your ex? It's actually all in your head. But, it's not just in your head, it is quite literally experienced in your head and interpreted by your brain as a neurological nudge to do something quickly in order to get away from this pain. In this particular study by Kross, Mischel & Wager (2011), participants were shown a picture of their ex and instructed to test the theory that a breakup elicited physical as well as emotional pain.

The average American takes about three to six months1 to get over a serious relationship, with the grieving process dependent on the length of time of the relationship. Interestingly, some evidence points to the possibility that the amount of time it takes someone to rebound from the end of the relationship may be in part related to the intensity (seriousness) and duration of this relationship compared to other serious relationships the individual has had in their life.

Interestingly, getting over a breakup seems to be an acquired skill. People who went through a breakup in a long-term relationship between the ages of 20-25 and understood their own part in why the breakup occurred, regardless of who initiated the breakup, reported greater relationship satisfaction and less conflict in future relationships.

As we get older, it becomes more difficult to get over a breakup, possibly because there is more at risk from an evolutionary standpoint, since time is running out for successful and healthy reproduction.

Gender differences are clear when it comes to recovering from a breakup. For example, while women tend to be more negatively affected both physically and emotionally after a breakup, they also have a more thorough recovery, returning to their previous level of functioning, whereas men do not report recovering to their previous level of functioning2 and women who are dumped are more likely to use "retail therapy" to get over a broken heart.

Surprisingly, it turns out that rebound relationships have been getting a bad rap for no reason all this time, and instead, evidence points to the idea that the quicker someone returns to the world of dating, the better the indication of a return to a state of positive mental health.

Most importantly, there is one thing that both experts and your best friends will agree on: Under no circumstances should you stay in contact with your ex—and that means unfollowing them on all social media apps as well. Although an amicable and mutual breakup seems like the perfect opportunity to find an exception to the rule, a study dating all the way back to 2012 found that participants in the study who remained Facebook friends with their ex reported less personal growth. And this was in 2012, the dinosaur ages of online stalking—er, surveillance of your ex—compared to all of the options we have at our disposal now.

Source: Anima/Pexels
Memories of the love you lost can haunt you after a relationship ends.
Source: Anima/Pexels

But, Should You Have Seen This Coming?

Is it possible to predict a breakup?

As it turns out, the language you use reveals a lot about your subconscious intentions, as well as what you may not be consciously aware that you are picking up from your significant other.

A few years ago, a group of researchers searched the archives of the social media platform Reddit using software language analysis programming. They examined over 1 million posts from nearly 7,000 Reddit users who had posted about their dating breakups online. They found the following patterns:

  • Three months before the breakup, the person posting showed an increase in I-words: the focus on the self has been linked with an increase in depression, especially when all or none phrases like “completely,” “absolutely,” or “always” are found as well. These people are thinking in very concrete terms that often indicate an impending change. The focus on the self is common before, during, and after the breakup.
  • When the breakup occurs and as the person is trying to make sense of what has occurred, the use of “we-words” is to be expected, as the grieving widow tries to figure out what happened, how they didn’t see it coming, and what this means about their individual and joint lives moving forward. However, after a period of time, the person should start thinking more independently, with less “we-words” and more of a focus on their own future. A lack of evidence of this change in thought process can indicate a developmental delay, so to speak, in getting over your breakup.
  • Three months before the breakup, the person posting showed a drop in analytical thinking: people start thinking less logically and more emotionally as evidenced by the use of more personal and informal language.
  • People who posted for longer periods of time were less well-adjusted one year after the breakup as evidenced by their language patterns, which were similar to married couples who were going through a divorce.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

There are some relationships where the ending will hurt more than others. When you fall in love the first time, most people optimistically assume that the first time will be the last time; since you have never felt like this before, you can't ever feel like this again. The end of this relationship feels like the end of the possibility of all relationships where you will love someone the same way you loved this person, especially if you were not the one to end the relationship (Brody, LeFebvre & Blackburn, 2020).

When an engagement or marriage ends, you are stuck mourning not just the loss of the relationship itself, but also the loss of the future life you imagined you would have. Similarly, when a relationship ends because of a partner's infidelity, the unaware partner is now left to imagine all of the things that their loved one is now doing with someone else.

Although six months is the average grieving period following a breakup, length of time is only one aspect of measuring well-being after a romantic relationship ends. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your emotions in a way that interferes with your daily activity, it never hurts to find someone to talk to, either a friend, family member, or a mental health provider.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1 Gary W. Lewandowski Jr & Nicole M. Bizzoco (2007) Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2:1, 40-54, DOI: 10.1080/17439760601069234

2 Binghamton University. (2015, August 6). Women hurt more by breakups but recover more fully. ScienceDaily.

Brody, N., LeFebvre, L., & Blackburn, K. (2020). Holding on and letting go: Memory, nostalgia, and effects of virtual possession management practices on post-breakup adjustment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(7), 2229–2249.

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