This article was first published on Mind Body Green:
“I am knee deep in heartbreak. I don’t know how to adequately describe the pain, except that it has robbed me of myself. I feel sadness and loss the entire day. Every day, I think of a new kernel of betrayal and it sinks deep and stings. There is a decade of my life that now leaves me confused.”
I wrote this passage in my journal one week after my ex-husband’s sudden disappearance. After a ten year relationship, he simply changed his mind and walked out the door never to be seen again.
At that pivotal moment, I was ill-prepared to understand the emotional journey I was about to undertake. Instead, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other (and attended to the necessary tasks of living). Drowning in sadness, confusion and grief, I could have desperately used a roadmap for the days that lay ahead.
The good news is that heartbreak does pass. And, if properly harnessed, it can be the catalyst for a richer and more rewarding life, healthier love, and greater self-esteem.
For the next ten weeks, my good friend Aimee Hartstein, LCSW (a relationship therapist) and I will write a series of articles on heartbreak, aimed to provide comfort for those who are cast adrift in a sea of grief due to divorce, a breakup, a betrayal and other relationship chasms.
To start, let us assure you that heartbreak is serious. Below are 5 truths everyone should know:
1. Heartbreak is one of life’s greatest stressors.
The emotional toll of love lost cannot be overestimated.
In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe studied the correlation between life stressors and illness. The results were published as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale and, unsurprisingly, the three highest-ranking stressors for adults are (1) death of a spouse, (2) divorce, and (3) marital separation. Take extra care of yourself, as heartbreak has the real capacity to make you sick.
2. Heartbreak emotionally hurts.
Heartbreak hurt in ways that I could not anticipate—both large and small. I worried about being alone. I felt embarrassed to tell my family and friends. Daily rituals that I had taken for granted now left me confused. I was not used to shopping and cooking one; I often cooked more food than I could consume. I slept on the left side of the bed (leaving the other side conspicuously unused) --- a hardwired habit after a decade-long relationship.
A breakup is a trauma on multiple fronts. According to Aimee, the relationship therapist, “Not only are you grieving the dreams and hopes you had for the future, but your day-to-day life has been ripped apart. The habits of a merged life and shared home no longer apply.”
In addition, the heartbroken are forced to confront rejection—one of the most searing human emotions. “We all yearn for love and acceptance. Heartbreak is usually accompanied by shattered self-esteem. We are forced to rebuild our sense of self, including finding ways to love and comfort ourselves instead of getting validation from the outside,” said Aimee.
3. Heartbreak physically hurts.
During a relationship, our brain is flooded with two feel-good hormones: oxytocin (the body’s “love drug”) and dopamine. When a relationship ends, these stress-relieving hormones become depleted. In addition, other stress-related hormones are heightened long-term, leaving individuals particularly susceptible to physiological distress.
“Heartbroken patients often suffer from a litany of aches and pains, including headaches, backaches, neck pain, and stomachaches. In addition, the immune system gets depleted, which leads to a higher likelihood of colds, asthma-attacks and other gastro-intestinal ailments,” said Aimee.
4. Grief has its own timeline.
I waited optimistically for the 1st anniversary of my ex-husband’s disappearance to arrive, hoping to feel better. Except, I didn’t.
Grieving, I have since learned, has its own timeline. It’s a different journey for everyone. And, it often lasts longer than people anticipate.
“Grief is a dance that is one step forward, two steps back,” said Aimee. “There are so many moments that may surprisingly knock the breath out of you—a sentimental song playing on the radio, a wedding invitation addressed to the both of you, or the well-intentioned inquiry from a close friend who is unaware of the change in circumstances.”
5. Happiness and heartbreak co-exist.
The good news is that despite the pain of heartbreak, joy and happiness still exist. Post-divorce, I re-discovered so many things that made me smile—solo travel, dinners out with girlfriends, long walks with my beloved dog, and clothing and make-up that made me feel beautiful.
“I encourage patients to do everything in their power to feel better. Ice cream is good. So are massages. Time with friends and family are integral,” said Aimee. “When patients are not functioning on a basic level (or wearing out family and friends with their grief), then they should seek professional help.”
It’s integral to find the silver lining. Six months after my dramatic breakup, I wrote the following, “I’m finally learning to live on my own terms.” I could not have asked for a better gift.