I wrote this passage in my journal one week after my ex-husband’s sudden disappearance. After a 10-year relationship, he simply changed his mind and walked out the door never to be seen again.
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.
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 road map 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.
That’s why, along with my good friend Aimee Hartstein, LCSW (a relationship therapist), I’m writing about heartbreak in a series of blog posts on this site. Our goal is to 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, even if it does pass. Understanding heartbreak is the first step to healing. With that, here are five truths everyone should know:
1. Heartbreak is one of life’s greatest stressors.
The emotional toll of love lost cannot be underestimated.
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.
In my experience, heartbreak hurt in ways that I simply could never have anticipated — in ways 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 for 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 relationship therapist Aimee, “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,” explained 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 remember waiting optimistically for the first anniversary of my ex-husband’s disappearance to arrive, hoping that it could serve as a milestone of my growth and healing. I expected that I would undoubtedly feel better. Except guess what? I didn’t.
I have since learned that grieving simply 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.
There’s good news in all of this: despite the pain of heartbreak, joy and happiness still exist, and can co -exist with heartbreak, as unbelievable as that may seem at certain points in the journey of healing.
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 makeup 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.”