- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
Why Breakups Lead to Breakdowns
We have all been through painful breakups. Let's take a look at why breakups are so devastating and disorienting, and can lead to emotional breakdowns.
Breakups and divorces are one of the hardest things to go through, and unfortunately, they happen a lot. When dating we often go breakup after breakup, trying to find someone who is a good fit, getting into relationships only to find they're not quite right. And then, when you think you found your person and get married, there is still the scary statistic that 40-50% of marriages in the US end in divorce.
You'd think that going through multiple breakups would make us more resilient in the face of a relationship ending, and yet, each new ending can send us into a spiral of anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion.
Why are endings so painful? Why do they shake our identities to the core?
Here are the main reasons why. And for this, I'm talking about breakups and not divorces, which have their own list of difficulties.
Logistically Separating From a Partner is Tough
In a long-term relationship, we join our lives with our partner. We share living spaces, friends, belongings, and schedules. Our life becomes "our life," it is a shared experience, and it is very exciting and comforting to have this, until it is gone.
Suddenly, your joint life needs to become an individual life. This requires the painful process of logistical separating (as if the emotional process isn't hard enough already). You have to split up the kitchen supplies, go through sentimental items, and figure out how to navigate your mutual friendships post-breakup. Even if you weren't living together, you still need to do the "returning of each other's stuff" event, where you box up whatever they left at your place and find a way to exchange it for your box of things.
You find yourself feeling without many of the comforts you were used to. For example, you could be standing in a new apartment with unpacked boxes needing a spatula but not having one because your partner took the spatulas and now you don't even know how you're going to cook yourself breakfast. And these small moments of frustration are also small moments of sadness, because they are reminders of how life used to be, and how wonderful and easy it was compared to the transition to being alone.
Reimagining Your Future is Even Tougher
If you've been with someone long enough (and for some people that means even just a few weeks), you begin to imagine your future with them in it. You think about vacations that you'll both go on. You think about what type of house they might like to live in one day, or you vaguely talk about how many kids you both want, and you these conversations begin to build a mental future for the relationship.
Breakups take away that mental future. Now you'll need to go on vacations with family or friends, not your partner. You don't need to factor in their preferences for house type or number of kids when you imagine yourself as a parent. The idea of what your life will be like disappears without a trace.
This is scary.
We like the feeling of being able to predict the future, even if it's a fake one (because none of us can predict our futures). We like the false sense of control over our lives, and breakups remind us that an unexpected turn could come at any minute, totally outside of our control, and mess up all our great plans.
Breakups remind us that an unexpected turn could come at any minute, totally outside of our control, and mess up all our great plans.
The Emotional Work is Time-Consuming and Exhausting
On top of the logistical and mental work separating, there is also the emotional work of coming to terms with a breakup. This is exhausting work. It often involves replaying the tapes of how the breakup happened, questioning our partner's intentions or feelings, wondering how we didn't see it coming, wondering if they will change their mind and come back to the relationship, wondering if we will change our mind and go back to the relationship, second guessing if our reasons for ending things were good enough reasons, remembering all the wonderful moments shared, and so on.
No matter if you initiated the breakup or were the unhappy recipient of the news, you go through the emotional labor of processing the relationship and its end.
This is true even for clearly unhealthy relationships, where both partners agree that continuing to be together isn't going to work. Yes, even in these relationships there is a phase of sadness, second guessing, and mourning.
And the Worst Part: The World Doesn't Stop
What we really need right after a breakup is for everything to stop. Anywhere from two weeks to two months would be perfect. If our jobs could stop making demands of us, our friends wouldn't make any social plans, our bills would pause, and our house would just stay clean.
It would be so helpful if the world could stop and give us time to do all of this intense, exhausting work in order to process the loss and reorient ourselves to our new normal sans-partner.
But the world doesn't stop.
You still have to go to school or to work, meet up with friends, shower, clean your dishes, pay your bills, and do all the other usual things that keep your life running.
Breakups are made even more difficult by the frustrating fact that the world doesn't stop to give us time to process the loss and adjust to the change.
It is incredibly difficult to write a final paper when all you can think about is your ex. Having to continue with normal life activities is taxing when we are already doing enough work just to get through the breakup.
We Have a Finite Ability to Tolerate Stress
We humans, despite our belief otherwise, are not able to grit our teeth and get through absolutely everything. We have a breaking point. Stress adds up and burdens our nervous system. A continued fight or flight response begins to have an impact on our functions, such as our attention or thinking.
Between the logistical work, mental rethinking of our future, and emotional process of mourning the end of the relationship, it's hard to imagine how we wouldn't breakdown.
All of these things combined is enough to cause a full-on meltdown. We can only take so much stress and emotional pain before we need a break.
We can only take so much stress and emotional pain before we need a break.
Take a Break
Before the breakdown, proactively take a break, if you can. And this break can be whatever type of break you'd like. While some people dive into work or time with family as a way of coping, others feel burdened by these things. Give yourself permission to let some things go in order to make it through the first few weeks of a breakup. For example:
Take some time off work- unless work is helping you feel your life has purpose and is grounding for you.
Let friends know you won't be up for socializing for a little- unless spending time with them is helpful.
Leave the dishes in the sink overnight so you can go to bed early- unless you'll be even more stressed waking up to dirty dishes.
Try to automate whatever you can by setting up automatic bill payments, making simple routines to follow so you can check off every daily task ("First I'll eat breakfast, then I'll shower, brush my teeth, take my medication, and start work"), and don't hesitate to ask people for help.
Practice self-compassion and understand that you may not be your most organized, motivated, or productive self during this time.
This painful process won't last forever. You will eventually come to terms with the breakup, become comfortable being alone, and then find a new someone to build a life with instead. So while you're in the most difficult part of the breakup, give yourself permission to not function at your highest ability, never hesitate to ask for help, and allow yourself plenty of rest.