The heartache associated with break-ups can manifest as cadriomyopathy - a real phsysiological response to extreme stress. (Photo: Adam Scotti)

Relationships Column

Breaking up is hard ... on the body

Looking at the physiological and psychological implications of ending a relationship

In the past few weeks, this column has covered some relatively positive topics. But relationships aren't always positive, nor do they always have positive outcomes.

Sometimes, bad things happen in good relationships. And sometimes good relationships end for bad reasons. And it's about time we address the issue.

Yes, I want to talk about the uncomfortable world of breakups.

The heart

Ever hear the story about the elderly couple who had been married for 60-plus years, and after one passes away the other dies shortly thereafter from what family members or friends would call a broken heart? Have you ever stopped to think if those tragically romantic tales could be true?

Guess what? Those tales may actually have merit.

In a recent article in the Journal Psychology titled Romantic Breakups, Heartbreak and Bereavement, University of Miami researcher Tiffany Field discusses "heartbreak syndrome" - the physical reaction to the large amount of stress that one goes through after suffering a significant loss. Heartbreak syndrome, which is medically referred to as cardiomyopathy, can mimic a heart attack, with a couple of significant differences:

  • Cardiac contractile abnormalities and heart failure with no clogged arteries
  • Elevated epinephrine levels without the cardiac enzymes that are usually present in a damaged heart muscle


Essentially, all that means is that your heart muscle may hiccup and cause a temporary or transient blackout. Unfortunately this also means that some, like the elderly couple, may not be resilient enough to survive a coronary hiccup.

The head

Field looked at MRI images of the brain while experiencing heartbreak. What she discovered is that when compared to brain images from people who are in long-term relationships, the same areas of the brain light up.

Field suggests this may be because the brain has to adjust to the loss of what they call a "social regulator." She states, "Relationships can help maintain psychological and physio-logical equilibrium, as each person is associated with a state of psychological security and physiological calm."

It's almost as if the brain needs to reset itself. The same way it would for an addict who has managed to kick a drug habit.

Yes, that's right. I just compared love to a drug.

The gut

Once after a terrible break up, I convinced myself that it would be OK for my recently appointed ex and I to still live together. My head was able to rationalize that living together would be financially wise, while my heart didn't want any more upset. I thought it wouldn't bother me.

Nope. I was wrong - it still bothered me. A lot. And I did some crazy (and terribly embarrassing) things as a result.

What should I have trusted? My gut. My instincts.

Scientists define the term "instinct" as a behaviour that does not require cognition and is shared amongst the species - breathing is a good example. But social scientists generally feel that the definition of instinct isn't as clear, and have yet to agree on a single definition. In his book, An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones discusses a general hypothesis that humans have, over time, developed a instinct to recognize potential enemies.

And after you suffer through the physical pain and neurological withdrawal of a heartbreak, your instincts may start to recognize your ex as an enemy.

Word of caution

Does all of this mean that it's bad for your health if you decide to remain friends with an ex? Well, no - not really.

But it does mean that being friends with an ex will take time, patience and a whole lot of work.

A recent study in the Journal of Social Psychology, titled Can we be (and stay) friends? Remaining Friends After Dissolution of a Romantic Relationship, argues that positive friendships with ex-romantic partners are directly related to the nature of the romantic relationship and the break-up itself. The authors hint at the idea that if the relationship was bad and the breakup was bad, then it's probably a good idea to cut your losses.

If you have the patience and the time to devote to the person you are no longer romantically involved with, then it just may work.

But if I were you, I'd stop listening to your head and your heart and follow your gut on that one.


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The easiest way to overcome any relationship breakup is to forget the past, empty yourself of every hard feelings and reprogramme your mind for a better future relationship.

Posted by Laiyemo Adeyemi | Feb 17, 2022