The pain a break-up induces doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of the relationship. As a couple’s therapist, the question, “the relationship wasn’t that great, so why am I heart-broken?” is one that I hear often. The angst that a break-up causes is a result of several different factors which often relate to the concept of attachment.
Attachment is an individual’s style of relating in a relationship that stems from their early experiences with a parent. If a parent was consistently responsive to a person’s early needs, the person believes they are worthy of love. They have a secure sense of self and are able to access the deeper emotions because they are secure. For example, their experience of empathy allows them to be empathic. They are able to trust and understand their partner’s perspective and feelings. Caring deeply for their partner, they attach heartily.
Yet, if a person’s early physical and emotional needs were not consistently responded to, the person does not believe they can trust. They resurrect extreme defense mechanisms in order to protect a fragile sense of self. They are often preoccupied with their own needs at the expense of their partner’s. Also, they exercise control and dominance in order to feel secure in the relationship. Frequently, this attachment style is referred to as avoidant or anxious. Due to extreme egocentrism, they put their needs first and attach superficially.
Regardless of attachment styles, a break up is a severing of an attachment. When two people attempt to get close, they share elements of who they are with each other. When both individuals are aware of what is important to the other person regarding who they are, and they validate those aspects, a bond begins to solidify. Feeling known, understood, and valued creates an attachment.
When the attachment is severed by a break up, there is a loss of these feelings, which causes a vulnerability in a person’s sense of self. This leaves a person feeling isolated, confused, and sad. In essence, It’s not only the absence of their partner in their life, but it’s also the deficit in their identity that a severed attachment creates. This experience evokes a good deal of emotional pain.
A second type of angst a break-up may cause occurs when the attachment is superficial for one person, but hearty for the other person. Essentially, the person with the avoidant or anxious attachment style pretends to know, care, and validate who the other person is in order to woo them and reel them in, but may not actually authentically care. It is more about manipulation in order to gain control. In this situation, the person that superficially attaches may sever the relationship easily and without a care.
The person who attaches heartily, however, feels the loss profoundly. The hurt is then compounded when they become aware that their partner does not feel the loss significantly, and is able to move on without any trouble. Feelings of abandonment in this scenario may elicit intense emotional pain.
Moreover, if a person had a parent who had a superficial (avoidant) attachment style, the experience of being broken up with by someone who relates to them similar to their parent may reinforce old childhood wounds without the person’s knowledge. This can be the most devastating of all emotions during a break up.