Dumped! The Psychology Of A Breakup

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My partner of nearly eight years dumped me last month. Yes, and I mean “dumped.”  There was no doubt the relationship was strained, sure, but like many women in my position I was blindsided nonetheless. And hurt.

Did I mention I was hurt? We’d been attempting to maintain an international long-distance relationship for the last 2 ½ years due to my psychotic break of a decision to get my PhD, which I knew I wanted/needed to earn in America. He never even considered moving back to the states with me. His decision to call it quits was in large part because he just couldn’t take the loneliness inherent in going long-distance anymore. And that’s fair, right?

How can you ask someone to continue for an indefinite amount of time only seeing their partner every couple of months or so? I’m not delusional, I can see the logic. Over the months leading up to the end we’d both experienced the gradual progression defined by that shitty saying “growing apart” as we each pursued our own lives absent of the daily reminder of each other. I’d noticed it, he’d noticed it.

We really were growing apart.  But at the end of the day I just wasn’t worth it to him to keep trying or fix it.  So I should listen to that god awful book He’s Just Not That Into You and move on then, correct? Sure. And I will. But in the meantime, I’ll do what most women do after a break-up and ask myself repeatedly “what the hell happened?!” And because I’m a raging nerd, I’ll try to answer that question through research.

I’d like to look back and call our break-up “mutual,” because in the months leading up to its dissolution I’d felt just as much strain as he did.  I’d even contemplated what it would be like without him and whether or not I could and wanted to picture my life without him.

Nevertheless, when the phone call came that he was ready to say sayonara, my heart constricted and I immediately thought “No!” I wasn’t ready to end things without a fight. I hadn’t really thought the relationship was in danger. After all, we’d been together FOREVER and we NEVER fought. This can’t really be it can it? I cried, I begged (I’m not proud…) and pled my case. We aren’t really going to end this without at least trying to fix it are we?

For a brief moment I even considered jumping on a plane (and might actually have if he didn’t stop me) and throwing in the towel of the pursuit of my academic dreams to see if we could make things work.  But alas, it was to no avail. I was willing to take a huge risk for the sake of the relationship and he wasn’t. He wanted out.

In retrospect what gets me (I mean other than my shockingly HUMILIATING behavior) is this question again of “what the hell happened?!” I was ready for it to be over too; so why did I dig my haunches back in right at the end? Was I really considering giving up my passion for a relationship that wasn’t serving either of us anymore?

But in fact, my reaction was a pretty natural phenomenon, and objectively pretty cool too! From a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense when a lover leaves us we go into tailspin mode to protect our (now scarce) resource of a mate.

In fact, research supports the idea that love neurochemically changes how we make decisions regarding our own behavior in order to preserve a romantic relationship. The study found that romantic love activated the same regions of the brain associated with food and drug cravings. Haha! Could it be any more perfect that I’m a craving researcher?

What’s more, presentation of a the person’s photo when the object of their love was unrequited or newly lost was related to even stronger activation of the neural craving network, specifically the areas of the brain associated with risk-reward evaluation.

So, like a compulsive gambler, those in romantic love who’ve lost their partner will over value the immediate reward of seeing or being with their loved one again above any potential long-term consequences that would occur as a result of trying to make that happen. The fact that their obsessive behavior is making them look like a total PSYCHO stops being relevant. They’re willing to take huge risks to get the object of their affection back.  Basically, stop judging your girlfriend for texting her ex on repeat post-break-up. It’s natural. She’s craving.

“Basically, stop judging your girlfriend for texting her ex on repeat post-break-up. It’s natural. She’s craving.”

While we can all probably relate to the feeling of losing out on love, there’s slightly more to my conundrum of “what the hell happened?!” See, I still just couldn’t understand how I, or shall I say we, got to this point. One of the major reasons my partner said it wasn’t worth it to even brainstorm a solution was because he said he felt no connection to my life. He didn’t understand what I was doing in graduate school.

You’re breaking up with me because of what I do for work?  I’m a graduate student.  What do I do?

But I know what I do. My life at the moment is the pursuit of my passion; asking interesting questions and trying to find unique ways to answer them. I want to teach, discuss, and learn. And he just couldn’t understand why that life would appeal to me.

Why would anyone want to go into academia?”

In a moment of pure humility and honesty he was also able to admit that, while he was proud of me, it was just too much for him to imagine being with a partner he thought might be smarter than him (I’ll own that. I am.)

He admitted to an intimidation factor that wasn’t ideal for him in a life-long partner; there was a potential that one day I might be more successful than him. I can’t even begrudge him for telling me that either. He acknowledged it and he never took me up on my offer to make me small to fit into his world.

What struck me afterwards was that nearly all of the women in my graduate program who talked with me, both students and professors alike, admitted to some experience with a relationship of theirs that had similarly ended because “he couldn’t handle it.” But what gives? In an era where woman are celebrated for- and unfortunately sometimes even expected to- “have it all,” why are men still running scared from successful women?

Again, biology might be at play. We see from the literature that most “imbalanced” relationships err to the side of men, where men are more likely to be the powerplayer in these types of relationships: be older, more educated, or make more money.  Men are also seen as more “powerful” in the relationship; they make a disproportionate number of the couple’s decisions.

And it makes sense evolutionarily that men seek out this role. If a woman is potentially more successful or has a coveted quality the man might lack, she’s seemingly less likely to stay with the man. If the relationship is balanced or the woman is more “successful” then he doesn’t have the same level of assurance in the relationship that he would if she psychologically looked up to him.

The man can’t risk his sexual partner straying and potentially have his seed raised elsewhere or, heaven forbid, inadvertently raise another man’s seed. But the modern men of today aren’t cavemen anymore who only think with their willies, or so I hope. Even so, there may be some residual and innate, deep-rooted drive which predisposes men to take romantic pause when a woman climbs the ranks to Head-Bitch-In-Charge.

“Even so, there may be some residual and innate, deep-rooted drive which predisposes men to take romantic pause when a woman climbs the ranks to Head-Bitch-In-Charge.”

Finally, what really gets me with this whole “what the hell happened?!” nonsense, is I was the one willing to renegotiate my dreams for the sake of the relationship and he wasn’t. And here again, the literature tells me I’m not alone. Women, on average, make more sacrifices to maintain the health of a relationship than men, in almost all major domains of life. Men are first to fall in love, but women will put in the leg work to see it through.  We invest more of ourselves in our relationships because, unlike men, we really do have to make choices pertaining to career, family and relationships.

Society is constructed for men to organically be able to “have it all,” whereas women have to juggle to make it happen.  There’s no right or wrong answer when weighing the pros and cons of a relationship with other major facets of life. But the fact that I was halted in my ability to make those choices because of the inflexibility of my romantic partner really freakin gets me. I wanted to choose my own path. I wanted to have that negotiation and decide on my own whether sacrifice would really be worth it to me. I didn’t want someone else to tell me I ought to go try and be a big success in my field (see Head-Bitch-In-Charge) because that’s who I am—something he can’t handle; I wanted to decide that for myself.