When things fall apart: Why breakups are so painful and what we can learn from them

A circle falling apart into slices.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

For each decade I’ve been alive, I’ve gone through as many breakups that really shook me. This, I’ve felt, has been enough heartache. No more for me, thanks!

I don’t have that kind of control over the universe, unfortunately. And as painful as breakups can be, they can be transformative — but only if we use that tender time as an opportunity for some deep soul-searching. So I was grateful to see this question land in our inbox from Karen, 74, of Orange County: “Why does a breakup take so long to get over? How can one get over a breakup faster?”

I’ve Googled these questions a few times myself while nursing a broken heart. I found that there’s an entire cottage industry devoted to “helping” people through breakups, and although some of these experts are well-meaning and know what they’re talking about, there’s a lot of bad, incomplete information out there (like sites that claim they can help you get back together with your ex. Steer clear of those!)

As always, the goal of this newsletter is to give you information and resources you can trust, especially when you’re in a vulnerable place.

Why breakups are so hard

How much pain we experience when relationships end, and how long that pain lasts, depend on our personal histories, our ability to work through grief, and the kind of relationship we have with ourselves.

Romantic relationships take many different forms. They can last for a month or 30 years. Maybe you were married, or maybe you were never technically together together. You might share children, pets or a home. The degree to which you have difficulty getting over a relationship often also depends on how entangled you were in each other’s lives. But sometimes a relationship is relatively short-lived, and it still really hurts.


At the most basic level, breakups are hard because humans are wired for emotional connection. Such bonds have ensured our survival, from breastfeeding, to childhood development, to procreation, explained Florence Williams, journalist and author of “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey.”

“Historically, we’ve found safety in numbers. If we are rejected by our peers, or kicked out of our community, that puts us in peril,” Williams told me. “Our nervous system registers that break as a deep threat. We feel abandoned, alone.”

The first time we engage this drive to connect is usually with our parents, said Los Angeles-based psychologist Harel Papikian. The quality of our connection with our caregivers is a matter of life or death because we are completely dependent on them. Whatever attachment system we develop with our parents — whether that be secure, anxious, avoidant or disorganized — unconsciously becomes the template of our adult romantic relationships.

“Think about when a baby loses its parent, how devastating that is,” said Diane Poole-Heller, a psychotherapist and expert in adult attachment. When we sever ties with someone we’ve become deeply attached to, it can feel just as unbearable.

Breakups can be extra hard for people whose caregivers were inconsistent, frightening, or emotionally or physically unavailable. If we haven’t recognized and begun healing these wounds, they can become activated again when relationships end, said Alan Robarge, an attachment-focused psychotherapist in Philadelphia.

“Even if we’re the one who decides to leave the relationship, it can still feel like an abandonment — that we weren’t taken care of emotionally in the way we wanted to be,” Papikian said. “Our ego is wounded, our sense of self is wounded. We might feel unlovable, unworthy, not good enough, especially if those are stories we’ve carried around for our entire lives.”

“It really triggers every little heartbreak we’ve ever had,” Williams said.

There are also all of these secondary losses; maybe you were close with your former partner’s family, or you lived together and now you have to move. Those are some big ones, but there are also a thousand other little parts of a relationship we must also mourn when our journey with a partner ends.


Breakups can also cause us to feel a loss of self, prompting an identity crisis. Many of our societal roles are determined by our romantic relationships. This is particularly true for women and people raised as girls, who are conditioned to be more relational and build their identity around romantic bonds and motherhood, Williams said.

“We live in a society that revolves around couples and families,” Williams went on. And we expect our partners to be our everything — our lovers, our best friends, our financial safety net. No wonder we’re completely unmoored when these relationships end.

They can also cause us to fall into an existential crisis, wondering if we will ever love or be loved again, whether it’s in the cards for us to find and maintain this connection we so desire, Papikian said.

And breakups can be extra brutal for those of us with mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, which make it harder to tolerate and process stress. “If I’m already overwhelmed even before a breakup, I might not have as many emotional and psychological resources to put toward coping with the loss,” Papikian said.

Healing time

None of us wants to suffer any more than we need to, but at the same time, grief can be unpredictable and labyrinthine. Still, we have the power to lessen the sting of heartbreak over time.

🙆 Give yourself permission to grieve: It may seem counterintuitive, but to heal, we have to give ourselves permission to really feel the pain of loss, without judgment. If we beat ourselves up because we’re still sad, hurt or angry, the pain is likely to stay with us longer, Papikian said.

It can be hard to sit with our feelings if it’s something we’ve not practiced, or if doing so hasn’t felt safe in the past. Speaking with someone who won’t try to change your emotions, like a trusted friend or a therapist, can help create a safe container for your feelings, Poole-Heller said.

It might be helpful to know that feelings never last forever. In fact, it takes an average of 90 seconds to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate, if we’re able and willing to pay attention to it.

🌲 Connect: Social connectedness is always vital to our health, but it’s especially so when we’re hurting and lonely. Spend time with family and friends if they live nearby and you have good relationships with them, Papikian said. This time is also a chance to nurture or strengthen relationships you weren’t prioritizing while you were in a relationship.

Being in nature can also be hugely beneficial. Not only does it soothe our nervous systems, “Connecting to a sense of beauty and awe can be a surprisingly great antidote to loneliness,” Williams said. As an outdoorsy veteran of heartbreak, I couldn’t agree more.

🧘 Create safety: Heartbreak can ramp up your sympathetic nervous system, which also leads to more inflammation in the body and triggers the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. In fact, research has shown that romantic rejection can activate the areas of the brain associated with feelings of physical pain. Your sleep, digestion and immunity may suffer. (Personally, I have no appetite when I’m heartbroken, and wake up every day at 5 a.m., far from normal for this food-loving night owl).

Meditation, deep breathing, working out and dancing can all help soothe our nervous systems. Fifteen minutes of meditation every morning helped me enormously during my last breakup, both because it calmed my body and because it snapped me out of painful thought spirals.

😬 Tell the full story: When we’re really going through it right after a relationship ends, we might rehash the story of the breakup over and over, to ourselves and to others. We have conversations in our heads with our exes. This is fine and natural, Papikian said, but we often tell a very selective story.

“Often the story is all bad, about how awful our ex is,” Papikian said. “Or sometimes we tell the rosy story, where we blame ourselves for messing it all up, and how we will never love again.”

Usually, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. You might not be ready to acknowledge your role in the breakup, the ways your former partner hurt you, or what you weren’t getting from the relationship.

When you’re in a clearer head space, ask some honest questions of yourself so that you can come closer to an objective picture of what was.

Why is this important? When we’re heartbroken, we often feel a lack of control, especially if we weren’t the one to end the relationship, Papikian said. And when we paint a picture of a perfect relationship when there wasn’t one and blame ourselves for everything, or blame our ex-partner for everything, it’s disempowering and ultimately creates more suffering. Getting as close as you can to the truth of the relationship will allow you to learn from the experience.

💆 Nurture yourself: In a relationship, we want to feel nurtured, understood and appreciated. Maybe that was something we experienced with our former partner, and now we feel that lack. Or maybe the breakup brought into stark relief that you weren’t getting that in your last relationship. Either way, it’s important to nurture ourselves, Papikian said. Sleep well, eat well, seek inspiration from art and nature and in your community. Do all of the above bullet points. Give yourself that warm and fuzzy feeling you wanted from your ex.

An opportunity

Heartbreak can be a tremendous opportunity to get to know ourselves better, and to connect more deeply and vulnerably with our loved ones and the world around us. To feel all of our emotions. “It’s not always comfortable,” Williams said. “But it can make us feel more alive.”

I felt like an open wound, a raw nerve, after my last breakup. But because my heart was split open, I had more empathy for the pain of others as well as my own. I was gentle with myself in a way that I hadn’t been before. I had to be.

Williams had a similar experience when her husband left her after more than 25 years together.

“You can’t just pretend you’re OK, like you’re trained to do. In that kind of vulnerability, you can actually find deeper connections with other people,” she said.

Williams resisted solitude at first. She was afraid of dying alone, or falling ill and no one being there to care for her. Over time, though, she became more comfortable being on her own. She built confidence in her ability to care for herself, and she had friends she could really rely on when she needed them.

“Sometimes our romantic relationship can cut us off from our other sources of connection, our communities,” she told me. “A romantic partnership isn’t the only way to move through the world and feel safe and feel loved.”

Amen to that. I’ll leave you with some final words from Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart,” a text I come back to when my own heartache feels like too much to hold.

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Heartbreak is part of the human experience, and it can teach us a lot about who we are and what we’d like from our future relationships. We can’t avoid it unless we close ourselves off to love. But we can learn how to work with it.

Until next week,


If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic and other resources

In one of my favorite Dear Sugar columns, writer Cheryl Strayed responds to four women who are contemplating leaving their relationships. “Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender,” she wrote in 2011. “But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.”

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explains how difficult times can be an opportunity for growth and change if you’re willing to embrace the situation and the feelings that come with it. One of the basic Buddhist tenets, Pema says in this episode of “Oprah’s Super Soul,” is that change is constant. “Things are going to keep changing,” she says. “If you’re invested in security and certainty, then you’re not going to feel good a lot of the time.”

In her new book, “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey,” Florence Williams explores the latest science of “social pain” to learn why heartbreak hurts so much and why so much of the conventional wisdom about it is wrong.

Other interesting stuff

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out a proposal to compel people with severe mental illness and addictions into court-ordered care. In order to illustrate how difficult this would be, my colleague Tom Curwen told the story of a 31-year-old man living with schizophrenia. “Existing treatments and services can ease the immediate distress of severe mental illness but don’t go far enough in helping individuals like Anthony commit to long-term recovery and return to their communities,” Curwen wrote.

Have you called the 988 Lifeline? We want to hear your story. The Times is examining the roll-out of a new mental health crisis hotline in Los Angeles County and we need your help. Information provided in this survey will be kept anonymous unless you provide permission otherwise.

Mental health experts are looking into the long-term consequences of the anxiety surrounding potential police interactions, especially for Black people. “When people are stopped, it has a particular impact on their mental health related to anxiety, depressive symptoms, PTSD, like hypervigilance takes shape,” according to Dr. Jackie Jahn, assistant professor at Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health. “But also living in a community where police are surveilling residents, where your social network, your friends, your family are being regularly stopped can also contribute to mental health issues, even if that person isn’t experiencing police stops themselves.”

Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.