You Really Can Die of a Broken Heart
If you've been left by your husband for another woman, you may have wondered why the pain is so excruciating. Women tend describe the experience in extreme terms. A 62-year-old woman I interviewed for my book, whose husband left her for someone else after thirty-three years of marriage, was typical:
"I cried every day for two months. I still cry two years later. And railed and screamed in the car and burned his suit in effigy in the backyard, every witchy, crazy, demented thing you can think of. I drove by their house and hid in the bushes. I could be at work, get overwhelmed and go into the mini gym and cry and walk on the treadmill as fast as I could until it passed. I lost thirty pounds but gained ten back. Jangled nerves, twitching eyes, hyper alert. So sad like you wouldn't believe. This is the guy I'd been with since age twenty-three, the only guy for more than half my life and all my adult life. It was depressing that he was pulling away into alcoholism anyway but this was the coup de gras."
Romantic rejection actually triggers changes in our brains, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has studied the chemistry of romantic love. Her research was eye-opening for me. It answered a lot of questions about my own reactions to being cheated on and rejected, and will probably shine some light on yours. She describes how brain scans of rejected people suggest that they secrete excess dopamine and cortisol during the initial phase of being rejected. That's why rejected lovers get frantic and tend to relentlessly pursue their beloved. They may also take humiliating measures to reconnect with him or her -- anything from writing letters to storming into the other lover's home to begging him to change his mind.
Paradoxically, along with the stress and the impulse to protest, abandoned lovers also feel renewed passion. This has a biological basis. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that produces romantic love. But when love is thwarted, dopamine-producing neurons in the brain's reward system prolong their activities. As the beloved slips away, the very chemical that contributes to feelings of romantic love becomes even more potent, creating protest and romantic passion -- which impels the abandoned wife to go to extremes to get him back. I certainly sprang into action as soon as my husband told me he was leaving and tried desperately to hang on to him. All of a sudden I felt intense love and attraction for him when previously I'd felt mostly indifference.
Brain chemistry goes a long way to explain the intense rage we experience as well. It seems that love and hate/rage are connected in the brain. The primary rage system is closely linked to centers in the prefrontal cortex that anticipate rewards. The common response to unfulfilled expectations is known as "frustration-aggression.' In short, when people and other animals begin to realize that an expected reward is in jeopardy, even unattainable, these centers in the prefrontal cortex trigger fury. Both love and hate produce excessive energy, drive you to focus obsessively on the beloved and cause intense yearning. They can exist simultaneously, which is why we vacillate wildly between love and hate when in the throes of being rejected.
"You can be terribly angry at a rejecting sweetheart," says Fisher, "but still very much in love." This reaction explains why jilted lovers stalk and sometimes kill their exes, or even resort to suicide. Men commit the majority of homicides while women may attempt suicide. Luckily many suicidal women fail to kill themselves because they're probably making the attempt to manipulate the rejecting husband into returning. However, many do succeed even if they didn't really intend to die. Even though our strongest drive is survival, the drive to love can triumph even over the will to live.
Eventually these feelings wane and you must deal with another form of torture, hopelessness and despair. In a study of 114 men and women who had been rejected within the past eight weeks, some forty percent experienced clinically measurable depression. The expression, dying of a broken heart, is not just hyperbole. People do actually die of a broken heart. They expire from heart attacks or strokes caused by their depression. These statistics probably come from a study of rejection in college students where most psychologists do their studies. If clinical depression is that common after rejection when you're just dating, imagine how severe it is after twenty years of marriage. Fisher compares the process to the infant mammal when separated from its mother. When you isolate a puppy in the kitchen at first it protests. Eventually, however, it curls up in a corner in a despondent heap.
It's amazing so many of us survive, and actually bounce back to find a better life. As severe as our response is to grief, for almost all of us the will to survive is stronger. We're programmed to forget and go on. I often think of what it must have been like in earlier days when women lost so many children before age five. Their grief was just as intense as ours would be at such a loss, but they got over it and bore more children or the human race wouldn't have survived. We have inherited this ability to grieve and go on. The expression "time heals" is totally accurate.
Of course not all of us suffer equally. How we react depends on many things, including our upbringing. The same women who deal best with loneliness because they had secure attachments as children, have the self-esteem and resilience to overcome a romantic setback relatively quickly. Those of us who grew up in tense, loveless homes where we constantly had to deal with chaos or rejection are often left with few defenses after being dumped. Biology plays a part as well. We all know women with sunny dispositions, who always see the glass as half full. They take everything, including being left for another woman, with more equanimity and bounce back more quickly. Those of us (like me I'm sad to say) who are glass-half-empty types suffer for longer and may creep, rather than bounce, back. However, eventually I recovered and so will you.
Erica Manfred is a freelance journalist in her sixties who separated from her husband in 2001. She used her own experience, plus interviews with experts and other divorcees, to write "He's History, You're Not: Surviving Divorce After Forty." Her essays and articles have appeared in Cosmopolitan, New York Times Magazine, Ms., New Age Journal, New York Newsday, Parenting, Village Voice, Woman’ s Day, SELF, Consumers Digest, Ladies Home Journal, Bottom Line/Personal, and many others.