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How Much Does Breaking Up Hurt?

Psychologists at Northwestern University say that getting dumped doesn't really hurt as much as we  think.

According to this Washington Post article, "Breaking Up Is Not So Hard to Do," people typically expect heartbreak to hurt worse and last longer than it really does. (This article is also seen on Digg.)

The study followed freshmen over a nine-month period, surveying them regularly about their relationship status -- or lack of it -- and how they felt about it. According to Wash Post writer Alan Mozes,

... the researchers found that, on average, the participants' predictions of emotional cataclysm offered just two weeks before a split far exceeded the actual distress they underwent for three months after the split.

And, although both real and imagined distress diminished as time went on, the spread between actual and predicted anguish stayed constant throughout -- with predicted distress far exceeding actual distress even months after a relationship had ended.

But wait!

What kind of "love" did these researchers look at? The study participants, all Northwestern students, had to have been in relationships for just two months. While overall, participants were in relationships for an average of 14 months, 38 percent, more than one third, ended their relationships in the first six months.

Two months into a relationship is a very different emotion from that of committed, long-term love. The prevailing wisdom among neuroscientists is that romantic passion lasts for 18 months to two years; then, it becomes the less passionate but deeper committed love.

The neurochemicals of romantic love are dopamine and norepinephrine. They're  the brain chemicals that drive us toward a reward They ebb and flow normally throughout the day, as we strive and achieve goals large and small.

The chemical of committed love is oxytocin. This is also the neurochemical of social interaction, and an anti-stress hormone that facilitates relaxation and healing. This relationship between social interaction and stress reduction is the reason married people seem to stay healthier and live longer.

In fact, social isolation of any kind seems to involve the same brain systems that handle physical pain. In "Adding Insult to Injury," Geoff MacDonald, Rachall Kingsbury and Stephanie Shaw of the University of Queensland posit that we evolved a pain-like response to social exclusion because, if we were outcast from the tribe, we'd starve.

The Northwestern's lead author, Paul Eastwick, told the newspaper that he wouldn't be surprised if his findings didn't hold true for older people, as well. But I don't think so. Or at least, I don't think they'd hold true for people in longer-term relationships, no matter what their age.

Being dumped from a shorter-term, dopamine-based relationship may not be as bad as we think. But I think that breaking a deep oxytocin-based bond would be much more painful and the pain would last much longer.

Just ask a widow.