Most of us know it’s important to be satisfied in a romantic relationship and yet, at some point in our lives, many of us have continued to engage in a relationship of which we were unhappy. So, what’s the big deal with staying in a romantic relationship which no longer fulfills us? Research throughout the years has associated poor physical and mental health as a result of low relationship satisfaction. Conditions like high blood pressure, poor immune system functioning, mortality, and a higher risk of mental health problems have all been linked to those in unhappy relationships. Other impacts such as decreased professional satisfaction and productivity and lower well-being for children have been noted.
Why then, if we know staying in an unfulfilling relationship is leading to our decomposition, can breaking up be so hard? A study published in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people stay in unfulfilled relationships because of both “self-focused” reasons – including time, resources, and emotions they’ve invested, or because there are no good alternatives – but also for altruistic reasons such as believing that leaving the relationship would distress their partners. In other words, we avoid calling it quits in an effort to protect our partner from feeling the painful emotions which often come with a break up. In fact, it can be even harder to pull the trigger if there is a high perceived level of dependence in the relationship.
But are we really trying to protect our partner from unwanted emotions or are we really trying to protect ourselves from having to bear witness to someone who is in pain? This experience has been referred to as ‘pain empathy’ – the ability to understand another person’s pain. In one study, researchers used MRIs to look at the blood flow changes in the brain between participants who were experiencing physical pain and those who were experience pain empathy. And guess what they saw - the same areas of the brain were activated during both scenarios. What this is implying is that although pain empathy is not a physical pain, the brain is sending the same signals to our body as it would physical pain.
The neurobiological link between physical and emotion pain might explain why break ups are so hard - even when we know it’s what’s best for us. Although probably not any less painful for your next break up, this information might be helpful to better understand why breaking up can be so hard.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Stacey A. Lawrence, LMSW, is a clinical social worker serving as the Military Behavioral Health Social Worker for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD.
Joel, S., Eastwick, P., et al. (2020). Machine learning uncovers the most robust self-report predictors of relationship quality across 43 longitudinal couples studies. PNAS, August 11, 2020 117 (32) 19061-19071. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/32/19061#ref-2
Joel, S., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald, G. (2018). How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(5), 805–824. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000139
Rütgen, M., Seidel, E., et al. (2015). Placebo analgesia and its opioidergic regulation suggest that empathy for pain is grounded in self pain. PNAS, October 13, 2015 112 (41) E5638-E5646. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511269112