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Why your breakup hurts so much

By Sarah Moses Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 13:32
Some breakups hurt way more than others. New research reveals the worst kind of breakup – and how to soften the blow if you’re the one calling a relationship quits.

Rejection sucks. Whether it’s being dumped by a partner or not getting picked for a job, rejection leads to negative emotions like sadness and anger. Add anxiety, loneliness, and depression to the mix, and it's safe to say that romantic rejection is about as awful as it gets.

But the misery level might depend on one important factor: whether there’s someone else involved… or no one. At least, that’s what a team of US researchers reasoned.

To test out their theory the researchers tracked down about 600 participants for a series of four studies. The studies looked at whether it feels worse to be rejected for someone else versus no one else and why this might be.

Double the pain

Whether participants experienced rejection as part of the study, recalled being rejected in their past, or imagined a breakup, they felt a whole lot worse if another man or woman was involved.

Why does it hurt so much more to be rejected for someone else? Researchers call this comparative rejection, and it’s the worst kind, the studies showed. That’s because it increases feelings of not belonging and exclusion. It feels like a kind of double rejection, say the researchers. It’s bad enough not to be accepted by a partner but then, to make matters worse, there’s the feeling of exclusion from the relationship between the ex and their new guy or girl.

"I’ve had fun with you... but we should stop seeing each other."

The people who’d been rejected for another person said they felt left out, like an outsider. They felt more unaccepted than those who’d simply been turned down, for whatever other reason.

What’s more, in the final study, the researchers learned that people may automatically assume there’s another guy or girl involved – even if there isn’t. Participants were asked to imagine they were dating someone and told that ‘things were going pretty well’. But then they got the following text message from their imaginary romantic partner: ‘I’ve had fun with you but I think we should stop seeing each other. Sorry.’ They were given no other info but could ask a friend why their ex had called it quits.

Soften the blow

Most people wanted to know why they were rejected, the results showed. And the ones that then found out from the hypothetical friend that they weren’t being dumped for someone else felt better about the imaginary breakup.

So if you’re thinking of ending a relationship, there’s a take-home message here for you. If you’re not leaving your partner for someone else… tell them! It’s likely to soften the blow and could help them heal.

Reference: Did You Reject Me for Someone Else? Rejections That Are Comparative Feel Worse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (2017) Published online Aug 26.

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