Why break-ups and other life events make us feel so bad.

Imagine a couple, Judith and Matt, whose relationship began with great passion and intensity. They seemed to idealize each other, although each of them recognized and forgave the reality of flaws in the other that had confronted them. Six months into the relationship, Judith felt a distance and later discovered Matt’s romantic interest in someone else. Devastated, she ended the relationship with him. But her relationship with him hadn’t actually ended, since she persisted in wanting to know his whereabouts and who he was with. She stalked him on social media and covertly inquired about him when she would encounter his co-workers or friends. Ruminating about him, she held on to every scrap of information. A prominent part of her life was her preoccupation with his life—at some moments hating Matt and painfully missing him at other times. 

Certainly, Judith illustrates how negative feelings toward someone maintain the attachment to them. The opposite of love is not anger or hurt, but indifference. Yet to stop caring, either positively or negatively, is difficult when things happen that leave us in pain. In this post my example focuses on a break-up, but many different life events where we continue to care can result in negative feeling states. 

When something bad happens, we tend to focus on our negative feeling state as the problem, rather than what lies beneath. Longing, disappointment, grief, anger, loneliness, jealousy, or sensitivity to rejection can all be conceptualized as phenomena that resulted from an obstacle or impediment to what was once positive—often a loving connection that was lost. (1) It’s not simply the loss itself, but the ghost of the good stuff that haunts us. If uncovered, one is likely to find coping responses to shame, including withdrawal, avoidance, self-attack, or attacking the other. (2) 

People attempt to deal with the ratio of positive to negative emotions in characteristic ways learned early in life, where a very good scene in one’s life turned bad. (3) In attempting to reverse how things have turned out, the process can create an emotional cycle characterized by a person’s intense hunger for positive emotions.

In similar contexts throughout our lives, we have an opportunity to explore an upside to the shame of loss; namely, to understand the longing to get back the lost good feelings that formed an illusion of love. In terms of the reality of blissful love the feelings cannot be recaptured but need to be acknowledged, accepted, and understood along with the shame that accompanied their loss. (4) Ideally, the most mature way of responding to shame: 

“…starts with an inner search after which we realize it is okay to love ourselves. From this search, we remember the loving support of those who have truly cared about us. And it is from this solid sense of a good and loveable self that we then respond to and accept whatever has been exposed about ourselves, no matter how awful it may have seemed a moment earlier.” (5) 

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(1) Tomkins, S. S. (1995). Script theory. In E. Virginia Demos, Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins(pp. 389-396). Cambridge University Press.

(2) Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, NY: W.W. Norton

(3) Tomkins, S. S. (1995). Script theory. In E. Virginia Demos, Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins(pp. 389-396). Cambridge University Press.

(4) Kelly, V. & Lamia, M. (2018). The upside of shame. Therapeutic interventions using the positive aspects of a “negative” emotion. New York, NY: Norton.

(5) Nathanson, D. (2003). Managing shame preventing violence. (DVD available from the Tomkins Institute, www.tomkins.org).