Rejection in Love: The Biochemical Storm of Shattered Trust

The rejection of betrayal inflicts a unique, unprecedented pain you only comprehend once you experience it.  If you are reeling from an intimate betrayal, you know. The depth of the pain stuns you, it changes you. Having your trust destroyed not only hurts, it shreds your identity and upends your life.

When your trust is shattered, a veil lifts from your eyes, and you can never see the world in the same way again. Before, you lived shielded from the indescribable hurt you feel now that the veil has lifted.

Yet, we are apt to doubt and shame ourselves for the intensity of hurt of this rejection because the pain is “only emotional”…

Now we know better.  Neuroscience is finally proving that the extreme stress of being abandoned, betrayed, rejected by someone you love causes ‘real’ pain. MRI studies have validated what many have long suspected: Heartache can cause the worst kind of suffering.

Emotional and Physical Pain Intersect in the Brain

This research has shown the emotional pain of lost love travels along the same pain-processing pathways as physical pain and registers in the brain as an equal threat to survival. As far as our brain is concerned, the pain we feel in loss, heartache and rejection is not different from a serious burn or a knife wound.

Invisible mental and emotional suffering can even be more painful and chronic than obvious physical pain. We are hardwired to stay attached to survive. In a bonded relationship, the brain produces relaxing chemicals, such as oxytocin, that give us a sense of safety, comfort, and soothing.  Any time a relationship ends suddenly, through death or abandonment, the production of these hormones abruptly stops.  The effect on the body is similar to going cold turkey.

Rejection Activates Craving as well as Aversion

Rejection adds another ingredient to the pain of sudden loss. In an ironic twist, it reactivates the same brain center, the caudate nucleus, that fires when we first fall in love. This part of the brain releases the drive-oriented pleasure chemical dopamine. This is also the same center that lights up when we experience cravings or addictive compulsions.

Who knew that recovering from romantic rejection not only hurts, it emulates, not metaphorically, but viscerally, withdrawal from a nicotine or cocaine addiction.  The nervous system sends out life-or-death signals to reconnect with your abandoning partner that amount to nothing less than the most intense cravings you have ever felt.

With the pain and pleasure centers of the brain lighting up simultaneously, a rejected lover lives in a crossfire. Desperate to reconnect with your executioner, but also traumatized, angry, confused and terrified by how much s/he has hurt you. Your brain is pumping the accelerator and the brakes at the same time. A kind of neurochemical torture chamber.  All you want to do is find a way out.

That brings us to the dark gift of betrayal. Betrayal drives us, with great urgency, to come to terms with the mystery of pain and suffering itself. The way out, I found, is through. Entering into the hurt with care and kindness begins to open us beyond the broken heart. In the cracks of brokenness, we discover an unexpected well of warmth and goodness.

To read more about the transformation of suffering and opening to love….

“Love and the Mystery of Betrayal”—available in print and ebook.

Love and the Mystery of Betrayal Book Cover

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