Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Do people outgrow vulnerability to heartbreak?

So, here's a question for you: do people outgrow their vulnerability to romantic heartbreak? Can it strike at any time in one's life, or is it something that experience and shifting priorities defangs?

I honestly don't know the answer to this question, which is why I'm posing it.

Many psychologists who study "social pain" -- social rejection -- think that it exists to teach us lessons. The pain itself shares the same neurological pathways as physical pain, probably because both force us to focus on the situation and defend ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: for our ancestors, exclusion, rejection, or being alone could mean certain death on the savannah where saber-toothed tigers lurked in the brush. Any kind of pain alerts us to the dangers of being alone. Indeed, any pain, whether it is the crushing sensation in one's chest over the loss of someone you love or the sting of a paper cut alerts to the fact that in the end, we die alone. (And yes, I know that's dramatic...)

But if we unpack the line of thinking that pain teaches us important lessons, we arrive at two very different places:

1) that the lessons we need to learn are infinite, and we are forever vulnerable to the lessons we've not yet learned; or

2) that each of us has our own, private, and limited catalog of tailor-made lessons that reflects who we are as individuals;

If the lessons we need to learn are infinite, then in theory we are always vulnerable to heartbreak, and each romantic liaison potentially offers us a new risk of pain, a new lesson to be learned. But if each of us has our own set of lessons, then in theory once we master them, we're forever stronger.

Or is it simpler than that, and we simply reach a point in our lives where, as one song writer put it, we "haven't got time for the pain"? Fine enough to wallow in the pain of heartbreak when you're twenty-something, or thirty-something, and hanging out in your plaid pj's and listening to Aimee Mann and OD'ing on Haagen Daz and chardonnay doesn't really effect anyone else, but it's a different kettle of fish when you have kids to feed, entertain, and quite simply be healthy for? In a strange way, do our children armor us against romantic heartbreak? Are are our priorities so dramatically shifted by having children that our brains are rewired so that we don't collapse from the pain of romantic heartbreak?

This is not to say that someone who, say, goes through a devastating divorce and has children experiences heartbreak -- they do. I'm just wondering if it's a slightly different brand of heartbreak from the kind one experiences earlier in life.  

Or is it that you go through it enough times and it becomes such familiar turf that you don't have to spend so much time and energy on it? Yeah, you might feel like shit for a few days, but it's not the all-encompassing devastation of say, getting dumped by the love of your life when you're 25. Put another way, maybe heartbreak gets maxed out: everyone gets 3 to 5 heartbreaks, and after that, wearing your broken heart on your sleeve is just plain undignified. What kind of 50-year-old who just got dumped licks their wounds for months on end?

Please feel free to comment or email me privately if you have thoughts on this. I could really use some other brains on this...


  1. Personally - I don't think age has any thing to do with the speed of recovery in which the heart recovers from heartbreak. Again, my opinion, but a person falls in love and if it doesn't work out they are still going to hurt. How long depends on how deep a person falls. I do believe some people are more resilient that others. Take this with a grain of salt. I am a self confess 'some enchanted evening sort of gal. Good post and excellent question.

  2. I agree with Brenda completely. It *is* a good question, but it's impossible for me to believe that the heart hardens because of experience etc.. I think we can BEHAVE differently at different points in our lives, when heart-broken, but the feeling is still the same.

  3. Great question - and the simple answer would be "no". Heartbreak actually gets deeper as you get older. I would contend that losing a lifelong partner at an older age would be harder to recover from as you don't have the leisure of time ahead of you. At 20 you have a lifetime to heal and find something new, at 60 - not so much. To be left by someone you have trusted for 20 or 30 years is a much deeper cut than being left by someone you have only been invested in for a "few" years. As we get older we may get better at hiding the hurt and carrying on but I really don't think it lessens it any.

  4. I think you are lumping too much together in this. I think some of what you are talking about with the wallowing is a maturity factor, demonstrating poor life-coping skills that are ideally outgrown. As others have said, I think the longer the relationship deepens the pain one experiences. I would talk to those who have lost a spouse or have been through divorce on their experiences.

  5. Hmm, this is such a difficult question. I feel as though one's sense of self is more secure as you get older. I don't think there's such a devastation of ego as there might have been with the break-up of an early romance. But as a teacher of mine said recently, "loss is loss". The pain may not be as all-consuming but it may linger underneath all the busy-ness of life, lending a certain melancholy. That's how it has been for me anyway. I must beware of self-pity! I'm enjoying your blog and the diversity of interesting topics :)

  6. Occupy Heartbreak!

    Enough with this tiresome narcissistic drivel. Write about something of substance, like how the people are heartbroken because of the corporations and the banks preying upon them. Alas, this cannot be solved by hiding away and CONSUMING material things like ice cream and chardonnay.

    Rise UP!

  7. Maybe heartbreak is like drug use. You will never feel as high as you do the first time and maybe since you know what to expect you, if not feel it less, know what to expect in terms of those feelings of heartbreak.