A reader recently submitted the following question:
Q: Why does a break up feel like the person is rejecting you? Even though you are pretty satisfied with yourself? I guess what I am also asking is, when someone says “It's me, not you,” why does it still hurt?
A: Thank you for submitting your question. Social rejection is painful in almost any context; being ostracized from others feels bad because it threatens many of our core needs, such as our need to belong. A lot of experiments have actually tested this using a computer "Cyberball" game. In the game, participants played virtual “catch” using a mouse to select other players to “throw” the ball to. Researchers have found that when other players stop throwing the “ball” to participants, they report lower levels of self-esteem, feelings of belongness and control, and report having a less meaningful existence. Interestingly, participants report these effects even when they are told that it is just a computer that is ostracizing them.1 Therefore, it is no wonder that when a significant person cuts you out of his or her life, it hurts.
Unfortunately, when people experience social rejection, they oftentimes engage in self-defeating behaviors such as lashing out at others (e.g., “screw you guys, I’m going home”) or engaging in self-blame (e.g., “what is wrong with me?”).2 Breaking-up involves not only emotional responses like sadness but cognitive processes like not being able to stop thinking about an ex-partner. The amount of grief you experience really depends on how close you were to the “rejecter.” The closer and more intimate a couple was, the greater each partner’s identities were intertwined.3 In a study conducted to test this, people were asked to rate themselves and their intimate partners on traits like “funny” and “smart.” Then they were presented with these words on computers and asked to select words that described only themselves, as fast as they could. They found that people who had broken up with their partners and were grieving the relationship had a hard time deciding which traits described themselves rather than their ex-partners—they made a lot of mistakes. In other words, they confused their own identities with their partners, even after the relationships had ended.4
Therefore, when an ex rejects you and your identity is intertwined with him or her, then the “It’s not you, it’s me” excuse does not likely sit right --- “you” and “me” feel like the same thing. When you get dumped, it does feel like it is you to some extent. Fortunately, as you separate from this person and re-establish your own, separate identity, this perception does change.4 Hang in there.
1Zadro, L., Williams, K. D., & Richardson, R. (2004). How long can you go? Ostracism by a computer is sufficient to lower self-reported feelings of belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 560-567.
2Blackhart, G. C., Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2006). Rejection’s impact on self-defeating, prosocial, antisocial, and self-regulatory behaviors. In K. D. Vohs & E. J. Finkel (Eds.), Self and Relationships: Connecting intrapersonal and interpersonal processes, pp. 237-243. New York: Guilford Press.
3Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollen, D. (1991). Inclusion of the other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 63, 596-612.
4Boelen, P. A., & van den Hout, M. A. (2010). Inclusions of the other in the self and break-up related grief following relationship dissolution. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 15, 534-547.
Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.