Friday, May 21, 2010

Of Romantic Rejection and Pain

Basha: Popoy, umuwi ka na!
Popoy: Mahal na mahal kita at ang sakit sakit na.
-- One More Chance (2007, Film)
Anyone who has loved and has been rejected can relate to Popoy’s pain. Some parting might be such a sweet sorrow, but according to Emily Dickenson, “parting is all we need to know of hell.”

I have heard stories from clients and friends about the pain of being romantically rejected—when your romantic advancement is refused by another or when an existing romantic relationship (real or perceived) is ended. Personally too, this is not foreign to me. I have been rejected—socially and romantically—a lot of times in my adult life.

So, I wondered what science has to say about this and to my surprise this has been studied!

Anyone who has experienced heartache knows that the “ache” is not symbolic but real. In fact, a study has shown that emotional pain like being romantically rejected affects the same primary brain regions as that of physical pain.

Nathan DeWall and his colleagues from University of Kentucky looked into fMRI scans of volunteers who experienced rejection. (Researchers manipulated a computer game so that some players feel excluded.) Results showed an interesting discovery. The brain region associated with physical pain lit up. Thus, the brain experienced emotional pain just as real as it would if the body had been wounded.

The researchers investigated further by asking if taking painkillers will also ease the emotional pain just as it will for physical pain. In a different study, volunteers were given 1000 milligram dose of acetaminophen—the active ingredient in Tylenol— every morning and night for three weeks while others took a placebo. Those who took the drug reported less emotional pain compared to those who did not. Thus, taking painkillers also relieves the emotional pain.

So if you are broken-hearted, take a Tylenol and it will ease the pain.

But we all know that coping with break-up or rejection is not that simple. Even the psychologists who did the study do not suggest popping Tylenol every time one feels broken-hearted. The drug taken frequently and in large doses has side effects on the liver.

Psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Iannon from the University of California in San Francisco think that when we are romantically rejected we undergo a psychobiological (as it also involves neurochemicals in the brain) process of two phases: protest phase and resignation/despair phase. Taking Tylenol makes that brain region associated with physical pain NOT light up but it will not allow one to skip the process.

During the protest phase, the abandoned lover will try everything to win their sweetheart back. We obsessively dissect all aspects of the relationship, establish what went wrong, and strategize on how to rekindle the romance. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist by profession but had studied romantic interpersonal attraction for more than 30 years, calls this frustration aggression–when the romantic love is spoiled, the lover just loves harder.

Another characteristic of protest is what Psychologist Reid Meloy calls abandonment rage. We know that sometimes it is easier to move on when we are angry with our ex-lovers. But, why do we hate someone we loved? “Perhaps because it enables jilted lovers to extricate themselves from dead end love affairs so that they can renew the vital courting process sooner,” Helen Fisher hypothesized.

Over time, we give up and we enter the stage of hopelessness, resignation, and despair. We cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink, forget to take care of self and become ugly (inside and out). Elizabeth Gilbert—author of Eat, Pray, and Love—said that we know we have reached romantic rejection’s final destination when we have completely and mercilessly devaluated our self.

Some broken-hearted lovers are hopeful and resilient (and romantics!) that they are able to dust themselves off and redirect their energy to fall in love again. But some broken-hearted lovers suffer from clinical depression, die from heart attacks or strokes, or commit suicides.

I think these findings have school, work, or organizational implications. With mixture of pain, frustration aggression, rage, hopelessness, and despair one experience during romantic rejection, I advocate that organizations should excuse or set days for emotional sick leaves. Parents, teachers, siblings, friends, and bosses should take romantic rejections and heartaches seriously because we know and have experienced that unrequited love decreases concentration, energy, motivation, and performance.

If an employee gets sick, one gets a medical certificate from a medical doctor to prove that he or she was sick, and is also given a certificate of fitness to work. I propose that if an employee experiences romantic rejection (or any social rejection), one gets a certificate from a psychologist (like me) to ensure his or her mental health and psychological well-being.

So are you broken-hearted? Take a Tylenol and call me in the morning.
"How cruel, you say. But did I not warn you? Shall I count for you love's ways? Fear, jealousy, revenge -- pain. They all belong to love's innocent game."
These words from a Celtic legend Tristan and Iseult survived for centuries. Now, I agree that the only sure thing about loving is pain. But still I wonder, even if it is painful-- when love goes wrong -- people work, write, sing, dance, travel overseas (wink here), sacrifice, kill, and die for love. Romeo Montague of Verona was right,
"Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn."


Tristan Tan said...

Thanks for this piece - it was very enlightening. But, you'd have to forgive me because after reading this, only two words remained in my head: pain and tylenol. Hehe.

dwengster said...

I don't know why pero naka-relate ako sa movie na One More Chance. Though happy enough, I was able to move on. It is really not healthy to constantly allow one's self to suffer rejection in the hopes of that person falling for you again.

Sabi nga nila, marami pa naman isda sa dagat. So, go fish!


Ligaya Fernandez said...

yes, I want my emotional sick leave! As someone who's brought heartbreak to an art form, it is true, emotional pain is the same, if not more painful, than physical pain. hurray for this! I'm so glad to find someone telling me,a doctor at that, that I was not going crazy after all. Heartbreak hurts!

Dhon said...

very enlightening teban..

Anonymous said...

My heart breaks piece by piece so i left it there... hoping someday someone notice it and fix it piece by piece. hand it to me tenderly and tell me "Ayaw tawn pagkalat-kalat dong... no littering area kaha ni diri..." then I would just smile back at him and tell him "aw mao bah, unsa diay imo cell number?" ... ahahaha =D