By the end of college, most 21-year-olds have dating experience that leads to the heartbreaking catastrophe in which they break up with their partner or are broken up with. Whether the relationship was one month or one year, tears are most likely shed, tissues are vandalized, and exes are unfollowed on Instagram. Heartbreak is a universal experience that forces us to grow and reflect on who we authentically are without the distraction of a partner. The pain and rejection cause us to acknowledge our deepest insecurities, the fear of being unlovable, and the significant energy and emotions we drain in another person for months on end. Breakups never fail to leave the heartbroken with one question: was it all worth it?
I interviewed my friend on her experience with breakups first. She has done a lot of self-reflection after jumping from a two-year long-distance relationship into a six-month unofficial relationship a couple weeks later, often known as a rebound. The rebound is a distraction from the grief of heartbreak—a way to bounce back into the dating scene and find your confidence in another person after rejection clutches you by the throat. Ella believes that this shorter relationship was harder to heal from; strong feelings of infatuation are still heavily present in the beginning, and breakups hurt a lot more when the relationship was unhealthy to begin with. In other words, if there is a lack of respect or communication in the relationship, it’s going to be reflected in the breakup, versus in a longer, healthier relationship with more mutual respect. Ella found that she had a hard time being vulnerable and admitting her own emotions to herself post-breakup because of how rejection causes one to put their guard up to prevent more pain.
My roommate Bailey along with Ella have both acknowledged that they have memory loss of their ex-partner and the relationship due to their brain trying to repress the trauma of the heartbreak. A brain imaging study published by Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience confirms that a romantic breakup can affect the executive functioning of brain areas involved in working memory, reducing their network activation because of depressive symptoms. As a result, Ella starts to dissociate when she tries to remember the extent of pain caused by the breakup or memories with her first boyfriend. She felt too needy in this relationship and decided to abandon her emotional needs with her rebound partner, rewriting her identity by keeping things casual and never asking for more. This ended up being a catalyst for self-transformation and rebirth when things ended with her second partner. Breakups force you to realize your flaws; this breakup made Ella realize the crux of her being was existing for the patriarchy and trying to be the perfect person for her boyfriend, going down a checklist of how to make herself worthy and lovable. She realized intimate romantic relationships shouldn’t require you to suffer, and you shouldn’t be with someone just because you love them. You must feel the pain to move on from it, and Ella provides herself with closure knowing the suffering in these relationships and breakups was for a definite purpose that changed her identity and made her stronger—and she is grateful for it.
I interviewed my boyfriend on his heartbreak lessons next. I initially thought this process would be awkward, but, instead, it made me appreciate the thoughtful self-reflection he has done and his humility to learn from past mistakes. Although it seems like the end of the world at the time, he believes breakups can end up being freeing and relieve a lot of tension for two people who grow apart. Media portrays anyone who breaks up with another as evil and malicious, but most times this person doesn’t want to hurt anyone, just help themselves. “It teaches you a lot about yourself and what you don’t want in your next partner,” he also relayed. The more dating experience you have, the more you can self-reflect on what you need out of a partner, learn to cope with your own flaws, and fix your communication skills for the future. If you don’t take time to learn from heartbreak, you’ll end up in the same type of unsuccessful relationship again.
My roommate Kara's heartbreak taught her that you cannot force feelings in a relationship; if someone is meant to be with you and you are compatible, you won’t need to change yourself or put in so much active effort to make things work. She felt as though she manifested her relationship with her ex—it was never effortless or organic. He rarely reciprocated in sharing deep feelings or being vulnerable. Naturally, when her boyfriend ended things, it all led to Kara's insecurities bubbling to the surface. Was any of the relationship natural, or had it always been forced? Had she wanted to make it work more than he did? Was she unlovable? A team at the University of Michigan found that when we feel rejected, our brain treats the feeling like physical pain, activating its opioid response system and releasing natural painkillers just as it does when we get a cut or burn. Over time, Kara's pain subsided, and she realized how much an overactive imagination and romanticizing can damage a relationship. Kara said, “In the future, I know to trust my gut more and see things for what they are, not what I want them to be. I have to acknowledge the red flags sooner.” If you never identify what your real role was in the relationship—or what the relationship actually meant and its worth in your life path—you risk never getting over the pain or learning from the heartbreak.
The perspectives of my friends regarding their heartbreak experiences generated valuable lessons on what we should take away from the pain of heartbreak. Not only should we take time to feel this pain, but we should use it as a catalyst for self-analysis and growth. So, to answer your initial question: was it all worth it? From what I can still remember, yes. Yes, it was.