Vintage Column: Is it Heartache or Heartbreak?

The Difference Between Heartache and Heartbreak
by Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.

We all hate being dumped by a romantic interest, and the reason we hate it is that there is pain involved, at least for awhile.

Years ago I noted that some periods of grief I experienced after a relationship ended lasted only a month or two, while other times it lasted six months, a year, or more. One thing that was always true, however, was that during the time I was grieving I thought a great remedy would be to meet someone else, but would always find that I was totally worthless when it came to connecting with potential partners, no matter how promising the person wooing me was. In the end, I came to understand that I had no business going out with anyone while in such a state.

So, in January 1997 I was trying to grasp and understand all of this, and decided to interview an expert who understood the process, Michael Berler, Ph.D., a San Antonio psychologist. Looking back, what Berler said still has great value.

He explained that the reason the pain lasts for different periods of time has to do with the length of the relationship and how serious it was. The type of relationship that ends and leaves light bruises causes the phenomenon of heartache, and when you feel as if you were run over by a bus, it’s  called heartbreak.

“Heartache is a milder form of heartbreak, and (that) usually means you’re mildly deflated,” says Berler.

Mildly deflated, but hurting just the same. Berler explained that the average person recovers from heartache within about 30 days, but that a long-term or extremely intense relationship will knock a person down for a much longer time.

“A person can be extremely dysfunctional for one year to 18 months afterward, and it can take two years to recuperate fully,” he says. “There is an acute phase of heartbreak, and then there is a chronic stage that you manage. But there’s a part of me that says you never get over it.”

Don’t remind me. Still, this is why Berler recommends that individuals stay away from dating people who are recovering from something like this … the motivation is to avoid becoming a heartache casualty yourself. So if you don’t want to get hurt, don’t date someone who is.

“The person in the throes of heartbreak is probably obsessive about the past relationship, and one’s ability to connect with someone is temporarily diminished,” he says. “There’s a tendency to become self-absorbed. They become less supportive, less able to be a friend, a mother or a father.”

Oh great. But Berler assures us that the fact that the person is mourning, grieving, and thinking about himself most of the time is a good thing.

“A lack of an emotional response would be worrisome,” he says. “The misery reflects something healthy. If you didn’t have that, you’d either be in massive denial or you couldn’t have those feelings.”
So when is it safe to step back into the dating ring with someone who recently got dumped? And more importantly, if you’re the one who is in recovery, when is it safe to say you’re over it so you can present yourself back into the dating arena?

“You’re over it when your thinking is not as obsessional and intense, and when your anger and sadness are more tolerable,” says Berler. “It’s when your negative thoughts become more manageable. Also, the need for attachment is a healthy sign.”

And as far as when is it safe to date the dating wounded, my answer is – for the heartachers I’d give it a couple of months, but for the heartbreakers it’s best to wait a year, and even then, I’d stand by as a friend all the way and allow the person to take the lead as far as romance goes. You’ll know when the coast is clearing because all of a sudden he won’t talk about it as much, and when he smiles you’ll see all of his teeth, instead of some of his teeth.

So, for those of you in recovery, when is it safe to reemerge into the dating world? The answer is, when you think you can date and not superimpose your former love’s face on top of your date’s face, and keep focused on what she’s saying instead of what your former girlfriend once told you, you may be ready. With any luck, it’ll be sooner than later, but the good news is, that day will come.

Copyright 2007, Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.


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