Here's why we evolved to be sniffling, pathetic blobs of sadness after a breakup …
For two weeks, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I puked up things that had no business getting puked up. I cried so much that I probably supported an entire Kleenex factory for the next year. When I wasn’t letting my crushing sadness and anxiety keep me in bed, I was bumming out my friends by trying to put a name to the feeling of vast emptiness and loss I felt.
That was heartbreak. It sucked.
As anyone who’s ever experienced it knows, the range of shitty feelings that envelop you following the end of a relationship is immense. A loss of appetite, insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, nausea, uncontrollable weeping, occasional nightmares, alcohol/substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, panic attacks, loss of interest, fatigue, loneliness and hopelessness all hit you over the head, hard.
What the hell, though? The purpose of love is obvious — reproduction — but what in God’s name is the function of heartbreak and its crippling side effects? From an evolutionary lens, why would being debilitated by romantic loss be an adaptive measure that persists in the human genetic lineage? It makes more sense to get over it and move on quickly.
Evolutionary theory can offer us some hints. From the perspective of our ape-ish ancestors, the social pain of separation and rejection had a distinct function. Because survival relied on safety in numbers, exclusion of any kind, including separation from one’s mate, basically meant death. However, psychologists believe that protohumans evolved to experience this social pain the same way as physical pain, as both types of suffering altered them to risk and danger. Pain aversion then, whether from an injury or a broken heart, contributed to survival.
This cross-wiring of emotional and physical pain is pretty useless today — after all, few of us risk attack by a wild animal charging at us from behind the bushes at any given moment, and living alone doesn’t mean a slow, lonely death. But still, the pain is there to teach us something: It focuses our attention on significant social events and forces us to learn, correct, avoid and move on.
So, when you’re in the throes of heartbreak, know that the visceral apocalypse you’re feeling is nothing more than a leftover survival skill from your great, great, great, great grandma. You can buy into and feel the full flex of romantic devastation if you want, but if you can learn to see it as an adaptive measure, it might help to ease the pain.