How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
May 20, 2012—When we say our heart is broken we usually mean it as a metaphor: we are mourning the loss of an important relationship. But in recent years we’ve learned that the heart can quite literally be damaged by negative interactions.
One 2007 study by researchers at University College in London, in fact, found a correlation between negative relationships and coronary heart disease (CHD). "Negative interactions increase the risk of incident CHD," says Psychologist Roberto De Vogli. "The effect is independent of sociodemographic characteristics, biological factors, pychosocial factors and health-related behaviors."
His overall finding may not seem all that surprising considering we’ve been told for years that good relationships contribute in all kinds of ways to positive health and well-being, but this time there was an interesting twist: Apparently, the negative effects of negative relationships are stronger than the positive effects of positive relationships.
This is consistent with previous research findings that show people tend to mentally replay negative encounters more than they replay positive ones, says De Vogli. Negative close relationships have the power to activate stronger emotions (such as worrying and anxiety) which have concrete physiological effects.
Does this mean we should simply avoid conflict? Shut out those with whom we have relationship problems? Not at all: other research suggests that there are better alternatives to avoidance in most cases. Learning to change long-standing patterns of interaction may not be easy, but change is certainly possible and the rewards well worth the effort. Researchers are now focusing on teasing out the positive forces that can lead to this kind of change. One of these, they find, is forgiveness.
"The study of supportive behaviors within marital relationships has been illuminating," wrote researchers Frank Fincham, Scott Stanley and Steven Beach in May of 2007. "Many researchers and clinicians believe that forgiveness is the cornerstone of a successful marriage, a view that is shared by spouses themselves. Although attempts to integrate forgiveness into broader theories of marriage hardly exist, forgiveness can be seen conceptually as falling on a dimension of positive coping responses, such as social support."
But Fincham, Stanley and Beach also point to commitment and sacrifice as being very important "self-repair" processes in marriage. "Those who report more willingness to sacrifice also report greater satisfaction, commitment and relationship persistence," they noted.
If so, it’s not unreasonable to assume the same could be said for our other relationships. Unfortunately, we often cut self-repair processes off at the knees by avoiding conflict altogether. Couples may give each other the silent treatment when they are displeased; parents may pointedly ignore their children in an attempt to express disapproval of their behavior. Friends may cut one another out of their circle over real or imagined slights, gossip, or failure to conform to the group's social norms. Do these tactics work in the long run?
Clearly, that depends on what we hope to accomplish. Do we want revenge? Do we want to "win" at all costs—establish our superiority in the social food chain? Do we want one more fix of that very seductive self-righteous chemical brain rush we get when we are sure we're right and the other person is wrong? (Research suggests that the chemical released in the brain during a self-righteous episode can literally be addictive.)
If what we want is repair, connection, and good physical and mental health outcomes for all concerned, including ourselves, then the answer is no. Avoidance tactics don’t work. For one thing, when we don’t face conflict, we never learn how to work through it competently. We remain stuck in faulty patterns of relating to others.
But avoiding the other person is also a form of social exclusion. We call it "turning a cold shoulder," and it's a "passive" but oh-so-aggressive tactic that causes tangible pain to our victims. According to UCLA researcher Naomi Esinberger, the same areas of the brain that are activated when we feel physical pain are also activated when we are socially excluded. In fact, she says, from our brain's perspective there may not be much difference between a broken heart and a broken arm. Other studies add that social exclusion makes people less able to think coherently, limits their self-control, and even affects their ability to feel empathy for others.
Those being excluded do crave connection, but rather than risk rejection by returning to former loved ones they will look for acceptance in less intimidating quarters. And considering their equally less discriminating state of mind, these new connections may not be the most conducive to good life outcomes.
"The need to belong," write researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, "is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation."
Of course, even with the benefit of self-repair processes like forgiveness, commitment and sacrifice, it always takes two to tango. But when we are in high-conflict relationships, we could do worse than give these principles a shot. One might even say it could be good for the heart.