This post was updated on Oct 14, 2023
If you’ve been in love before, you probably know the feeling of being on a “high.” However, if your partner leaves you and the romantic relationship ends abruptly, then you may experience extreme “lows,” which are physically and emotionally painful. On the other hand, perhaps you have chosen to end the relationship. You might still experience the same pain and, at times, have a strong desire to be in the relationship; however, you know it needs to end. In either case, this is withdrawal from love.
Why Do People Experience Withdrawal From Love?
The reason for the emotional withdrawal is that when you fall in love, your body experiences a chemical reaction – the body releases endorphins and dopamine that are associated with pleasure. This leads to what some describe as similar to addiction-like intense feelings of reward and relief from stress, like any mind-altering experience. And when you’re in love, you experience this type of “high.”
Aside from science, there is also the fact that you may have liked, loved, and had shared experiences with this individual that bring up good memories, and the thought of not being with that person any longer is painful.
This is why it is such a powerful experience. For some, these intense feelings can be an intensity that is mistaken for intimacy, especially when the relationship goes from 0 to 100 in just a few weeks! Many wonder how a romantic relationship can turn into a toxic relationship so quickly. Often it is a result of a lack of self-love and the ability to really vet a relationship that makes you “well-matched and well-met.” Instead of looking desperately for someone to give yourself love to fulfill that strong desire in you to be loved.
For people who have had trauma or neglect in their past, primary relationships can lead to attaching anxiously to heal unmet longing. If you have abandonment wounds of the past, untreated trauma, substance use disorder (formally known as addiction), anxiety, or depression, you are most likely going to have a painful relationship withdrawal when the relationship ends. It is a destabilization that affects you emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, physically, and often financially. At PIVOT, we call these five elements the Whole Perspective.
Simply put, being left by someone who you felt was going to make your life “complete” can leave you feeling like your life just ended. Similar to the famous quote in the old Jerry McGuire movie – you complete me!
When physical and emotional symptoms manifest, you may experience several of the following:
- Obsessive thoughts
- Difficulty thinking or functioning
- Loss of appetite
- Problems sleeping
- Flu-like symptoms and, at times, severe headaches
- Body aches
- Loss of memory
- Feeling like you want to die – because you don’t know how to live without your “person.”
If this is happening after a breakup, then you may be experiencing emotional withdrawal from an addictive relationship. You can’t live without this person. What the industry calls love addiction withdrawal may also be crippling you because you also have an untreated attachment wound.
A Painful Experience
Love withdrawal and addictive relationships are one of the most painful withdrawal experiences.
Because a unique connection is made between the person affected and their unmet need for love due to childhood neglect and/or past trauma, they are left with a sense of loss. Often, during withdrawal from love, people psychologically go back and feel the losses they felt in previous life experiences without fully understanding that their nervous system is in complete overload. For decades therapists have referred to this as flight, fight, and/or freeze. Unfortunately, the more neglected they were as a child, the more they suffered when being neglected as an adult.
What can lead to seeking unbalanced, unfulfilled, and addictive relationships is having unresolved unhealthy relationships that typically begin as a child. We are drawn to what is familiar regardless of merit. And we can often find ourselves in relationships that mirror the ones that wounded us so deeply.
Keep in mind that you can also have a healthy childhood and go through extreme withdrawal due to having relationship challenges in adulthood. If you have had a really bad divorce, have been betrayed by a partner, or have suffered the loss of a loved one, you can also experience extreme withdrawal.
This need to be in a relationship becomes a survival pattern (aka defense mechanism) because you want to feel connected and not alone in order to heal childhood abandonment wounds. Even when there is conflict like emotional abuse, and at times, even physical violence it is still “better” to stay in the relationship instead of having a deep pain-body wound get activated.
The Role of Attachment and Love Withdrawal
For many individuals, if there is a deep attachment wound from the past, the experience of being in love withdrawal is one of the most painful experiences they will endure. We call this an attachment storm. The current loss gets intensified by the body’s memory of the losses of the past, and the upheaval will most certainly take your breath away. When individuals have attachment disorder from severe loss and abandonment as a child, experiencing a break-up with someone they care deeply for will put them immediately into this storm. And the storm can last for days, months, and in severe cases, years.
Love Withdrawal vs. Love Addiction Withdrawal – Is There a Difference?
Withdrawing from someone you care deeply for – either the relationship is good or not, can look similar to the outside observer. To the person going through the withdrawal process there is a difference. If the love is healthy for the most part and there are no deep attachment wounds at play, then love withdrawal can be painful however there is the ability to onboard good rational thinking. The reality of the relationship is apparent and therefore making the process more tolerable. When the relationship is not healthy and there are deep untreated trauma and attachment wounds, the withdrawal is intense due to rational thoughts being hard to access. Fantasy instead of reality is typically present. And the need to get the relationship back clouds all sense of reality.
The Severity of Love Withdrawal
To understand love withdrawal, think about the pain evaluation they give you when you are rushed into the ER. The ER docs simply say, “On a scale of 1-10, 1 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you have ever felt, what are you feeling?”
Love Withdrawal is typically a Level 10
When someone triggers old pain of abandonment and neglect by abruptly ending a relationship, the pain inflicted on the partner who is not prepared – is usually a 10. This immersion into what we call an Attachment Storm can hijack your nervous system into a complete shutdown.
Shortness of breath and panic attacks can be present if there is a history of being neglected. This is typical when someone is abruptly thrown into withdrawal – broken up with, the discovery of betrayal, pulled apart by an intervention of some sort, etc.
Understand this. If someone is left by another individual and the break up is abrupt, the abandonment and neglect of the past trigger a level 10 on the pain scale, and that individual who was left will most likely do anything not to feel this excruciating pain. The physical symptoms become so challenging that their own health is at risk.
Usually, getting the relationship back immediately or being engaged in the process of trying to get the relationship back is the only way to soothe oneself temporarily. If going back is not a choice after you have tried everything (calling a thousand times, pleading, begging, manipulating, making false promises, etc.), then often other survival patterns are engaged to help dissipate the pain and manage and tolerate feelings. This is where people will rush into the next relationship without vetting it to see if it is a good fit.
Drugs, alcohol, food, sex, porn, a new relationship, overspending – anything to manage the pain. Relationship withdrawal is how many addicts in early recovery relapse from other addictive behaviors.
Love Withdrawal at Level 8
If you wait and choose withdrawal, often you are looking at pain that would be evaluated at an 8. This is when you are finally ready to make a change because you have had too many consequences and have hit your bottom in the current relationship. People might be telling you that you are a sex and love addict because you haven’t been able to leave. That can motivate some people to take a more serious look at their behavior and then be able to say “enough.” And, exit the relationship.
With choosing to leave, you are aware that the pain will get triggered and will feel temporarily destabilized however, you have had an opportunity to prepare yourself for withdrawal. This ability to make this decision to leave yourself will be beneficial in the long run and result in you feeling empowered overtime.
Love Withdrawal at Level 7
If you stay in an unhealthy relationship, you typically live life every day in a pain evaluation at a 7. This energy is familiar; therefore, you can tolerate it. Remember, we are drawn to what is familiar regardless of merit; see also the familiarity principle.
If you are used to being hyper-vigilant because you grew up with an alcoholic or mentally ill parent, you will most likely be comfortable in a relationship with conflict where the stability is not consistent. It may not be a good relationship to friends and family who are witnessing the relationship dynamics; however, you look at the relationship like it is quite normal.
If you were to choose to leave the relationship, you would feel the painful wound of abandonment and neglect. So you stay. And you tolerate it. You don’t want to feel the pain. However, you have a muscle for the pain. Most individuals do not know how to prepare to end a relationship. So they stay.
Preparing for Love Withdrawal
To prepare for withdrawal, you must start with the simple concept of choice. If you are trying to get out of an unhealthy relationship, the BEST approach is to choose to leave and prepare for it. If no plan is in place and you leave because of pressure to do so by family and counselors, most of the time, you end up going back or engaging in a new similar relationship. This is where hiring a good relationship coach who is training in a process to help you get to your truth is essential.
Preparing for withdrawal can feel similar to preparing for a marathon. It takes time. And, that is often why many people struggle with the preparation part of deciding to leave a romantic relationship. Typically, people leave when there is a fight or a specific incident that fuels the irrational thoughts to leave immediately. And they do so, without any plans. No self care plan in place, no game plan, lack of emotional support, and freak out when they realize later what they have done.
If you are in an addictive, toxic relationship and you do not make a plan to leave, you may eventually get thrown into withdrawal when they leave you. And withdrawal is typically much harder to overcome when they leave you.
This is the choice, and it is yours. Do you stay or do you go?
Managing and Tolerating Love Withdrawal
To heal in withdrawal, it is best to start by understanding the relationship from a place of reality. How was this relationship supportive to you? What was your day-to-day life really like? Were you happy often, or did you spend a lot of time wishing things could be different? How did you manage conflict? Were you financially responsible? Understanding the reality of the relationship is crucial to begin to understand your own wants and needs in a primary relationship. What is healthy for you based on what you have been through already in life?
The steps below may seem simple as you read them; however, if you follow them – they may seem more like a Mount Everest climb at first. The good news is the success rate of not going back to the unhealthy relationship is quite high. If you simply break up every time there is a fight that escalates with no plan in place, then usually you will get back together, and you find yourself in a “here we go again” spin.
If you are experiencing withdrawal from an addictive relationship, then you can take these steps to move through it and start your healing process:
Step 1) First, you must begin to sit with the pain. It is. not going anywhere for a bit. This is the hardest step for most people. It is especially difficult to be present when you are in deep pain. Surround yourself with safe people and try not to stuff the pain down or use unhealthy behaviors to try to drown it out. It will come out sideways if you do. It needs to be felt.
Step 2) Try not to judge your feelings, thoughts, and wants. Be aware of them and breathe with them. Get help and have someone who guide you through this process. Surround yourself with people who support you being healthy and finding happiness. this is not the time to have friends stalk your ex’s social media and report in what may trigger you to try to go back.
Step 3) Remember, you are worthy of love. And the most powerful love comes from within you. Spend time understanding yourself on a different level so you can offer yourself compassion. Self compassion for the behaviors you may have engaged in to keep this relationship alive. Perhaps you looked on someones phone and didn’t respect their privacy because you were worried they weren’t doing what they said they were. Or you didn’t answer al call because you were “getting back” at them. This type of child-like behavior doesn’t set the stage for a healthy relationship. Forgive yourself and strive to learn more about healthy relationships.
Step 4) Identify ways you would like begin to build your self-esteem so you don’t continue to betray yourself and take actions that reflect your intentions. Remember, you deserve to be treated with respect, especially in your primary relationship. What behaviors are non-negotiables for you?
Step 5) Be open and willing to change. Behavioral change starts with healing and repairing yourself. Taking different actions which result in new behaviors that are healthy. This means dealing with feelings, grieving, and healing from past wounds. Healing allows you to reconnect to yourself with self-compassion and self-love.
Step 6) Begin making those changes… work on self-love and healing yourself. This process is about your recovery. You may need to begin a workout routine, eat healthier, and possibly move to a new house or apartment. If you are ending a long-term relationship, there are often many moving parts to beginning your new life. We get that. This list may seem simple with our wording however we know how difficult it can be especially if you are married, have children, work together, have family members you are close to and all kinds on other reasons.
Step 7) Once you have started to heal yourself, then you can empower yourself with understanding the wants and needs that are unique to you to engage in a new romantic relationship. Stay true to YOU! This step in understanding your own realistic wants and needs in a relationship based on your past is crucial prior to entering another relationship.
If you think you are in withdrawal from an addictive relationship, you must give yourself time to heal.
This is also the time to build up your confidence and self-esteem. Take time to read inspirational books, try new activities, or change your routine and your life. The important thing is not to blame yourself for the relationship ending, as this prolongs the emotional withdrawal period.
Remember, you are worthy of happiness and love, and a healthy relationship. Stay optimistic and know that with the right support and self-care, you, too, can have a secure attachment and a healthy, loving relationship.
Withdrawal With A PIVOT Coach
At PIVOT, we understand how difficult it can be to cope with the effects of love withdrawal. We offer evidence-based strategies and techniques to help you start your healing process. Our experienced coaches work collaboratively with you to identify healthy ways of dealing with unbalanced, unfulfilled, and addictive relationships.
We will help you to identify patterns in your love life, build self-confidence and self-esteem, learn healthier ways of connecting with others, and establish healthy boundaries. We also provide tools to manage emotions more effectively and work through the pain of abandonment or choosing withdrawal.
Reach out today, and our team will help you build a game plan to navigate the pain that you are experiencing. Contact our admissions team today!