Wellness

The worst feel? Science knows which type of breakup hurts the most

Plus the data on dumping someone graciously.

Plus the data on dumping someone graciously.

(iStock Photo/Getty)

The sting of rejection doesn't just linger, it leaves us writhing emotionally - often as we challenge the healthy upper human limits of carb loading. Still, not all heartbreak is created equal. With regards to unrequited feelings, there is a hierarchy of suck and science can prove it.     

A new study out of Cornell University examined two types of rejection to see which was more crushing, being rejected or being rejected for somebody else. And yes, the latter hurts more, by far. The authors write that "while nobody likes to be rejected, these rejections vary and some feel worse than others." Something to trot out next time you're competing with friends in the heart stomp olympics over a bottle of red.

To properly study the science of spurn, researchers subjected 600 people to four experiments designed to trigger an emotional response. One experiment had each man partnered with two women who were actually working on the sly with researchers. When asked to choose a partner with whom to solve a puzzle, one of the women was advised in advance to choose only the other woman or no partner at all. Whether she problem solved alone or with the other woman, the man remained jilted as part of the study. The other three experiments involved similar rejection scenarios but in much larger groups. But for every experiment, the findings were clear.

Researchers confirmed that quantitatively and qualitatively, "comparative rejections feel worse than noncomparative rejections." No matter the setup or group size, the forsaken consistently confirmed the same feeling state: it felt much worse to be passed over for another person then no one at all. Consider too that these emotional responses are from strangers solving puzzles in a scientifically sterile environment. So, do be sure to extrapolate when applying the mathematics of malaise to the end of a lengthy romantic relationship, an unfriending, or even a series of job interviews. The study didn't explore whether digging their way to the bottom of a litre of ice cream helped assuage rejectees.

Researchers aren't fully sure but suspect that because humans are primarily social animals, they feel the slap of being dismissed for someone "better" far more. The authors write that this consistent response "may be because such rejections lead to an increased sense of exclusion and decreased belonging." Inclusivity carries enormous emotional value as we link it to our sense of self worth.

Surprisingly, when participants weren't told why they'd been rejected, they immediately assumed it was for another person anyway. In fact, even though it was hurtful, people who'd been passed up needed to know why and often went clamouring for information that could confirm their fears one way or the other. A marked sense of relief was felt when they could pin down that they hadn't been rebuffed for a more favourable partner. Where's your confidence humanity? You are enough! Who designed these brains anyway? Actually asking. 

Researchers posit that the introduction of a rival into the emotional equation feels something like a "double rejection". Like say if you run into your ex and her new beau holding hands on a picnic blanket in the park nearest your house two weeks after the breakup. To draw on a completely random example not pilfered from my Memories of misery cerebral filing cabinet. I'm fine. Not only do you not satisfy someone you'd truly hoped to, but someone else definitely does. Open wound. Add salt.

Happily, the research wasn't solely a study in sadness. The data collected can be applied to bettering breakups and rejections worldwide and the researchers suggest as much. Allow me to raise my erlenmeyer flask to science. The authors were careful to conclude their paper with some sound advice that should colour your approach next time you have to let a lover, friend or job applicant down (presuming you want to do so with a light touch). 1) Make sure they know there is no one else. It'll make "rejectees feel better". 2) If there is someone else, downplay it. The authors write any "references to other parties chosen over the rejectees should be kept to a minimum." And 3), play up their worth so that their sense of belonging takes less of a hit. Whatever the situation, science suggests we focus on the qualities in them we value, not their faults. Make the decision to part ways about what you need, not what they don't have. Again, assuming you want to use these findings from the science of spurn for good.

If you get jilted and there really is no one else, take solace. In the echelon of emotional agony, you're at least a peg of pain above someone who got cut cut loose because their partner traded up. If there is someone else, call your friends and remind yourself that ice cream will never leave you for another. It doesn't have legs. 

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