How can one overcome lifelong lethargy

Breakup Pain: What Lovesickness Does To Us

Hardly any event changes the lives of people with such force as the loss of a love partner. The psychiatrist Günter H. Seidler explains why the end of a relationship often triggers traumatic crises in those affected - and what they can do to overcome depression and hatred

Interview: Tilmann Botzenhart and Bertram Weiss

GEO KNOWLEDGE: Professor Seidler, why are you, as a trauma researcher, concerned with lovesickness?

PROF. DR.GÜNTER H. SEIDLER: When you hear trauma, you first think of victims of violence and crime, of people who have survived natural disasters, war or terrorist attacks. In the outpatient clinic that I run, however, I met more and more patients who suffered from the same physical and psychological problems as these people, even though they had not experienced any such events. They had only been abandoned by their partners.

What does a breakup have in common with such extreme situations?

Those who are abandoned by their partner without wanting to end the relationship themselves often feel completely overwhelmed by what is happening: Something psychologically dangerous is happening and one is absolutely helpless exposed to it, one cannot prevent or control it.

How do those affected react?

Often with overexcitation: They cannot calm down, do not suffer from sleep, and some develop circulatory problems. In addition, there is emotional suffering - such as stressful memories to which the abandoned feel powerless. Avoidance behavior is also typical: those affected avoid places, people and things that remind of the ex-partner. And a large group develops depressive symptoms: listlessness towards beautiful things, withdrawal - not infrequently even thoughts of suicide.

Is lovesickness not taken seriously enough?

When we talk about these difficult cases: yes. The name itself is basically trivializing: lovesickness, that sounds like a teenage problem that takes place in the schoolyard. We are talking about a mental suffering that also throws many adults off course.

How do people usually deal with a breakup?

Lovesickness has four phases. The first begins with the actual separation. Immediately after the event, those affected deny what happened: They do not want to admit that their partner is leaving them, they appeal to his love and try to fight for their relationship. The second phase is characterized by protest and strife. Those affected feel that they have been treated incorrectly, develop resentments and sometimes fantasies for revenge. This is followed by the phase of self-reflection, in which the relationship and one's own role in it are more strongly questioned. And finally a phase of reorientation, of a new beginning.

How long does it take to get to this point?

After one or two years the fourth phase should be reached - even after a deep relationship with a partner with whom you have shared your life for a long time and wanted to continue to share. But there are people who take longer. And some of them just can't get over a breakup. Time does not heal their wounds either. I know those affected who, four years after a breakup, felt so bad as if their partner had just left them.

What does it depend on whether a breakup hurts so much?

There are several factors. For example the personality of the abandoned: Those who have a rather low self-esteem are more shocked by a separation than others. Furthermore, those who thought the person they lost was particularly important and who clung to them in the relationship - for them the separation will also be more difficult. The circumstances of saying goodbye are also relevant: It becomes problematic, for example, if those affected had focused their lives entirely on the partnership and had plans for the future, but were then left completely unprepared.

What role does the partner's personality play?

There are constellations that make a separation very difficult. Especially dangerous in this regard are partners who read every wish from the eyes, as it were protectively wrapped around the lover. These people often bring little of their own into the partnership and focus entirely on satisfying the needs of the partner or healing his wounds.

That actually sounds very positive.

Unfortunately, this type of partner often addresses people who are looking for healing in love: men and women who experienced violence from their parents or siblings as children or whose trust was abused. When they grow up, they often look for a partner who can make these problems go away. And then they sometimes meet someone who is absorbed in fulfilling their wishes, who wraps around the injuries of the past like a bandage and soothes their pain. But when this person separates, the bandage tears off - and the old wounds are exposed again. Then the abandoned has not only lost the partner, but also struggles with the injuries of bygone days.

So if you turn your partner into a therapist, you risk a traumatic breakup?

Yes, because such relationships rarely end well. If you want your partner to heal your emotional distress, you become dependent and force your counterpart into the role of helper. Such a relationship can hardly meet the demands of the partner in the long term. At some point most of them turn away - because they discover something better or out of exhaustion because they can no longer help. This can be devastating for the person who has sought salvation in the relationship: They lose their medicine.

How do people behave who suffer from severe lovesickness?

Exaggerated actions are typical. Some withdraw completely and spend the whole day behind closed curtains. Others exercise excessively or go on sexual adventures.

Does alcohol play a role?

Yes, and it is a big problem because it can actually relieve those affected at first. They become calmer under the influence of the drug, their minds are less haunted by fragments of memories. But when drinking becomes independent, it can of course lead to considerable difficulties. There are also frequent acts of violence. We then read about the extreme cases in the newspaper - when people injure or even kill themselves or their ex-partners, sometimes even their children, because they cannot get over the separation.

What exactly drives lovesick people to do such deeds?

These are attempts to regain control in a fainting situation. We also know this from people who have gone through traumatic experiences. They often react angry and irritable when they find themselves in situations where they temporarily have a little less control. These can be everyday moments; maybe someone criticizes them at work or in the family. And then these people lash out. Either against everyone or against the person who made their misery. Pain makes you bad - unfortunately this knowledge is confirmed again and again.

Interview partner Prof. Dr. Günter H. Seidler Head of the Psychotraumatology Section at the Center for Psychosocial Medicine at Heidelberg University Hospital until 2015. You can find the entire interview with the expert in the current issue of GEO Wissen: Order the magazine.