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6 March 2022

“I’m the patron saint of the dumped”: Florence Williams on the science of heartbreak

Being heartbroken can have a devastating effect on our physical as well as mental health. In her new book, the science journalist investigates how emotions intertwine with biology after a break-up.

By Sophie McBain

The science journalist Florence Williams’s 25-year-long marriage ended in the modern way, when she stumbled upon an email that she wasn’t meant to see: a message from her husband to another woman, with whom he was “gushingly in love”. They struggled on for two more years before he moved out. Williams stopped sleeping, her weight plummeted, and she developed an autoimmune form of diabetes.

The genomics researcher Steve Cole later described heartbreak to her as the “hidden landmine of human existence” – an event that can have devastating implications for our physical as well as our mental health, but one that remains under-acknowledged.

“Our culture doesn’t really have rituals for heartbreak,” Williams observed, when she spoke to me on Zoom from her home in Washington DC. “There’s no funeral. People don’t send you condolence letters.” She felt guilty nowadays remembering friends whose heartbreak she hadn’t taken seriously enough. We have no good scripts: “He was a loser, you are so much better off without him,” a friend might suggest as consolation in the aftermath of a break-up, but our feelings about our exes are always more complex than that. And so the newly dumped are “sort of relegated to pop music and Taylor Swift”, Williams said.

Yet it is estimated that around 15 per cent of the broken-hearted never recover psychologically. The anguish of heartbreak is often composed of many overlapping pains and stressors: grief, social rejection, loneliness.

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

The physical impact, too, can be dramatic. Researchers are learning that being divorced may be a greater danger to your health than smoking: one analysis of 6.5 million people in 11 countries found that people who are divorced are 23 per cent more likely to die early than their married peers. It is believed that between 6 and 7 per cent of cardiac-related hospital admissions are caused by takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a form of heart failure caused by sudden distress in otherwise healthy people. Cases of takotsubo spike following natural disasters and have been recorded among the newly single, the recently bereaved and even among deeply disappointed football fans.

Heartbreak changes people on a cellular level – something Williams learned when she submitted blood samples to Cole, who is studying how social isolation impacts the immune system. Cole’s early research had looked at why some gay men who were HIV positive died much faster than others: he found that those who were closeted, or who were very sensitive to social rejection, were most at risk. Their heightened stress made their immunological T-cells more vulnerable to attack by HIV, with the virus spreading ten times faster.

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Cole’s later studies, on the immune systems of lonely people, also showed they were less effective at fending off viruses and were more geared towards inflammation. This immune response makes evolutionary sense: a hunter-gatherer alone in the wilderness would be less likely to catch a virus but would need to be braced for being attacked by a predator. But, Williams says, “That’s exactly the wrong response for entering a pandemic and living modern life in general, when we’re more likely to be psychologically imperilled than physically imperilled by predators.” This might explain why lonely people are at a greater risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, and are an estimated 26 per cent more likely to die young than their socially connected peers. The mass loneliness reported in many Western countries, including the US and UK, might have made populations more vulnerable to Covid-19. And it might have contributed to Williams’s unusual form of late-onset diabetes.

When Williams began interviewing experts on the physical impact of heartbreak, in part better to understand what was happening to her own body, she thought she might use the evidence she had collected for a podcast. But the more she learned, the clearer it became that she had enough material for a book.

[See also: I’d rather not know why someone rejected me]

Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey interweaves the science of how our emotions are imprinted on our bodies with the story of Williams’s own efforts to overcome her devastating divorce.

Williams wasn’t sure, when she started her research, if she might be among the 15 per cent of people who don’t recover after a major break-up. This was unknown territory for her: Williams, now 54, had met her husband on her first day as an undergraduate at Yale, and they began dating weeks later.

Her path to recovery was fitful: several weeks after her divorce, she began dating (contrary to folk wisdom, experts told Williams that a relationship on the rebound can be a good idea). Ennis, whom she met at a conference, was smart, funny and affectionate, and as they flirted, she felt she was recovering a long-repressed part of herself. “He has no red flags,” a friend advised her. But then… it turned out the only kind of sex he found arousing was S&M, something she wasn’t in to. So much for Ennis.

Williams’ efforts to reconnect with nature were more healing. She had always been an outdoors type. Though raised in New York City by her mother, during the school holidays she would head out into the wilderness with her father for long camping and canoeing trips. She has previously written a book, The Nature Fix, which examined the restorative benefits of spending time with nature. As a journalist, she has long been interested in exploring hidden connections: the points of intersection between individual health and the environment.

Those least likely to recover from heartbreak are people predisposed to rumination, depression and anxiety, or survivors of childhood trauma and adversity, but “data is not destiny”, Williams said.

[See also: Are you mentally ill, or very unhappy? Psychiatrists can’t agree]

One balm for heartbreak is developing an appreciation of beauty: finding ways to experience feelings of awe and transcendence. And here’s another thing that popular wisdom gets wrong: the cure for loneliness is not so much social connection as developing a sense of mission. “The antidotes to loneliness are things that make us feel more connected to the world around us, not just a few other people. We need to connect to ideas, to nature, to a sense of awe, to meaning and purpose,” Williams said. (Those who have no taste for the great outdoors might be relieved to know that there are many ways to experience awe outside of nature: in art and music, religion and spirituality, as well as through other people.)

Williams wrote Heartbreak during the pandemic, a strange but appropriate time to be writing on the subject: her singleness amplified as she locked down in Washington with her two children, now 18 and 20, while the world experienced an epidemic of individual and collective heartbreak.

Even under the constraints imposed by the coronavirus, she found ways to continue following what she’d learnt about the importance of connecting to nature and beauty: she describes it as “micro-dosing on awe”. “It requires some intention and practice but during the pandemic I would walk around my block, or down the street, several times a day and would look at the bark on the tree, or watch a blossom or an insect, or look at the sunset. There are these pretty easy-to-access moments of beauty that we can find, if we’re willing to sit with them for a moment,” she said.

Williams said that since publishing the book she’s become “the patron saint of the dumped”, a repository of other people’s heartbreak stories. It feels good. “I’m so glad that my story and my research has helped other people make sense of their own experiences and find a bit of comfort and community.”

[See also: The “Tinder Swindler” understood the power, and flaws, of Disney-style romance]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror