This Kind of Breakup Hurts the Most, According to Science

Updated: Oct. 09, 2017

There are a lot of valid reasons to separate, but this one causes the greatest heartache.

breakupMarjan Apostolovic/ShutterstockDespite what you see in romantic comedies, it takes more than a movie marathon with friends and a big tub of Ben and Jerry’s to truly get over a breakup. And while all breakups are heart-crushing, there’s one type that science has proven to be the most distressing of all.

According to a new study from Cornell University, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the most hurtful breakup comes from being dumped for someone else—scientifically coined as “comparative rejection.” Apparently, out of the many possible reasons to leave a relationship, being traded for someone else hurts more than partners leaving to “take time for themselves,” because of overall life conflicts, or plain loss of interest—all popular reasons to head to splitsville.

The research involved four different experiments with 600 participants. In the first experiment, two women (who were secretly working with the researchers) were placed in a room with one man. One of the women was instructed to solve a puzzle with the man, the woman, or alone—and secretly advised to choose only to work with the other woman or on her own, leaving the the man to feel “comparatively rejected” on all counts.

The other experiments involved large groups of participants who were asked to imagine certain times they had been rejected, and across each occasion, people recalled feeling the most crushed after being rejected in favor of another person.

Ultimately, each of the four studies revealed that people felt worse when they were rejected for someone else as opposed to being rejected for other reasons, where no one else involved.

According to the study results, comparative rejection triggers greater heartbreak than noncomparative rejection, because “such rejections lead to an increased sense of exclusion and decreased belonging.” (That’s science-speak for “rejected and lonely.”)

But just as heartbreaking as being traded for a new model is not getting any reason at all for the rejection, the researchers found. In that case, the rejected partner would search desperately for an explanation, even if it incited a lot more pain in the long run. If they couldn’t find an answer on their own, the natural assumption would be that someone new was in the picture.

Since heartbreak is often inevitable, the researchers offer some personal advice for dealing with rejection: If you are leaving your partner for someone else, don’t blab about it—or at least not too much. And if you’re leaving for another reason, it’s a good idea to reassure your partner that there isn’t anybody else.

If you’re the rejected party, these are the 15 things to remember to help yourself get over a breakup.