Q: I just got dumped by my girlfriend a couple weeks ago. It was a short relationship (3 months) which started out slow but gradually ramped up in intensity as we started spending more time together. Things seemed to be going great right up until she dumped me. We were making plans together for the future – trips we were going to take, dates we were going to go on. She seemed very much as “into” the relationship as I was – sending loving texts and buying me gifts. Then all of a sudden, as if overnight, she got cold and distant, and then she dumped me the next day.
I was totally blindsided and heartbroken by her actions. How can someone seem so into you in one instant and decide they don’t want it in the next? And how come this hurts just as much as a breakup of a long term relationship, even though we were only together for a few months?
A: I am so sorry to hear about the dramatic change in your relationship. Break-ups, as you know, are not easy, especially when the relationship seemed to be going so well. You are asking essentially two questions here: 1) why she would have a change of heart so abruptly, and 2) why such a short relationship could hurt like a much longer term relationship. Here are some of my thoughts…
Given what you describe about your ex’s behavior, it is possible that she terminated the relationship because of having an avoidant attachment style, meaning that she is fearful about entering and becoming too close to others.1 People with avoidant attachment styles are more likely than people with other styles to end relationships when they start getting too intimate2 and to use indirect strategies to do so, such as avoiding direct communication about the real problems that are leading to the break-up.3 In other words, she may have been holding back negative feelings. As relationships become more interdependent, which happens at about the same time she broke things off with you, avoidant types tend to back off and end it.
An alternative, but less likely explanation might be that she has an anxious attachment style, meaning she may have had clingy behaviors and mood swings due to feeling uncertain about your feelings towards her. People with this style are oftentimes torn about their feelings and do not know how to handle them. As a result, she would have appeared ambivalent; hot one minute and then cold the next.4
As for why it is painful, you might benefit from reading some of my earlier posts (links appear below). In a nutshell, the initial feelings of attraction that you experience in the early stages of a relationship have a strong biological basis. So, when the relationship ends, it is like going through physical withdrawal from a drug. Due to increased interdependence, you may also have been starting to feel like a couple in the short time you were together, which means that you may have started seeing your identity as “we” rather than “me.” When the relationship ends, it is hard to go back to “me,” regardless of the amount of time you were really together.
I know it is not easy to make sense of things when they end so quickly, especially given the lack of a rational explanation for why it ended as it did. It sounds like you began with good intentions to start the relationship slowly, but you may want to take it even slower with your next relationship. You may also want to try out being sort of a “mystery man.” Many women prefer dating partners who are not very obvious about their feelings at the start of the relationship because it violates their norms about what it means to be “manly,”5 and they like them even more when they are mysterious than when they are positive early on.6 In the long-term, warmth and responsiveness are good, but keeping it low-key at the start cannot hurt.
If it makes you feel any better, she may feel guilty or bad about rejecting you, as rejecters oftentimes feel as bad about ending things as the person who was dumped.7
1Cassidy J., & Shaver, P. R. (2008). (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research and clinical applications (2nd ed.), Guilford, New York.
2 Feeney, J. A., & Noller, P. (1992). Attachment style and romantic love: Relationship dissolution. Australian Journal of Psychology, 44, 69–74.
3Collins, T. J., & Gillath, O. (2012). Attachment, breakup strategies, and associated outcomes: The effects of security enhancement on the selection of breakup strategies. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 210-222.
4Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Bar-On, N., & Ein-Dor, T. (2010). The Pushes and pulls of close relationships: Attachment insecurities and relational ambivalence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 450-468.
5Birnbaum, G. E., & Reis, H. T. (2012). When does responsiveness pique romantic interest? Attachment and sexual desire in initial acquaintances. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, X, 1-13.
6Whitchurch, E. R., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2011). He loves me, he loves me not… Uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological Science, 22, 172-175.
7Baumeister, R. F.; Wotman, S. R.; Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 377-394.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.