Florence Williams was naive about heartbreak before her husband left their 25-year marriage in 2017. Although the schism began two years earlier, when she discovered a compromising email addressed to another woman, nothing could not prepare her for the physical toll of her departure.
At first, she felt both exhausted and restless, “like I was plugged into a faulty electrical outlet,” Williams wrote in her book Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey (WW Norton), now available.
Insomnia, heart palpitations, brain fog and eye twitching soon followed. Between shuttling her two children to their father’s new home a few blocks away and visiting lawyers and financial planners, she lost 20 pounds in five months, dropping to 105 pounds. Yet by comparison, the divorce was relatively amicable. They had hired a mediator and the terms were drafted within a year.
A few months after their initial split, a routine checkup with Williams’ doctor led to startling news: His blood sugar had skyrocketed. She suffered not only from depression and anxiety, but also from undiagnosed type 1 diabetes, a progressive autoimmune disease that usually strikes in childhood.
Williams had just turned 50 – and she was flabbergasted. Diabetes did not run in his family. An award-winning science writer, she began to wonder: Could the stress of the breakup have caused these symptoms? Is there such a thing as “divorce diabetes?” »
And so, Williams embarked on a three-year investigation, studying the physiological dangers of heartache. She visited experts across the country who gave her some shocking insights.
As one psychologist said, “Falling in love puts a loaded gun to our heads.
Recent studies show that around 40% of all first marriages end in divorce. Although the divorce rate has fallen since its peak in 1981, psychologists still rank marriage breakdown as “one of the most stressful and important life experiences we have, just below the death of loved one”.
According to a 2011 analysis of 6.5 million people in 11 countries, divorced people are 23% more likely to die younger than those who are married. It is considered “a costly life event” along with smoking. A study from South Carolina adds to the pile of puzzling data: of 1,300 people studied over 40 years, divorced people were 57% more likely to die than their still-married counterparts.
According to a slew of longitudinal studies, happily married people live longer, have lower rates of cancer, stroke and heart attack, and tend to be less stressed overall. (People in difficult marriages also fare poorly health-wise, but not as badly as divorced people, according to Williams’ book – perhaps because knowing that the person you’re with live is irremediable makes you look elsewhere for emotional support..)
Besides, grief really hurts our hearts. People unhappy in love — in broken or unhealthy relationships — suffer from higher rates of heart disease. There’s even a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” which occurs when sudden distress (like getting dumped) causes heart attack symptoms in healthy people. The effects are real: 5% of these people will die, while 20% will suffer long-term complications.
The side effects of Heartbreak don’t stop at the heart. Researchers at Ohio State University have found that after a recent divorce, people produce fewer natural T cells, which are essential for fighting infection and cancer.
A Danish study published in January showed that men who lived alone for more than seven years and had two or more breakups showed higher levels of the inflammatory chemical interleukin 6, associated with higher heart attacks and death. early. (This study did not find similar increases in women, although other studies have shown inflammatory increases for everyone.)
Divorce – with its terrible combination of rejection, humiliation and upheaval, combined with the emotional toll, custody battles and financial pressures (the average cost of a divorce, according to Business Insider, is 15,000 $) – creates a perfect firestorm.
Although Williams concedes that it’s “impossible to say with certainty that her diabetes was caused by her divorce”, there is ample evidence to show that autoimmune diseases often arise during stressful life events.
To dig deeper into this question, Williams sat down with Steve Cole, a scientist at UCLA’s Social Genomics Core Laboratory, to sample his blood and see evidence of his grief at the molecular level. It turns out she had an increase in proteins in her blood that turn on genes associated with inflammation and signs of stress in her blood.
“These changes in your life are definitely filtering down to the molecular level of your body,” Cole told Williams.
“Do my cells still look like those of a single person?” she asked.
“Yes, I would say so,” he replied.
Under an fMRI scan, the brain of a broken-hearted person resembles that of someone who has experienced extreme pain similar to a burn or electric shock, according to a 2011 study by experimental psychologist Ethan Kross. Some of that pain comes from the intertwined nature of romantic relationships, Williams writes. The longer we live with someone, the more our bodies weave together. Our heartbeats align. Our brain waves synchronize. And even brief breaks can cause higher stress responses and disrupted sleep, according to a 2017 study published in Nature.
The misery of a breakup is actually an adaptive evolutionary response, pushing us to recouple as quickly as possible, according to Williams.
“It inspires us to reconnect with our lost partners after brief separations and inspires us to return,” Williams writes.
Science shows that it takes about four years for the body to recover from a long-term relationship and, especially if the person can find another healthy relationship, many, if not all, of the health effects can be reversed.
“Romantic love is like a sleeping cat,” one researcher told Williams. “He can be awakened at any time.”
But that’s easier said than done. About 15% of people who have a broken heart never recover and “stay sicker and die younger”.
Williams has made it a mission not to fall into that percentile.
“I didn’t want to go sour for years, like, frankly, my own mother did,” she told the Post.
Williams tried the most obvious way to move on — find someone new to love. But, while she successfully dated a few men, she eventually found more meaning in focusing on her own healing through nature outings and various forms of therapy.
A psychedelic therapist gave her MDMA and psilocybin which caused a hallucinatory trip, helping her imagine a world where she was no longer attached to her husband.
“I had these intense visualizations of my husband’s vine unrolling from my tree,” she told the Post. “During the session, I was able to visualize if I was a tree, I would blossom much more if I could unroll its vine around my trunk.”
She also took a 13-day solo canoe trip down Utah’s Green River, armed with a 10-day water supply and portable toilet, to connect with nature and feel more at home. comfortable with the idea of continuing.
Two years after the split, Williams had her blood tested again.
UCLA’s Steve Cole confirmed in lab tests that she was improving. There was an overall reduction in stress-related chemicals and her blood showed an increased antiviral response.
“Your body doesn’t look like a person who is fundamentally deeply threatened or shaken,” Cole told her. “You don’t look like a chronically lonely person.”
Four and a half years later, Williams feels even better. She has gained weight, is sleeping better, and her blood sugar has stabilized. Doing all that work, she writes, “has probably sped up my recovery by 25-50%…I feel like a fuller, livelier, gentler, wiser version of myself than ever before.”
Still, Williams admits she hasn’t gone back to who she was before. She said that person is gone, along with her marriage. Although she’s moved on from the breakup and is on good terms with her ex, she likens the heartbreak to a brain bruise or an eternal scar.
“It’s important to note that there is no final destination, no neat closure, no ‘we’re all done here’. It’s a mistake to expect that. Heartbreak and grief are complicated and there will always be times when you are going to have memories or pangs. It reminds us that our hearts are scarred in a way that makes us more able to listen and see the pain of others.
“These are the reminders of growing up,” she said. “And I’m grateful that I learned to ride those waves of emotion. Ultimately, they make me feel more human.