Guy Winch on the Disenfranchised Grief Experiences of Romantic Heartbreak and Pet Loss

Jun 18, 2021

Psychologist Guy Winch is a leading advocate for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives. He’s written several books, including How to Fix a Broken Heart. Winch talked with WPSU's Lindsey Whissel Fenton about the disenfranchised grief experiences of romantic heartbreak and the death of a beloved pet and about what we can do for ourselves and for each other during these experiences.    

To watch Guy's Ted Talk How to Fix a Broken Heart, click here

Here is the interview: 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:   Welcome to Take Note for WPSUm from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Guy Winch is a licensed psychologist and a leading advocate for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives, workplaces, and education systems. He writes the popular Squeaky Wheel blog on psychologytoday.com and has a private practice in New York City. His three TED talks have been viewed more than 20 million times. Winch is also the author of several books, including Emotional First Aid, as well as How to Fix a Broken Heart. The latter focuses on the disenfranchised griefs of romantic heartbreak and pet loss, which we'll be focusing on in this conversation. Guy, welcome to Take Note. 

 

Guy Winch: Thank you for having me.  

 

Fenton: Your work focuses on elevating the emphasis we, as a society and as individuals, place on our mental health and wellbeing. And we're going to talk about some specific aspects of mental health in this conversation. But let's start more generally with why do we struggle so much taking mental and emotional health seriously? 

 

Winch: I tend to say that we are roughly 100 years behind on our sophistication about emotional and mental health, as we are about physical health. And that means that if you ask most people, what steps do you take to deal with cuts and scrapes and bruises and [inaudible] and people do a lot of things to monitor their physical health and when something goes wrong, they're usually on top of it, they usually address it right away. Not so when it comes to emotional and mental health. People often ignore or they don't even know that that's what they're experiencing Is that normal or problematic, potentially. So, we're very much at the beginning of developing an understanding and an a sophistication. And by we, I don't mean the science, because the science is there, quite significantly, but just the dissemination of the conversation to discussion in society, just being able to talk about certain things, still carries too much stigma, and carries too much vulnerability for people. And so, they shy away from admitting something they feel when anyone else in that situation would feel exactly the same. 

 

Fenton: You've written several books, but I want to focus on one titled How to Fix a Broken Heart, in which you explore two unique grief experiences that, on the surface might seem like sort of an odd pairing, romantic heartbreak and pet loss. What do these two experiences have in common? 

 

Winch: What they have in common is they’re both forms of grief that elicit real grief responses from the people who go through them, but they're very much unsanctioned by society. No one is calling in to their corporate job and saying, “I can't come in for a week my cat died.” And equally, no one is saying to their boss, “My girlfriend just dumped me, I'm a mess, and I need to take a few days off,” because also being seen as, you know, career killers, or certainly impediments. Because we tend to associate romantic heartbreak with teenagers, young people, you know, when the factor that is experienced very similarly at all ages. And we tend to experience pet loss... some people are not pet people. And so, they don't understand that for certain people, pets are their family that are their companions in life. And the loss can be hugely significant. But because we don't really give that as much attention as we do, we lose in a first-degree relative, or a formal divorce after two decades or something like that. There's much less sympathy for people, and there's much less compassion, and that's in the workplace, but in society at large. And, I wanted to bring attention to the fact that the research shows that we experienced these things as extraordinarily painful, significant, and real grief experiences, that we really need to have compassion for them as we would for another kind of grief experience, which we do consider more quote unquote, legitimate.  

 

Fenton: So, there is science that supports it's not in your head that you're having a hard time because you had to put your dog down? 

 

Winch: Absolutely. And if you think about it, when what people say to me when they talk about these things is, “That cat has been with me for 20 years. That cat saw me through all kinds of trials and tribulations and losses and challenges.” Certainly, think about the pandemic. There are people who have been shot alone in homes for months and months and months on end where their only point of physical contact was a cat, or a dog or another kind of pet, you can get extraordinarily attached. 

 

Fenton: As with any type of grief response, social support plays a critical role in how someone will grieve over time. So, what does it mean for a person's grief journey when that social support is inadequate or missing altogether? 

 

Winch: Well, obviously It makes it much harder to recover. And it makes the intensity of the pain larger and the duration of it longer but but think it has a lot of ripple effects when you don't get support. What people tend to feel is this certain amount of shame or embarrassment, that they're feeling so profoundly affected by something others don't recognize as significant enough. And then you start to question yourself, and what's wrong with me, and then you start to hide the fact that you're feeling so upset and tried to cover. And it just causes this whole entanglement. And this is why it's difficult to process the grief to process grief, we have to be able to talk about it if we wish, we have to be able to get support to be able to share memories, every ritual of grief we have for losing humans, in most societies involves a community aspect. In other words, there's a shiva, or there's a wake or the different things in which you come together as a community to support that person in recognition that that's important and necessary and helpful. When he had these experiences, that doesn't happen. And so it's important to really offer that kind of compassion. And certainly, if you're a pet person, you will need it back at some point. 

 

Fenton: And in addition, with pet loss, in addition to providing companionship, pets also provide such a sense of structure in our lives, and how does the loss of that routine play into someone's grief experience? 

 

Winch: Significantly, because part of the aspect of loss and grief, no matter what we're losing, it can be a person it can be a pet, is that the more it changes our day to day, the more acutely, we're likely to experience that loss. Now, if you had a dog that you were walking four or five times a day, and that when you came home, we're going to rush to the door to greet you. Happily, or if you have a cat that when you settle down and the couch to watch TV, they they're in your lap and you and that's just part of how you live your life as part of your routine. Animals also attract a lot of attention, dogs certainly going to go walking. So, most people know dog's names rather than owner's names. And if you go to the dog when you go to certain places, they're these friends and suddenly you become invisible without the animal because normally remembered who you were, they remembered your, your pet. And so that whole level of social interaction, and identity gets lost, as well. And so, the disruption is very much a real-world disruption of suddenly, “Well, I don't have to rush home at one to walk my dog or I, what do I do with myself? What is the substitute for that huge void that gets opened when something that took so much time and emotional investment and gave so much back—because animals give so much back — is now gone?” 

 

Fenton: What can someone do who's lost a pet and is struggling with some of the secondary losses like that loss of routine or even physical activity? What are some things they can do to sort of steady the ship? 

 

Winch: Well, in grief and loss in general, there are several tasks that one has to go through in a journey of recovery. The first is to truly come to terms with a loss and come to terms with the impact of the loss on your life. You then have to fill these voids that get left by the person fill the voids mean, what takes up that space. Now, where do you direct those energies? Now where do you get back what you are getting back from the affection and love we feel from our pets? People often define themselves by their animals. So, we have to be aware of the voids that get created. And we have to be very intentional, of filling them and understanding that we need substitutions here. 

 

Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist who is a leading advocate for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives. We're talking about the disenfranchised griefs of pet loss and romantic heartbreak. In your book, How to Fix a Broken Heart, you give an example of a man whose beloved dog died and who was forced to work through his grief. And I just even if we take compassion out of the picture, and we view this strictly in terms of someone's work performance, what are the implications of such a stance of just completely ignoring this kind of devastation in the workplace? 

 

Winch: So, we know from functional MRI studies that we experience emotional pain in the brain in very similar ways in which we experience physical pain. In other words, we truly hurt. And if you can imagine a boss who's saying to somebody who, let's say, just broke their leg [inaudible] they with a broken leg, [inaudible] like whatever but something that they're in pain, it would be very obvious to you that they're constantly...there's going to be impaired, their attention is going to be elsewhere, they're gonna have to allocate a lot of intellectual and emotional resources, managing that pain, therefore, they're not gonna be that productive. Maybe you need to go to the doctor first, maybe you need to go take care of that pain first, and then come back when you're going to be more focused. It is exactly the same with pet loss, I would say even more so because physical pain like that usually lasts minutes hours, the emotional pain of loss can also see days, and weeks and sometimes months. And so, I'm not saying give somebody months off, but I'm saying be aware that this person is suffering. And to the extent that you think that they shouldn't be doing their job, or will be able to do a good job while they're suffering, then, you know, you, then you take a risk, because they're not going to be able to. But by showing them compassion, by asking them what they need, you are helping them you're supporting them, you are soothing their emotional pain, and that makes it much more likely that when they say, “You know, give me a couple of days,” it also means that they will come back with  greater intent, in my experience, when  bosses do that, and people do feel comfortable bringing up those losses, people feel very, very touched by it. And they feel very obliged by it. And so, they want to come back and really show the boss of, “Thank you, I'm now here and I'll really make a big effort,” as opposed to like, “I'm gonna have to pretend that I have allergies because I have to run to the bathroom to cry for five minutes.” 

 

Fenton: And I think so much of that is just a lack of understanding. And so, I have a confession to make. I am someone who used to minimize pet loss. Like, I never really had pets growing up. And then I became a dog mom. And to say that I understand the significance of that bond would be an understatement. I'm, you know, the most over-the-top dog mom out there. And so, how do we get people to be able to empathize with the experience of losing a pet, even if they can't ever relate directly, even if they choose never to have a pet themselves, they can still maybe develop that compassion? 

 

Winch: All people have to understand is that that person loved that animal really strongly and really intensely. Now, you might feel, “I wouldn't love an animal that much,” and maybe you're not a pet person, maybe you would not. But it's enough to know that that person lost something that was extraordinarily close to them, and then just have compassion for that. 

 

Fenton: We're going to shift gears and focus on another type of disenfranchised grief, which is heartbreak. In a past NPR interview, you said of love, “There's nothing else in the human experience that can make a perfectly reasonable person go absolutely crazy.” So, let's start with right there, just what is the experience of being in love do to our brains? 

 

Winch: So you know, I'll say this, when I was doing the research for the book, and I gave a TED talk about the same topic when I was doing the research, I read this debate in the scientific literature about whether love should be classified as an addiction. And a lot of people hearing that go, like, “Scientists do not have a romantic bone in their body.” They do have a romantic bone in their body, but they're also looking at data. And the data is showing that if the brain is responding to the withdrawal of love, very similarly to the way it responds to the withdrawal of opioids say, then, maybe there's something to that now, it is not classified as an addiction, I hope it won't be. But the idea there is that when we lose an object of our affection that we are really in love with, our brain does go haywire. And why that's important to know is that anyone who's been through it enough or know somebody who has, knows that you will do some crazy stuff, when you are heartbroken. You will act very much out of character in ways that you will never would otherwise. And you might be a very proud person, you will beg, and you might be a very stoic person, you will sob, and you might be someone who you thought was resilient, but you might find yourself in bed not eating for two days and not able to take care of yourself in any kind of way, shape or form. People voice to me intent to try and get the love back. Which sometimes, which I often have to say, “lease Okay, no, no, no, no, no, don't do that. Please don't do that.” “Oh, no, she broke up with me. And now she's on a trip with her parents in Europe. I'm gonna fly there and surprise her.” And I'm like, “Well, I'm not gonna argue that she's going to be surprised. I am going to argue about whether you want the Italian police coming to the hotel.” You know, it's like absolutely dumped but there and this these are people who were not broken would look at that as like, just crazy. Like who would do that? Well, you will if you're heartbroken enough. And that's true of most of us. We've all anyone who's an experienced it knows the level of desperation that it can evoke. It's significant. 

 

Fenton: But and obviously, you know, flying and surprising your ex-lover in Europe is a very tangible action. But there are a lot of things a lot of us do just in our minds as we're going through a heartbreak, whether it be a breakup, or even a single date, which we'll talk about, but you've said that when we're going through heartbreak, we think, “Let's just ride it out or rely on our normal coping mechanisms.” Why can't we just let our minds do what it wants to do in that situation? 

 

Winch: Because our mind did not evolve to really deal well, with emotional pain, it evolved to do well with physical pain. So if something causes physical pain, you know your child and you touch a hot stove, your mind will remind you very sternly, whenever you come near that stove, that's dangerous, it's painful, don't do it, don't do it and useful when it comes to the hot stove. But when it comes to emotional pain, heartbreak, or, you know, a failure, whatever it is, those are aspirations, we want to be in love, we want to get that promotion, we want to have that achievement. But if it's causing us emotional pain, our mind will try and keep us away from it by convincing us it’s not gonna work, it's just gonna hurt again, you're not gonna be able to do it. Or in the case of heartbreak, let's keep reminding you of how amazing that was that relationship. So, you are feeling as much pain as possible. So, you don't make that quote unquote, mistake again. So, we're at cross purposes, our mind wants to keep reminding us of how much it hurts so that we don't do it again. And for us to get over it, we have to minimize the space that we give that person in that relationship in our mind. So, you actually have to disengage the autopilot. And this is true of most emotional wounds and most emotional distress, you have to disengage the autopilot, become knowledgeable and aware of what you're feeling and what you need, and then do the things that will feel emotionally uncomfortable. And that will be difficult to do. Because they're the right things for you to do to recover. 

 

Fenton: Is there ever a point where you're out of the woods with the emotional pain of a breakup, because you know, [inaudible], in your work that even years later, if you're giving into that urge to check up on a past love, even if someone you haven't seen in decades that can reactivate that, that addiction? 

 

Winch: It can but this is true of emotional pain. In general, if you think back to a time that you broke your leg, one thing I can promise you, your leg won't hurt as a result of that thought experiment. And if I asked you to think back on, I’ll keep it simple, about a time that you are very aggravated by a customer service issue and you start really thinking in detail about what happened, you're gonna start getting aggravated about that old kettle that didn't work that you got, like 20 years ago. In other words, emotional pain, the minute we start thinking about it, we reactivate in [inaudible], certainly when it's heartache and heartbreak because the pain was so profound, it will even just reminding us of how distressed we were, and how upset we were will make us somewhat distressed and upset. So, and certainly heartbreak because it's so intense can be reactivated, that doesn't mean that you then still love the person, but it means that you can ache for them or for the experience of the pain that you had. Because of that breakup. 

 

Fenton: You've said it, it's certainly important for us to understand why a relationship ended that often even when people offer us a valid explanation, we'll reject it. Why do we do that? 

 

Winch: We have this assumption that if the pain we're feeling the intensity of it has to be in some way commensurate to the cause. And so, when somebody says, “Hey, you know, I just kind of drifted and I'm not in love anymore. Or I this was great for six months, but I just don't feel we were compatible.” These very understandable, very simple explanations. In our mind that like that simple thing could not cause this much pain. So, that's one thing we have a hard time with. The other thing is this, when people want to break up, they do not say to the person, there'll be, let's say, you've been dating someone for three years, and that person is thinking of breaking up, they will not tell you until they're ready. No one sits at the breakfast table saying that, you know, “I'm thinking maybe it's not gonna work out, pass the Cornflakes.” That's not what we do. And so, you bide your time you do it strategically. And often, and I say this often, for the convenience of the other person. “I don't want to break up with them before their big presentation. So, I'm going to, you know, make sure everything's okay until after the holidays are coming. And it's not that if I hate them, let's just wait until afterwards.” But what it seems like to the other person or to you if you're the one that's heartbroken is that we were just on vacation over Christmas and everything seemed fine. What happened in the four days since we got back or why there must have been so threatened by my presentation that they broke up with me right afterwards because otherwise why that timing. What they don't see is that no, that was a kindness. That was a consideration that was like, “I want to break up. But we've been together for a while I don't need to...” well, in some cases, it's so bad that you want to do it right away, but mostly not. And so, somebody is a, biding their time and doing it in that kind of way. But for that reason, it will come across to you as a blindside. The other thing that makes it painful is because the other person has been planning this in a way, then they've had much longer than you to detach, to heal, to recover, and be ready to move on. And that's the other thing that causes a lot of pain. And like, we broke up last week, and you see on social media, they're out seeming so happy. How could they be so happy when I'm so devastated? I miss them so much, how can they not miss me? Because they've been on this path three months longer than you have. That's why. 

 

Fenton: And we're talking about full blown relationships ending but it's also not uncommon for people to be devastated by rejection after only one date. Why is that?  

 

Winch: Well, first of all, rejection fundamentally hurts. It's really causes significant emotional pain. And the research there is very interesting as well. Because when you know, from certain studies that when people go through a rejection experience in the lab, right, but you can't send your research assistant to the local singles bar and go, “Oh, that dude just got shut down, give him a question.” I know, you can't, you can't do that. So, you have to recreate it. And that's what people do in the lab. And so an experiment in which the projection was recreated. And every time it is people do report significant emotional pain hits to self-esteem, anger, you know, they need to belong, gets dislodged. But then they're told, “Hey, you know, what, those people who rejected you were actually research confederates, so the rejection wasn't real.” And it doesn't change the emotional pain. And that's what's so interesting that it still hurts even when you know it actually never happened, or it was rigged. Or even if you know, the people who rejected you, or people we don't really aspire to be with anyway, it still stings. So, the fact that rejection is so painful, is kind of fundamental to how we're wired and to our brain structure and how our brain responds. So, for some people, even a single date, can have a lot of meaning if they think the date went really well, because there's someone who never gets asked out or is very pessimistic about their chances, or never really meet somebody they like. And then when they finally do, between the time the date ended, and they you know, got on the subway, or in the car, they've already like, picked up the wedding china, or really thought about how their parents would like this person to take it very, very far in their head, which is an issue took, we shouldn't do that. But you then might feel like wow, this is my only chance. And then that gets taken away after one or two days. So, it can be very devastating. quite early on. 

 

Fenton: As with pet loss, I would imagine with romantic heartbreak, the secondary losses, you know, your social circle, and things like that also come into play. 

 

Winch: Much more so than with pet loss. Because when you're in a relationship, you're fusing your lives in many, many ways. And you're using your your friendships in many ways, and your identity changes fundamentally, you start being a week, you know, “How was your weekend?” “Oh, we did this thing. We really like that new show, we're coming to the party,” you know, literally your pronoun use changes should when you're in a relationship and the bad sign if it doesn't, by the way, but so the change that you go through is literally the level of your personal identity that shifts your friendships shift. And now suddenly, like you have to get really proactive socially, you have to redevelop a whole bunch of friendships, you let a lot of passions and interests and certain things go that you used to do, because it just wasn't time for them, or they didn't work in the relationship. But now you don't have any passions or things left. You know, there are literally holes in the apartment where furniture used to be. And so, the literal and figurative and emotional holes that have to be [inaudible].  

 

Fenton: What are some strategies, someone struggling with a heartbreak right now listening can't employ as they try to move forward? 

 

Winch: So first of all, think of the addiction model, which I mentioned earlier that our brain is responding to the removal of romantic love as it does to the removal of opioids vote for you know, like heroin addicts say and understand that you know, that you need to go cold turkey because if your goal is to minimize the stage time that this person has in your life, then stalking them on social media and talking about them incessantly not in the first early stages, but then just going over it again. And you know, I know people who three months in was showing their friends, “But look at this text from four months ago” and they're like, “Oh my god, I can't look at that text again.” But the problem there is not just that you're ruminating because you've already been over that It's just that you keep giving them shelf space, and you keep giving them stage time and you keep giving them this this meaning in your life when you are trying to do the opposite. So, the No Contact rule as much as possible, I think it's very, very important to no contact means no social media contact, because again, all you're going to see there in this curated medium is how happy they are and how miserable you are. It's not a reflection of where they are, and it's just going to be painful for you regardless. So yeah, absolutely no contact when possible. And people say to me, “Well, what if we want to be friends?” I'm like, “Get over them. And then if you want to be friends go at it,” and very few people go at it at that point. So, first of all, the no contact. And secondly, start filling those voids, start asking yourself, especially if it's been a longer relationship, “So who am I now am I who I was before? What from this relationship that I grown with or enriched me or changed my life in concrete ways do I want to keep and what do I want to discard?” These should be actively thought through questions, and not just okay, but [inaudible] do with that. Because you might be maxing out aspects of yourself or your life that actually are meaningful for you. And once you get over that person, you would very much want to retain. So it's an active process of self-reflection, in an adaptive way of what's meaningful to me, what do I want to keep? What do I want to do? And it's really about a rebuild, like you have to this is a project this is about identifying where the voids are, where the losses aren't, what steps do I need to do? How soon should I start the date? function, I get another pet. These are all questions you should be wrestling with. There's some guidelines I can give you. But generally speaking, you know, if you're asking should I be out there, you might be kind of ready at that point. And with pets, I know there's a lot of guilt associated with pet loss sometimes because our pets can’t speak and it turns out the cat or the dog was sick, but they didn't tell you and you feel that. But it's true that the sooner you get another pet, the quicker the pain starts to go away. And it feels like a betrayal. But it's not a betrayal any more than having a second child is a betrayal of the first. The sooner you can put yourself out there in terms of dating, I think the better and people say well, you know, how do I know if I'm ready to date and I'm like, “Well, if you can get through it without a talking about your ex, be bursting into tears in the middle, you might be ready.” And athe sooner you can do that, the sooner you can start to reclaim that space of thinking of yourself as somebody who's single and dating. And it's always going to be that emotionally available, but you can say to people like, “It's been a recent breakup. So, I want to take things slowly” if you have even theoretical interest in them and then give yourself time and give them time to kind of you know we enough one and be more available for the other. 

 

Fenton: Guy Winch, thank you for talking with us.  

 

Winch: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.  

 

Fenton: Guy Winch is a licensed psychologist and a leading advocate for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives. He's the author of several books as well as the popular Squeaky Wheel blog on psycholog today.com. To watch Guy's TED Talk, How to Fix a Broken Heart, visit wpsu-dot-org-slash-take-note. from my home studio. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU. 

 

END OF TRANSCRIPT