Experiencing Heartbreak

Attachment and Grief

Experiencing Heartbreak

Attachment and Grief

Around 82% of people experience heartbreak in their lives. It’s a common phenomenon. Yet, regardless of how often we experience it, heartbreak still feels like a punch to the gut. This profound pain is because we have lost someone significant to us, so we are grieving for the presence of this person in our lives.

Heartbreak is never easy, no matter what attachment style you have. However, for some, heartbreak may feel more painful and last longer than for others. This may be because the experience of grief often relates to our attachment styles.

Nevertheless, you’ll be pleased to know that everyone can get over heartbreak. By shifting our mindset and behaviors, we can finally let go of lost love.

To help answer any questions you may have on attachment and grief, this article will cover:

  • An explanation of Bowlby’s theory of grief
  • A brief overview of attachment theory
  • How securely attached people’s response to heartbreak
  • A description of how insecurely attached people react to heartbreak
  • Tips for how to overcome heartbreak

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Grief and Attachment Theory

The way we respond to romantic breakups are unique to the individual. While some people report anger and sadness, others may say their physical health worsens. Furthermore, lower life satisfaction and mental health issues such as depression are also commonly reported after breakups. These differing responses to heartbreak make sense when we consider the idea of grief occurring in stages.

Bowlby’s Theory of Grief

Psychologists John Bowlby and Colin Murray Parkes proposed that our loss reactions go through four key stages:

Numbness: In which the predominant feelings are shock and disbelief.

Yearning: Reminiscing and searching are common behaviors in this stage. Yearning is also associated with feelings of anger and guilt.

Disorganization and Despair: Anxiety, loneliness, ambivalence, fear, hopelessness, and helplessness generally accompany this phase of grief.

Reorganization: Coming to accept the loss, and relief that the hardest part of the loss is over, typically arrive during this stage.

It’s important to note that these phases and feelings don’t always happen in order. We may feel numb, jump to feeling anxious and lonely, then go back and reminisce. These stages also often overlap.

Brief Overview of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a psychological concept that explains how humans form emotional bonds with others. Bowlby first proposed this theory in the 1950s, and American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth later expanded upon it.

The theory suggests that, as infants, we develop an emotional attachment to our primary caregiver through interaction and bonding. One of the main patterns of interaction described in attachment theory is separation and loss.

According to the theory, when a child is separated from their primary caregiver, this triggers stress and anxiety. However, a child’s reaction to separation from and reunion with their primary caregiver differs depending on their attachment style. Because of this finding, researchers have proposed that people respond differently to grief based on their attachment style.

The Different Types of Attachment and
How They Affect Grief

Evidence demonstrates that our attachment styles influences how we experience grief and how long we spend grieving a loss. One potential explanation for this is that heartbreak and grief reminds us of our early experiences of separation and loss with our primary caregiver.

Secure Attachment and Grief

Those with a secure attachment style typically face breakups with acceptance and understanding. Secure attachers tend to display more resilience during heartbreak and take less time to bounce back than insecurely attached individuals.

Moreover, evidence shows that securely attached people often treat heartbreak as an opportunity for growth rather than a loss of their identity. They may even frame heartbreak as a “springboard for self-development” rather than a breakdown of their character.

Anxious Attachment and Grief

Anxiously attached individuals tend to show intense emotional and physiological distress after heartbreak. They may also spend a lot of time thinking about their ex-partner and feel they’ve lost a part of their identity. Evidence demonstrates that when an anxiously attached person experiences heartbreak, they may turn to alcohol and drug use to handle their distress.

These findings are consistent with Bowlby’s idea that people high on the dimension of anxious attachment often stay in the mourning stage for longer after a loss. They may feel more despair and denial, and continue to hold on to their attachment to the lost partner.

As a result, those with an anxious attachment style may rely more heavily on their ex-partner, blame themselves, and ruminate about their relationship more. Unfortunately, these unhealthy coping behaviors can mean they feel heartbroken for longer.

Avoidant Attachment and Grief

According to Bowlby, those with an avoidant attachment style typically show fewer signs of grief when experiencing the loss of a relationship than anxiously attached individuals. This avoidance of complex thoughts and emotions is consistent with the coping methods typically seen in people high on attachment avoidance.

Similarly, someone with an avoidant attachment style may fight less to get their ex back in response to heartbreak. They also typically reach the reorganization phase of grief more quickly than anxiously attached people, potentially in an attempt to alleviate the pain and discomfort they feel deep down.

Yet, this quick progression to the reorganization phase doesn’t mean they’re “over it.” Instead, the avoidance of processing and feeling their difficult emotions can lead to unhealthy coping behaviors such as self-blame, alcohol and drug use, and low motivation to move on.

Disorganized Attachment and Grief

Those with a disorganized attachment style often react to grief with unhealthy coping strategies. Evidence demonstrates that disorganized attached individuals close themselves off emotionally after heartache, keeping all their thoughts and feelings inside. They may also feel confused or hurt, which may manifest as very little resistance toward a breakup.

Because of this “shutting down” of emotions, someone with a disorganized attachment style may experience grief symptoms for longer as they continue to hold onto the uncomfortable feelings associated with the loss.

Note: It’s important to remember that everyone has a different way of coping with loss and pain. Whether you show fewer signs of grief or openly reveal your experience of loss to the world, that’s OK. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and everyone does so differently.

How to Overcome Heartbreak

Surprisingly, despite how intensely people with an anxious attachment style experience negative emotions after a breakup, the evidence suggests that they typically demonstrate greater personal growth following the end of a romantic relationship. In contrast, people with the avoidant style often experience less growth due to their unwillingness to process breakup distress, and their likelihood to rebound with new partners.

So, going by this evidence, it seems as though those high in anxious attachment may potentially go through a personal transformation after a breakup, but this effect is less likely for those high on attachment avoidance. Nevertheless, an awareness of these tendencies, as well as the strategies below, can assist in effectively overcoming heartbreak and grief in ways that allow us to grow as individuals.

#1. Stop Asking Yourself,
“What Changed?”

Studies show that the withdrawal from romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brains that are triggered when addicts withdraw from substances like cocaine or opioids.

After being broken up with, we often ask ourselves, “what changed?” or “what did I do wrong?” You may go through your memories with your ex in your head, trying to figure out the reason for the breakup. Or perhaps you’ll stalk their social media or scroll through your texts with them.

But, no breakup explanation will feel satisfying. And going on a quest to discover the cause of the breakup deepens our emotional pain, leaving us in the withdrawal phase for longer. This makes it more difficult for us to recover.

#2. Let Go

It’s common for us to deny the fact that a relationship is over, saying to ourselves, “they’ll come to their senses eventually.” But holding on to this hope and not letting go or accepting that it’s over, will prevent you from gaining closure and moving on. It can also lead to more negative feelings, including disappointment and frustration, which can keep us in the phases of loss for longer.

We have to accept the reality of the situation and allow ourselves to grieve and process the loss of the relationship to gain closure and move on. This can be a difficult process, but it’s necessary for healing and the ability to move forward in our lives.

Seeking professional help and talking to a therapist or counselor can also help deal with the emotions associated with the end of a relationship.

#3 Avoid Idealizing Your Ex

When we’re heartbroken, it’s common to idealize our ex. One reason we may do this is because of the pain of the loss is too difficult to process. So, idealizing an ex can be a way to cope with the pain and sadness of a breakup. We also tend to idealize our ex’s when we fear being alone and don’t have sufficient closure.

However, to overcome heartbreak, it’s crucial to remember their negative attributes. For example, think of their frown, not just their smile, and consider their characteristics and behaviors that you didn’t like. Compiling a list of all the ways they were wrong for you, including what you consider their “bad” qualities and pet peeves, can help.

Noticing when we’re idealizing our ex and checking our list of negative qualities can help remind us that our ex wasn’t perfect for us.

#4 Treat Heartbreak Like Grief

Heartbreak is a form of loss. In this way, it’s very similar to grief. In fact, it shares some of the main characteristics of traditional loss and grief, such as insomnia, intrusive thoughts, and problems with the immune system. Also, 40% of people who are heartbroken experience clinically measurable depression.

This makes heartbreak more than just a simple loss of a relationship. It injures us emotionally and psychologically.

Treating heartbreak like grief involves acknowledging and accepting the feelings associated with this experience, allowing yourself time to heal, and getting support from trusted friends and family members. It can also involve finding healthy ways to cope with the pain, such as self-care or therapy.

Final Word on Attachment Theory and Grief

Grief, specifically heartbreak, is a common and challenging experience for many people. Attachment theory can provide insight into the different ways we respond to heartbreak and how we experience the stages of grief.

People with a secure attachment style tend to display more resilience and take less time to return to the dating world. In contrast, those with an insecure attachment style may have a harder time coping.

Yet, it’s reassuring to know that we can all overcome heartbreak and loss by understanding how attachment and grief relate and taking steps to let go of our exes.

“Cry. Forgive. Learn. Move on. Let your tears water the seeds of your future happiness.”
-Steve Maraboli

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Bowlby, J. & Parkes, C. M. (1970). Separation and loss within the family. In E. J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child in his family: International Yearbook of Child Psychiatry and Allied Professions (pp. 197-216). Wiley.

Dunlop, W. L., Harake, N., & Wilkinson, D. (2020). Romantic heartbreak: Prevalence, personality traits, and personal stories. Personal Relationships, 28(1), 148–168.

Harake, N. R., & Dunlop, W. L. (2020). Storying the heartbreak. Narrative Inquiry, 30(1), 18–40.

Kerr, J., Muir, R., & Goldenberg, S. (2000). Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental, and Clinical Perspectives. Analytic Press.

Marshall, T. C., Bejanyan, K., & Ferenczi, N. (2013). Attachment Styles and Personal Growth following Romantic Breakups: The Mediating Roles of Distress, Rumination, and Tendency to Rebound. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e75161.

Sekowski, M., & Prigerson, H. G. (2022). Disorganized attachment and prolonged grief. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 78(9), 1806–1823.

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