Florence Williams was naïve about heartbreak before her husband walked out of their 25-year marriage in 2017. Though the schism had started two years earlier, when she discovered a compromising e-mail to another woman, nothing could prepare her for the physical toll of his departure.
At first, she felt both exhausted and agitated, “like I was plugged into a faulty electrical socket,” Williams writes in her book “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey” (WW Norton), out now.
Sleeplessness, heart palpitations, brain fog and eye twitches soon followed. In between shuttling her two children to their father’s new home a few blocks away and visiting with lawyers and financial planners, she lost 20 pounds in five months, dropping to 105 pounds. Still, by comparison, the divorce was relatively amicable. They had hired a mediator and the terms were drawn up within a year.
A few months after their initial separation, a routine checkup with Williams’ doctor led to some surprising news: Her blood sugar had spiked. She was suffering not only from depression and anxiety, but also from undiagnosed Type-1 diabetes, a progressive autoimmune disease that typically strikes in childhood.
Williams had just turned 50—and she was flabbergasted. Diabetes did n’t run in her family. An award-winning science writer, she started to wonder: Could the stress of the breakup have caused these symptoms? Was there such a thing as “divorce diabetes?”
And so, Williams embarked on a three-year investigation, studying the physiological dangers of heartbreak. She visited experts around the country who gave her shocking insights.
As one psychologist put it: “Falling in love puts a loaded gun to our head.”
Recent studies show that around 40 percent of all first marriages end in divorce. Though the divorce rate has fallen since its height in 1981, psychologists still rank marriage breakup as “one of the top stressful and consequential life experiences we have, just below death of a loved one.”
Divorcees are 23 percent more likely to die younger than those in marriages, according to a 2011 analysis of 6.5 million people in 11 countries. It’s considered “a costly life event” up there with smoking. A South Carolina study adds to the pile of disconcerting data: Of 1,300 people studied over 40 years, the divorced were 57 percent more likely to die than their still-married counterparts.
Happily married people live longer, have lower rates of cancer, stroke and heart attack, and tend to be less stressed overall, according to a multitude of longitudinal studies. (People in rocky marriages also fare poorly health-wise, but not as badly as the divorced, according to Williams’ book — possibly because knowing the person you’re living with is irredeemable prompts you to look elsewhere for emotional support.)
Furthermore, heartbreak really does harm our hearts. People unhappy in love — in broken or unhealthy relationships — suffer higher rates of heart disease. There’s even a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” which occurs when a sudden distress (like getting dumped) causes heart attack symptoms in healthy people. The effects are real: Five percent of these people will die, while 20 percent suffer long-term complications.
Heartbreak’s side effects don’t stop at the heart. Researchers at Ohio State University found that after a recent divorce people produce fewer natural T-cells, key for fighting off infections 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 rates of the inflammatory chemical interleukin 6, associated with higher heart attacks and early death. (This study did not find similar increases in women, though other studies have shown inflammatory increases for everyone.)
Divorce — with its terrible combination of rejection, humiliation and upheaval, combined with the emotional toll, child custody battles, and financial pressures (the average cost of getting a divorce, according to Business Insider, is $15,000) — creates a perfect storm of inflammation .
Though Williams concedes it’s “impossible to say definitely that her diabetes was caused by her divorce,” there is ample evidence to show that autoimmune diseases often occur during stressful life events.
To investigate this further, Williams met with Steve Cole, a scientist at UCLA’s Social Genomics Core Laboratory, to sample her blood and see evidence of her heartbreak on a molecular level. It turns out she had increased proteins in her blood that turn “on” genes associated with inflammation and signatures of stress in her blood.
“These changes in your life are definitely filtering down to the molecular level in your body,” Cole told Williams.
“Do my cells still look like those of a lonely person?” she asked.
“Yeah, I would say so,” he responded.
Under an fMRI scanner, a heartbroken person’s brain resembles that of a person who has experienced extreme pain akin to burn or electric shock, according to a 2011 study by experimental psychologist Ethan Kross. Part of this pain comes from the interwoven nature of romantic relationships, Williams writes. The longer we live with someone, the more our bodies weave together. Our heart rates align. Our brain waves sync up. 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 fast as possible, according to Williams.
“It drives us to reconnect with our lost partners after brief separations and it keeps us coming back,” Williams writes.
The 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. “It can be awakened at any time.”
But that’s easier said than done. About 15 percent of the heartbroken never recover and “stay sicker and die younger.”
Williams made it her mission not to fall into this percentile.
“I didn’t want to become embittered for years, like, frankly, my own mother,” she told The Post.
Williams tried the most obvious way to move on—finding someone new to love. But, while she dated a few men successfully, she ultimately found more meaning by focusing on healing herself via nature outings and various forms of therapy.
One psychedelic therapist gave her MDMA and psilocybin that prompted a hallucinatory trip, helping her imagine a world where she was no longer tethered to her husband.
“I had these intense visualizations of unwinding the vine of my husband from my tree,” she told The Post. “In the session, I was able to visualize if I were a tree, I would actually flourish much more if I could unwind his vine from around my trunk.”
She also went on a 13-day solo canoe trip down Utah’s Green River, armed with a 10-day supply of water and a portable toilet, to connect with the awe of nature and feel more comfortable with the idea of moving on.
Two years after the separation, Williams got 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 increase in antiviral response.
“Your body doesn’t look like a person who is fundamentally deeply threatened or rattled,” Cole told her. “You do not look like a chronically lonely person.”
Now four and a half years later, Williams feels even better. She’s gained more weight back, sleeps better, and her blood sugar levels have stabilized. Doing all that work, she writes, “probably sped up my heartbreak convalescence between 25 and 50 percent…I am feeling like a fuller, keener, softer, wiser version of myself than ever before.”
Still, Williams admits she has not returned to who she was before. She said that person is gone, along with her marriage de ella. Though she has moved on from the breakup and is on speaking terms with her ex de ella, she likes heartbreak to a bruise on the brain or an everlasting scar.
“It’s important to note that there’s no final destination, no neat closure, no ‘we’re all done here.’ It’s a mistake to expect that. Grief and heartbreak are complicated and there will always be moments when you’re going to have memories or pangs. It reminds us that our heart is scarred in a way that makes us better able to listen and to see other people’s pain.
“These are the reminders of growth,” she said. “And I’m grateful for having learned to ride those waves of emotion. Ultimately, they make me feel more human.”