Anyone who has experienced a breakup—and that’s most of us, according to researcher on romantic love and biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher—can attest to the pain and difficulty that ensues. Even mutually-agreed-upon breakups often leave both parties feeling terrible; there’s a reason for the term “brokenhearted.”
So why is the end of a relationship so hard? Why can’t you get that person out of your head regardless of how hard you try? Research has shown why our biology makes breaking up so hard for us, but thankfully it has also provided some helpful tips on what to do if you find yourself in that situation.
Your love is my drug
Kesha was onto something. Those who have been in love can attest to the fact that being in love feels like being on a happy high, especially in the beginning. You feel addicted to the other person—he is all you can think about or talk about. Much like a person addicted to a drug, when you’re in love, you just want more and more of your beloved—you want to see him more and be with him more often. Dr. Helen Fisher’s research on people who are in love found that the brain region that becomes active in these madly-in-love people is the same region that becomes active when a person is high on cocaine.
With this fact in mind, one can better understand the unfortunate aftermath if a romantic relationship should end; it’s something akin to a drug withdrawal. Dr. Fisher and her colleague Lucy Brown also did research on people’s brains after they had just been broken up with, and their findings are in line with Dr. Fisher’s previous research. While looking at images of their exes during MRIs, three brain regions light up in these heartbroken people: the first is the same brain region that lights up when someone is in love. Dr. Fisher explains the meaning of this in her TED talk, “When you’ve been dumped, the one thing you want to do is forget about this human being and then go on with your life, but no, you just love them harder.” That brain system is the reward system, and it only becomes more active when you can’t get what you want—a loving partner.
The second brain region that becomes activated in people experiencing a breakup is one associated with calculating gains and losses, which helps explain why we analyze (and over-analyze) what went wrong in the aftermath of a breakup. Finally, the brain region associated with deep attachment to another individual also becomes active in people who have been broken up with.
It doesn’t seem fair, right? Someone breaks your heart, and you feel more attached to them? “No wonder people suffer around the world,” Dr. Fisher summarizes. “When you’ve been rejected in love, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you’re feeling deep attachment to this individual. Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working, and you’re feeling intense energy, intense focus, intense motivation, and the willingness to risk it all to win life’s greatest prize.” According to Fisher, love is an addiction—“a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.”
Ways to cope with a breakup
While Dr. Fisher’s findings may seem a bit disheartening to the brokenhearted at first, learning about her research can actually allow us to understand our own reactions after a breakup, rather than berating ourselves for feeling a certain way. With this knowledge, a woman can give herself more grace when she starts crying again when she thought she was over him. With this knowledge, a woman who initiated the breakup with her partner may understand that it is normal for her brain to want her to get back with her ex, rather than doubting the sound and well-thought-out decision she made. Given Dr. Fisher’s findings, there are a few steps we can take for ourselves when a breakup is getting us down.
Most of us can agree that recovering from an addiction is a big deal and a huge effort to be applauded. We would probably tell a friend going through it how great of a job she is doing and offer encouragement. Since a breakup activates those same brain regions that addiction withdrawal does, the first step in self-care is offering yourself the same grace and encouragement that you would give to someone recovering from an addiction. When you know that your biology is not only making it harder for you to forget your ex, but also making you want him more and feel more attached to him, you can be gentler with yourself. While manicures and shopping sprees are certainly nice, real self-care is about taking care of your own emotions, which often looks like being kinder rather than harsher with yourself, letting yourself cry, or saying “no” to activities that might overwhelm you more easily.
On the other hand, self-care might also include doing more, such as getting involved in more activities, hobbies, or projects. Those who are recovering from alcoholism are encouraged to start new (or old but beloved) activities that interest them that don’t involve alcohol. In a similar fashion, trying out new projects post-breakup that don’t remind you of your ex (or getting back into activities you enjoyed without him) can help you get your mind off him, find something you’re passionate about, or just enjoy something fun when you most need your spirits lifted.
Acting “out of love”
Staying virtually connected to your ex—texting, talking on the phone, or even just seeing him on social media—can make all the feelings you had (or still have) for him come flooding back. If being in love is like being addicted to a drug, and a breakup is like drug withdrawal, then having things around that remind you of your ex could be likened to keeping that drug lying around your house—not a good move! Thus, if you’re trying to fall out of love with someone, it is best to act “out of love” until you actually don’t feel in love. To set yourself up for success in a breakup, delete your ex’s number from your phone, and unfollow his social media accounts. It can also be helpful to avoid sentimental places you shared, and get rid of pictures of him or gifts he gave you.
While this might seem extreme—especially if you and your ex ended things amicably—this is a good way to spare yourself an excess of the painful feelings that accompany reminders of him. Random things will remind you of your ex—a street you drive down, a song that comes on the radio, a random thought that comes to mind, Valentine’s Day—and these little memories will provide enough hurt and difficulty in coming down from the drug that is love. It can be helpful to avoid additional reminders and emotional fallout.
Should you decide to stay peripherally connected to your ex, the fallout of the breakup may be prolonged, or worse. Maybe you want to remain on good terms or you want him to think highly of you, so you don’t cut off all forms of access to him. However, keeping an eye on his life, even from a distance, may trigger feelings of nostalgia and sadness. And staying connected may keep you from being able to move on; if you feel connected to him and struggle to fall out of love with him, it might keep you from finding love elsewhere or just enjoying life to the fullest as a single person.
While getting back together might sound like a great thing right now, remember that there are reasons that you and you ex broke up—whether you were the one who initiated it or not. Keeping that door open indefinitely may keep you from falling out of love with your ex, and you might end up getting back together without considering or working on the reasons that led your relationship to end.
Finding the support of friends
For those who are recovering from addictions, there are all sorts of support groups and networks; Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, rehabilitation facilities, and family therapy are a few of the resources that all provide companionship along the way. A group of people recovering from the same issue, teams of professionals, or loved ones come together to support and work with a recovering person. In AA and NA, the 12 steps are not just emailed out to individuals. Rather, a group is formed and sponsors are assigned to each individual. The reason for all of this is not just for accountability; therapists and professionals recognize the power of social support in total healing, of someone who can say “I’ve been there,” or even, “I’m going through that now, too.”
Likewise, in recovering from a heartbreaking breakup, investing in the non-romantic relationships in your life can be life-giving. Especially if you’re used to being with or talking with your ex almost every day, the absence can feel stark—video chatting or spending time with loved ones can help to stave off feelings of loneliness. If you’re not sure how to initiate a conversation with them, you can just be honest: “I’m really struggling after breaking up with Joe. Do you have time for coffee this week?” You can be straightforward with loved ones about what you need—a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, relationship advice, a girls’ night out, or time to talk about or do something completely unrelated.
Don’t be afraid to seek out friends who have gone through (or are going through) similar situations, too. The solidarity of someone who has been there, or is currently there, can be exactly the balm your broken heart needs. It can help to talk to a friend who knows what it feels like or one who is on the other side of a painful breakup and can attest that it does indeed get better. Again, don’t hesitate being direct with what you need when reaching out: “Hi Sam, Chris and I recently broke up, and I know you went through that with Bradley. Would you be open to talking with me about it? I’m having a hard time.” Most people are more than willing to share their experiences, especially if they know it can help someone else.
As with all things, knowledge is power. When you think about the fact that a breakup is like an addiction withdrawal, it should encourage you to give yourself—or a friend, sister, or colleague—some serious grace. Recovery from an addiction takes time, effort, and support—all things that you should allow and seek out in the aftermath of a breakup, too.
Kelsey T. Chun, MFT
BY KELSEY T. CHUN, MFT
Kelsey Chun is a marriage and family therapist, freelance writer, and the author of With A Little Grace, a “wholesome journal” that showcases her array of interests. Kelsey lives in Michigan, but received her graduate and undergraduate degrees from Northwestern University, where she played varsity field hockey. You can follow her on Instagram @withalittlegrace_ for musings about style, relationships, mental health, and faith.