Coping with a breakup can be excruciatingly painful. One minute you are yelling about how horrible your ex is and how you can’t stand them, and the next you are telling yourself you will never feel that in love again. It seems like you are going crazy. You can logically tell yourself that you are coping, but that ache in the middle of your chest and the anxiety clawing at your stomach overpower any rationality, leaving you at the mercy of your wildly-fluctuating emotions. It feels as if you are addicted to this person, like this particular individual is the only way to fill up the emptiness and satiate that unquenchable need. The phone is right next to you, taunting… beckoning. You have no control over your impulses. No amount of willpower can prevent you from texting or calling your ex. You wait for a response on the other end of the line, clinging to the hope that your ex will just pick up the phone, believing that if he could just hear your voice, he would realize his mistake, remember how much he loves you, and tell you how he is going to change to make it work. But more often than not, he doesn’t respond to any of your pleas. If he even answers the phone, he will most likely listen in silence, or make small talk. While you are thinking that is a good sign, assuming he is finally really hearing you, when you breach the subject of reconciling, he tells you that he still doesn’t want to get back together, leaving you right back at square one of the grieving process, and the cycle starts again.
We are biologically addicted to love
Why is it so difficult to let go after a breakup? There is scientific research to explain why we go through such obsessive behaviors and may act illogically. When we fall in love, our brain releases naturally-occurring chemicals (dopamine and norepinephrine). Both of these neurotransmitters are associated with drive, motivation and reward-seeking. Interestingly, all substances that trigger dependencies are linked to an increase in dopamine levels. For instance, cocaine has the same effect on the brain as falling in love.
Additionally, oxytocin is a hormone released when hugging, having sex or breastfeeding, and has been referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or “bonding hormone.” It is also released during childbirth. This hormone cements and strengthens attachment, whether in the context of a parent-child bond or in romantic relationships. Because we become addicted to this oxytocin, after sleeping with another person we tend to feel more attached, and our feelings typically increase significantly.
Love literally mimics addiction in the brain. We know that when an addict stops taking a drug, withdrawal begins and rehab becomes necessary to detox. Rehab effectively provides the addict a place where the drug of choice is not available when a craving arises. Because addiction has a psychological and biologic component, people are not typically successful kicking serious addiction on their own. The overpowering desire for the substance, mixed with the excruciating physical pain and discomfort that occurs in the absence of the substance, trumps any willpower in the moment. Unfortunately we do not have rehab centers for the heartbroken, making it so there is no external force to prevent the heartbroken from contacting their ex. However, calling or seeing that ex is akin to the alcoholic taking that first sip of beer when trying to get clean.
According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, when one begins to obsess about an ex and starts engaging in extreme proximity-seeking behaviors while disregarding the consequences, there is a biochemical explanation related to the survival of our species. Most significantly, because dopamine is central to our reward system and generates our motivation to win designated rewards, if an expected reward is delayed in arriving, dopamine-producing neurons actually prolong their activities, increasing their levels. This means that the dopamine that led to a “high” when you first fell in love actually increases when the object of your affection withdraws. However, this time, because we do not have our reward (object of affection) like we did during the honeymoon phase of our relationship, our serotonin decreases. This combination of high dopamine and low serotonin creates an increase in focus and in goal-directed behavior. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of well-being, calm and overall content. The higher dopamine levels rise, the lower serotonin levels go, resulting in a decrease in feelings of contentment and an increase in the need to obtain. In fact, when studying the brain chemistry of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, they found this same phenomenon: low levels of serotonin coupled with high levels of dopamine. Anxiety, obsessions, compulsions and tunnel vision focus are all associated with high levels of dopamine and low levels of serotonin. This adaptation had a purpose at one point. If people were simply content, they would not strive to obtain more. If people did not care whether their partners left them, they would not seek to maintain that connection which resulted in offspring and survival of the human species. This is why our brains are wired to go into goal-directed, single-minded focus when we are going through a breakup. We are biologically wired to seek something other than what we have, to constantly strive for more. So, when that lack of self-control occurs, it is not just you losing your mind and acting out; it is the direct result of an ancient reproductive survival mechanism to ensure the continuation of our species.
Simple steps for coping with a breakup
You may be thinking, “Well that is all very interesting, but it doesn’t help me to cope with this devastating loss. I don’t feel any less depressed. What can I do to stop hurting?”
Unfortunately, there is no cure-all to stop the visceral pain of coping with a breakup, but there are ways to start taking small steps towards healing.
- 1. Stop running from the feelings. As unbearable as it may seem, the more that you run from your pain and attempt to cover it up and numb yourself (whether it be through other intimate encounters, substances, shopping or food), it’ll remain when you are done, and will continue to control you and your life unless you begin to accept it and listen to it. Allow yourself to be where you are.
- 2. Notice the pain when it comes up. Where do you feel it in your body? What would that pain say if it could talk? The pain that you may be feeling doesn’t make you weak or unworthy. Even if you don’t want to be kind to yourself right now, that is the single most important thing that you need at this moment. You are already hurting. Your body and mind has already been beaten up. The last thing that you need is to blame yourself for feeling sad. Instead, try and acknowledge the feelings. Give yourself the space to say, “Ok, I am feeling really bad right now. I am really missing ____” and give yourself the comfort and compassion that you deserve. Know that the pain will not last forever.
- 3. Take it one day at a time. Just like any other addiction, try not to think of how you will withstand this new reality “forever.” Just go day-by-day and congratulate yourself on your successes. “Today I didn’t call or text.” “Today I made plans with a friend.”
- 4. Weigh the joyful memories and the painful memories. As best as you can recall, write out both good and bad memories. Then, do a realistic weighing of how much of the relationship brought you joy and how much brought you pain.
- 5. Be realistic about what you could have done. When you start to obsess about what you could have done differently and blame yourself or start to go to the land of “what-ifs,” recognize that this is your way of attempting to gain some semblance of control over the situation. If you were the one who messed it up, then there is a possibility that you can fix it, right? Wrong. However, this may be a process you need to go through. Write down all of the things that you wish you would have done, and the wish/fantasy of how that would have changed things. Then, write down reasons why that would NOT have ultimately changed things, even if you have to make it up or think of what a friend or someone outside of the relationship would say.
- 6. Examine core differences in values and life goals. Do an honest assessment of what each of you is looking for in life, what each of you values, how each of you lives your life.
- 7. Comfort yourself. This can be a lonely time, so take extra care of yourself. Make yourself a cup of tea, watch a favorite or silly TV show, call up a friend, read a book, write, paint, or plan something for the week or weekend.
Removing the rose-colored glasses
After a breakup, we often tend to see the relationship through rose-colored glasses, forgetting or minimizing the “bad.” Again, the reason that we do this relates to our brain chemistry. If the increasing level of dopamine in our brain is propelling us to procure that reward, we cannot recognize the things that would inhibit that reward-driving behavior, so instead we put blinders on. Being aware of this process and mindful that this is occurring may allow us to be more conscious and challenge the illogical thoughts that come up. Remember, this is not your fault. It takes two people to be in a relationship and to put the effort in to make it work. The dynamic between two people may not end up working. That does not mean that you should change who you are to win the other person back. It means that this person was not the right person for you, even if it felt like he was.
People often hold on so long in a relationship, even if it is fraught with negativity and unmet needs, because there is always that hope that the relationship will be like it was in the beginning. Unfortunately, that 2-3 month honeymoon period doesn’t last, even in lasting relationships. Relationships change and shift. It can take weeks, months or even years to see who a person really is. And more often than not, the “real person” is not the person who you were engaged with during the honeymoon period; it is the person standing in front of you today, months or years later.
Yes, love can be unexplainable. Even if a person looks good on paper, you may not feel that magic spark that we refer to as “chemistry.” But the person who broke up with you feels like the only one because that is what we are biologically programmed to believe in order to procure mates and prolong our survival as a species. It feels real. The emotions are real. The pain is real, but the feeling that they are “the one” isn’t necessarily fate. These are our emotions in overdrive, attempting to initiate an old, outdated survival mechanism. Our biological structures have not yet caught up with the twenty-first century. So, the next time that pang in your chest tells you this is the one person in the universe who you are meant to be with and there is absolutely no one else, remember that you know something that your brain does not yet, and you have a chance to reprogram that neural network and find freedom. You will love again. You will feel again. You will survive this.