The Science Behind Breaking Up

For many, dating is like entering a battlefield – a dangerous situation with the potential for hurt and pain. But dating doesn’t have to feel like such an exhausting chore. With some understanding of the basic ingredients required for a relationship to work, you can save a lot of time (and potential disappointment). First, it’s important to understand that for a relationship to evolve in a healthy way, there needs to be a rather harmonious balance of three key factors: chemistry, compatibility and timing.

Without all three, it can be extremely difficult for two people to move from the initial lust and attraction stage to the attached and committed stage. Missed connections happen all the time, and it’s important to remember that just because it doesn’t work out with someone, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. If you plan on having one long term partner for life, then that means 99% of the time, the person you date isn’t going to be ‘the one’. Look at it this way, when it doesn’t work out with someone, you’re just getting closer to meeting your right match (granted that you learn and grow from each relationship). Still, after a breakup, a rejection or a missed connection, the heart can take a beating, and getting  back into the dating game can be daunting.

Here is some perspective on how to make that process a little easier on the spirit:

Don’t Think in Terms of Forever

As the saying goes, “People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” Our society puts a lot of pressure on marriage and finding “the one”. As a result, we get so caught up with the future outcome, that we stop being present. However, it’s not realistic that everyone you date is meant to be for forever. When I look back at my love life, each relationship served its purpose and has helped me grow. Some people provided profound lessons that have changed me forever. Some broke my heart and strengthened my muscle for resilience. Some were deep connections of the soul-mate kind that remain in my heart to this day, and probably will forever. Some were just a great adventure filled with fun memories.  With each experience, I have become a better, wiser version of myself. And while  I may not have met my “forever”,  I definitely feel I’m getting closer.

Rewrite the Script

When you meet someone you click with, it’s natural to inject them into the array of future memories waiting to be created. You create a movie reel of all the future vacations, how he/she will fit in with your friends and family, perhaps even how the wedding will look like. Then, you break up and “Poof!” they abruptly disappear from that rose-colored trajectory. Know that just as you wrote someone into your vision of the future, you can write them out of that storyline as well. You are the author. Just because the story didn’t have the ending you originally anticipated, it doesn’t mean that you can’t create an adventure that is equally wonderful, if not better.

Know that just as you wrote someone into your vision of the future, you can write them out of that storyline as well. You are the author.

Stop Idealizing the Person

When we are in lust, we have rose-tinted glasses that highlights only the positive qualities of the apple of our eye, and not the negative ones. In fact, research shows that in the throes of love, the part of our brain responsible for processing judgment and negative emotions, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, switches off. Simultaneously, the reward areas of the brain are switched on, encouraging you (subconsciously) to keep the bonding and attachment going. The chemical cocktail that occurs in the lust phase of a relationship is deeply wired in our brains and has everything to do with nature priming us to procreate. Generally, these changes in chemical and hormonal reactions last on average of eight months to two years, which explains why newly smitten lovers often idealize their partner – magnifying their partner’s virtues and justifying their flaws.

Research shows that in the throes of love, the part of our brain responsible for processing judgment and negative emotions, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, switches off.

Knowing the science behind why we put our latest love interest on a pedestal, try to think about all the things that weren’t so great. Write it down if you have to – a list of all the reasons why you’re better off without the person. The more you idealize the person and think your ex is the only person out there for you, the harder it will be for you to get over him/her.

Avoid Break-Up Sex

Near the center of the brain lies the deep limbic system. This part of the brain sets the emotional tone of the mind, promotes bonding, stores highly charged emotional memories and modulates motivation and libido. Whenever you have sex with someone, neurochemical changes occur in your brain that encourage limbic emotional bonding. In other words, while you may think you are just having casual sex, you are maintaining and establishing an emotional bond whether you like it or not. Note that females have a larger limbic system than men and will typically be more limbically connected. So if you’re trying to get over someone, literally, do not get on top of them! Sex with the ex is stopping those chemical limbic bonds to break.

Blame it on the Chemicals

When newly in lust, you’ll experience a bunch of feelings that will feel liberating and exciting to the point of addiction. But do you feel that way because you really met “the one” or is that your brain tricking you?  Anthropologist Helen Fisher points out that “Love is not an emotion – it’s a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” Know the chemicals that are driving you crazy and perhaps you’ll get more clarity in your decision making.

That exhilarating rush of pleasure and excitement? That’s dopamine.  Sweaty palms, increased heartbeat, overwhelming sexual desire? That’s testosterone. That warm, cuddly feeling of connecting after sex? Blame it on oxytocin (also released when a woman gives birth and when breastfeeding, designed to make you bond). The constant thoughts of the apple of your eye, replaying like a movie reel? That’s due to low serotonin (associated with obsessive thinking).

Just like how chemicals are released when getting together with someone new, there are also chemical reactions that occur when getting over an ex. Research suggests that people may crave their ex-partner similarly to the way addicts crave a drug they are withdrawing from. Studies show that recently broken up singles show activity in the ventral segmental area of the brain (which is associated with reward and motivation and specifically, the release of  dopamine), that is also seen in drug addiction.

Understand that in time, the chemicals fade – whether falling in love, or falling out of love.

Understand that in time, the chemicals fade – whether falling in love, or falling out of love.

If you’re going through a breakup, know that the pain slowly eases and the obsessive thoughts of your ex will start to fade as the chemicals in your brain responsible for attachment start to get back to equilibrium.

Know that some relationships were only ever meant to be a bridge, not a destination. Know that love is not a scarce resource and that there is no such thing as one person that’s meant for you. Love is a choice. Love is not a possession that you either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’. Love, is an action, and the good news is, you can create that action of love over and over again.

 

Photo by Ordinary Fox

1 Comment

  • Reply March 22, 2016

    Robert

    What about being able to trust again? Two months ago I was dumped by my girlfriend (we had been together for 1.5 years and we lived together) in a pretty crappy way and she betrayed my trust. It still feels like I’ll never be able to trust again. Not saying I shouldn’t trust again or that in time I won’t, it just feels that way right now and it takes away some of the motivation to date again. Even when I meet someone that interests me or I feel a connection, there’s that nudging in the back of my mind “why even try?” Any tips for this? Thank you.

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