Falling in love is the easy part, while getting over the breakup is the hard part. The emphasis on monogamy and finding “the one” makes the quest for love an emotional rollercoaster with ups and downs that we may actually be programmed for. According to a recent review published in the journal Review of General Psychology, just like the brain is hardwired to fall in love, it also has a mechanism that helps us fall out of love and move along.
The human species is generally thought of as monogamous, with some mating with the same partner for years or even decades. However, as humans we often mate with more than one partner in our lifetime, which means romantic relationships end and new ones form. "It suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel," said Brian Boutwell, author of the study and associate professor of criminology and criminal justice and associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University, in the press release.
Prior research has suggested the potential existence of a mental mechanism that helps serve the romantic bond between mates. So, to investigate, Boutwell and his colleagues studied whether a mental mechanism truly exists when it comes to the process of primary mate ejection, which is falling out of love and breaking up, and secondary mate ejection, or the moving on to develop a new romantic relationship. They also examined the evolutionary, cognitive, neurological, and general factors of human mate ejection to find the possible mechanisms that influence the tendency to fall out of love.
The researchers found men and women break up for different reasons. For example, a man is more likely to end a relationship because a woman has had a sexual relationship with another man. Evolutionarily speaking, men are thought to be wired to try and avoid raising children that aren’t genetically their own, according to the study authors.
On the other hand, a woman is more likely to break up with her partner if he has been emotionally unfaithful to her. From an evolutionary standpoint, natural selection has made it so breakups can help women avoid the loss of resources by moving on to the next provider. This can be from help in raising a child to physical protection that a mate would ideally provide.
"Men are particularly sensitive to sexual infidelity between their partner and someone else," Boutwell said. "That's not to say women don't get jealous — they certainly do — but it's especially acute for men regarding sexual infidelity."
Brain imaging of men and women who claimed to be deeply in love was also explored in the study to evaluate the neurological responses when it comes to matters of the heart. MRIs showed an increase in the brain’s pleasure zones among participants who were “lovesick.” These same areas also spike when affected by drug substances such as cocaine.
“This circuitry in the brain, which is deeply associated with addictive behaviors ... is implicated in the feelings associated with romantic attraction and may help explain the attachment that often follows the initial feelings of physical infatuation with a potential mate,” wrote the researchers in the review. To fall out of love, just like an addict who quits, is comparable to going cold turkey.
This drug analogy can help explain how the areas of the brain act once a partner has fallen out of love and moved on to find a new partner. “A person might initially pursue their old mate in an attempt to win back their affection. However, if pursuit is indeed fruitless, then the brains of individuals may act to correct certain emotions and behaviors, paving the way for people to become attracted to new mates and form new relationships,” Boutwell said.
Love may affect our body like a drug. This can help us better understand breakups, and even potentially offer insight in how couples can save their relationships. If love is like a drug, then we should focus on how to make it last for as long as we can.
A similar study published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science found reflecting on our own emotions could help us get over a breakup. Writing exercises that helped the lovelorn explore their sense of identity helped reduce loneliness and emotional intrusion. In other words, repeatedly thinking and talking about the process of a breakup could help us realize we’re improving our state of mind day by day. It acts as a healthy tune-up for our heart and mind.
So whether we choose to share our feelings or ignore them altogether after a breakup, remember, this too shall pass.
Sources: Barnes JC, Beaver KM, Boutwell B. When love dies: Further elucidating the existence of a mate ejection module. Review of General Psychology. 2015.
Larson G, Sbarra D. Participating in Research on Romantic Breakups Promotes Emotional Recovery via Changes in Self-Concept Clarity. Social Psychological & Personality Science. 2015.