The Biology and Neuroscience of Breaking Up
Our brains are wired for bonding. Breakups challenge us biologically.
According to Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, everyone biologically reacts to rejection in a way similar to that of a drug user going through withdrawal. In the early days and weeks after a serious breakup, there are changes in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in romantic love; the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, part of the dopamine reward system and associated with craving and addiction; and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, associated with physical pain and distress.
As reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology, Fisher rounded up 15 people who had just experienced romantic rejection, put them in an fMRI machine, and had them look at two large photographs: an image of the person who had just dumped them and an image of a neutral person to whom they had no attachment. When the participants looked at the images of their rejecters, their brains shimmered like those of addicts deprived of their substance of choice.
“We found activity in regions of the brain associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction,” Fisher says. “We also found activity in a region associated with feelings of deep attachment, and activity in a region that’s associated with pain.”
Fisher’s work corroborates the findings of UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, who discovered that social rejection activates the same brain area—the anterior cingulate—that generates an adverse reaction to physical pain.
Why do some behave so badly after a breakup?
The intensity of the pain may be what compels some spurned lovers to do just about anything to make the hurt go away -- and that includes a host of unhealthy things ranging from demonizing their ex-partner, to excessive anger, to bashing whole groups of people. The intensity of the pain may be what compels some spurned lovers to stalk their ex-partners. Fisher believes, for example, that activation of addictive centers in response to breakups also fuels stalking behavior, explaining “why the beloved is so difficult to give up.”
Attachment styles that emerge early in life also influence how people handle breakups later on.
Biology is nowhere near the whole story. Attachment styles that emerge early in life also influence how people handle breakups later on—and how they react to them.
Those with a secure attachment style—whose caregivers, by being generally responsive, instilled a sense of trust that they would always be around when needed—are most likely to approach breakups with psychological integrity. Typically, they clue their partners in about any changes in their feelings while taking care not to be hurtful.
On the receiving end of a breakup, “the secure person acknowledges that the loss hurts, but is sensible about it,” says Phillip Shaver, a University of California, Davis psychologist who has long studied attachment behavior. “They’re going to have an undeniable period of broken dreams, but they express that to a reasonable degree and then heal and move on.”
People with inconsistent parental attention during the first years of life—are apt to try to keep a defunct relationship going rather than suffer the pain of dissolving it
By contrast, people who develop an anxious or insecure attachment style—typically due to inconsistent parental attention during the first years of life—are apt to try to keep a defunct relationship going rather than suffer the pain of dissolving it. “The anxious person is less often the one who takes the initiative in breaking up,” Shaver says. “More commonly, they hang on and get more angry and intrusive.”
On the receiving end of a breakup, the insecurely attached react poorly. “They don’t let go,” says Shaver. “They’re more likely to be stalkers, and they’re more likely to end up sleeping with the old partner.” Unfortnately, their defense against pain—refusing to acknowledge that the relationship is over—precludes healing. They pine on for the lost love with little hope of relief.
People with low self-esteem took rejection the worst: They were most likely to blame themselves for what had happened and to rail against the rejecter.
Whether we bounce back from a breakup or wallow in unhappiness also depends on our general self-regard. In a University of California, Santa Barbara study where participants experienced rejection in an online dating exchange, people with low self-esteem took rejection the worst: They were most likely to blame themselves for what had happened and to rail against the rejecter. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol ran particularly high. Such reactivity to romantic rejection often creates unhealthy coping strategies—staying home alone night after night, for example, or remaining emotionally closed off from new partners.
People with high self-esteem were not immune to distress in the face of romantic rejection, whether they were rejecter or rejectee, but they were less inclined to assume a lion’s share of the blame for the split. Best of all, they continued to see themselves in a positive light despite a brush-off.
Some helpful tips...
- Don’t protest a partner’s decision. The best thing a dumpee can do to speed emotional healing is to accept that the relationship has come to an unequivocal end. In her neuroimaging studies, Helen Fisher found that the withdrawal-like reaction afflicting romantic rejectees diminished with time. Start the clock working in you favor.
- Don’t beg him or her to reconsider later on. The recovery process is fragile, says Fisher, and last-ditch attempts to make contact or win back an ex can scuttle it. “If you suddenly get an email from the person, you can get right into the craving for them again.” To expedite moving on, she recommends abstaining from any kind of contact with the rejecter: “Throw out the cards and letters. Don’t call. And don’t try to be friends.” At least for now. When you have healed, things can change.
- Resist thinking you’ve lost your one true soul mate. Don’t tell yourself you’ve lost the one person you were destined to be with forever, says Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister. “There’s something about love that makes you think there’s only one person for you, and there’s a mythology surrounding that. But there’s nothing magical about one person.” In reality, there are plenty of people with whom each of us is potentially compatible. It might be difficult to fathom in the aftermath of a breakup, but chances are you’ll find someone else.
- Don’t demonize your ex-partner. It’s a waste of your energy. And avoid plotting revenge; it will backfire by making him or her loom ever larger in your thoughts and postpone your recovery.
- Don’t try to blot out the pain you’re feeling, either. Face it head on. Short of the death of a loved one, the end of a long-term relationship is one of the most severe emotional blows you’ll ever experience. It’s perfectly normal—in fact, necessary—to spend time grieving the loss. “Love makes you terribly vulnerable,” John Portmann, a moral philosopher at the University of Virginia says. “If you allow yourself to fall in love, you can get hurt really badly.”
The sooner you face the pain, the sooner you will process it.