What keeps us in a relationship that we know is not right? Why is it so difficult to end a relationship that has not been good for a while? There is not a simple answer to this question. The answer is complex and the experience of a break-up can be one of the most devastating and painful things that you have been through. It can feel like a death. But why does it hurt so much, even if you know it is the right thing to do? The answer lies in understanding your brain.
Have you ever heard someone say that being in love feels like being high? It is more than a metaphor; love triggers the same areas in the brain as drug use, namely drugs that give a euphoric feeling, such as cocaine or heroin. Just like the use of these drugs, love (or infatuation) floods the reward centers of the brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine. This has a natural reaction of creating a craving for more; it is the “do it again” center of the brain. When you first meet someone and have a connection, the feeling can be exhilarating. You think and fantasize about this person constantly. You crave more of them and being with them is the only way to satisfy this need, which, like the moment the drug enters your system, is intoxicating.
Eventually your brain builds up a tolerance as you move into a more stable and committed relationship, and out of the blind bliss of the “honeymoon phase.” This means that you are no longer completely obsessed and consumed by the other, but able to recognize their faults, and hopefully, love them in spite of them. This is the time when the brain eases off of the production of the stimulating chemicals (Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin, Dopamine), and begins to release chemicals associated with deep love, namely the “cuddle drug” Oxytocin. This is the same hormone released by babies and mothers during breast feeding. Its sole purpose is to help us bond, to trust, and to commit (Amen, 2007). These are the powerful chemicals released from your brain and your glands that keep us connected, and the same ones that cause us so much pain when this bond must end.
During a breakup, these same parts of the brain that once experienced a rush of pleasure from the relationship suddenly experiences a depletion of the dopamine that was once so euphoric. You experience an overwhelming feeling of loss and longing that can feel like physical pain. Studies have shown that, in addition to the emotional distress and deep depression that often accompanies a break up, the parts of the brain associated with physical pain are also effected, leading to the possibility of one actually experiencing physical maladies during this loss. An extreme example of this is a rare, but deadly condition called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” where the heart is gravely weakened under the emotional stress of heartbreak.
The body also has to deal with the release of stress hormones, which can have significant effects on the ability of the person to function and simply be able to get through the day. Their thoughts become clouded and irrational, their sleep is disturbed, they lose motivation to do anything, and the terrible feeling of hopelessness seeps into every thought.
Is it no wonder that so many people stay in relationships that are not right for them? It is difficult to sign up for months of this sort of physical and emotional distress. It is easier to convince yourself that you can make this relationship work; that there is something wrong with you; that you love them, and isn’t that what matters? These are the lies that the brain creates in order to prevent such emotional and physical pain. After all, this is the job of the brain, to keep us safe and to reduce emotional stress, to maintain a sense of homeostasis, and to keep things running at their best.
Breaking up with someone that you deeply love and have shared so much with, because you know that you will not make each other happy long term, is one of the most difficult things a person can do. But love and compatibility are two very different things, and it is important not to confuse the two. The worst thing that you can do is to continue in a relationship in the hope the person will change. They might, and it is true that people can change behaviors to be better partners and to be more compatible. But before taking on that gamble, you should be sure you understand the difference between behaviors and core characteristics of a person. Core characteristics of a person rarely change, and I argue, why should they? Just as you should not have to change who you are to be compatible with another person, the same goes for your partner.
Couples therapy can be a valuable way to help make the determination if the problems in the relationship are fixable, or if your brain is making excuses to help avoid the pain of a break-up. In the end, pulling the plug on a relationship is extremely difficult, but if it’s not a good match, it is the best thing a person can do for themselves. To open the space to find the ‘right’ person. One of my favorite sayings is: “everyone is the wrong person until the right person comes along.” When you find that person, it should be easy and you should not have so many doubts. Your brain will not have to tell you stories to convince you that you can make this work. You will feel the burst of infatuation, followed by the real prize, which is deep, committed, love.
If you are in a relationship that you know in your heart is not the right fit, you must take a deep breath, designate at least a couple months (depending on the length of the relationship and intensity of the bond) to experiencing the emotional and physical pain that accompanies this loss. I encourage clients to come up with a cutoff date and to hold yourself to it, regardless of how much your brain says “NO, DON’T DO IT”!
Some other basic pointers for getting through this time:
- Have your support system lined up and let them know you will need them.
- Find a good therapist. They can be so beneficial in helping keep you and your irrational thoughts on track during this tough time.
- Stay healthy– as hard as it is, keep active.
- Avoid destructive distractions. Try to avoid drowning your sorrows in alcohol or random hook ups. Of course your brain is looking for a fix, and these things will give you temporary relief, but remember we are trying to rewire the brain and get it functioning normally again.
- 100% NO CONTACT. I know, you want to still be friends. Sorry, this is the Oxytocin in your brain talking. Doesn’t work, at least not in the early stages. If you must, make a plan to go out to lunch in four months. I bet in four months you will feel differently about needing to maintain a friendship.
- Do not idealize the person. The heart remembers the good. Remember your brain is trying to pull you back into the relationship. I suggest starting a journal during your breakup prep time to remind yourself of what is not good about the relationship and why you are getting out. Reading this will help you get through your brains fixation on all those sweet times you had.
- Block the person on social media! Do it! I know you don’t want to, but you must. The constant reminders will keep the wound fresh.
- Believe in yourself. Above all, you can do this. It hurts, but it will not kill you.
- Remember, “happily ever after” is a very long time. The most important thing you can do in your life is to make sure you pick the right person for this journey.
Amen, D.G., (2007). The Brain in Love. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press
Ketler, A. (2015). Science Shed Light on What Happens During a Breakup. http://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/07/28/science-sheds-ligh-on-what-happens-to-your-brain-during-a-breakup/.
This article and the information herein are for educational and informational purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional psychological or therapeutic services. The self-help information provided by this blog are solely the opinion of the bloggers and should not be considered as a form of therapy, advice, direction, diagnosis, or treatment of any kind. Instead, the information is designed to be used in conjunction with ongoing treatment provided by a mental health professional. Use the information in this blog at your own risk. All of the information is provided “as-is,” with no warranties of any kind, express or implied.