Skip to content

Broken hearts and obsession, why giving up on your ex mate is so hard as overcoming drug addiction

A study recently
published on the Journal of Neurophysiology
a group of 15 people recently abandoned by their partners to understand the
process of unreciprocated love and romantic rejection. The researchers “used
functional magnetic resonance imaging to study 10 women and 5 men who had
recently been rejected by a partner but reported they were still intensely
"in love." Participants alternately viewed a photograph of their
rejecting beloved and a photograph of a familiar, individual, interspersed with
a distraction-attention task. Their responses while looking at their rejecter
included love, despair, good, and bad memories, and wondering why this

The study was
aimed to test four predictions 1) rejection activates subcortical reward
systems that mediate motivation and reward 2) romantic rejection activates
subcortical and cortical areas associated with drug craving 3) romantic
rejection engages forebrain areas activated by losses and gains  and gain anticipation 4) romantic
rejection activates brain regions associated with the autonomic nervous system
because the subjects show a range of intense emotions.

Romantic love
has been already proved to be an addiction as for instance previous studies
showed that romantic love and cocaine addiction behaviours share survival
activation in the brain, explaining the strength of the obsession.

Most of us
experienced themselves the obsession and the excruciating pain when rejected
and abandoned, together with feelings of despair, anxiety, loss, love and hate.
Some of the sentences the subjects of the study pronounced were “I think about
him constantly” (and all the subjects declared to think of their loved ones for
more than the 85% of the day) or “I want a letter from him, or a phone call; I
want some respect” (all the subjects showed anger as well as the need to
understand why the relationship didn’t work) or another one, to explain his
pain, said “It hurts so much. I crumble. I just start crying”. And maybe the
subjects couldn’t explain their contradictive  feelings in such a beautiful way as the Latin poet Catullus
(“odi et amo, quare id faciam fortasse requiris: nescio, sed fieri sentio, et
but they surely meant exactly the same thing when they declared “I hate what he
did to me, but I still love him” or “ I kept thinking, I love you, I hate you;
how could you do this”.

Have you ever
tried to pay attention to songs lyrics after a bad break-up? If so, you have
surely had the feeling that the most of them were written by people who were in pain and that somehow they could express perfectly how you
were feeling at the moment identifying yourself with the artist (for a similar process reading poems or novels cfr.
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence).

Unfortunately just sometimes the
“side-effect” of a break up is something beautiful as a song or a poem, but in
many other cases it brings  tragic
effects. For instance in 2009 in Italy 119 women have been  killed  by their ex-mates and some of them committed a suicide  soon after the homicide. Even If we
want to leave aside these extreme cases we anyway need to consider  people who experienced deep sadness
and  severe depression because of
romantic rejection. At the end of the study the authors write “The perspective
that rejection in love involves subcortical reward gain/loss systems critical
to survival helps to explain why feelings and behaviors related to romantic
rejection are difficult to control and lends insight into the high
cross-cultural rates of stalking, homicide, suicide, and clinical depression
associated with rejection in love”.

now have several studies that prove the similarity between romantic love
and drug addiction and we know very well the effects of
dependence/withdrawal  from drugs.
We  need to take more seriously the
pain of broken hearts and develop strategies to speed the process of
recovering. Some people have the ability to use their pain to learn from the
past, to become stronger and to even produce something  artistically valuable, but many others
are overcome by pain and suffer in a way that prevent them to live their lives
and to move on to a better relationship. Studies like this one I shortly summed
up help to understand these mechanisms. Moreover they give us the hope that one
day we will able to delete painful memories of ex mate like in the movie “Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or to find technologies or pills that will help
us to skip all the pain that follows the break up.

Some people are concerned about the side
effects of “too much happiness” as for instance a lot of artists produced their
masterpieces while suffering.  I
agree that a happy Catullus would have never written those beautiful poems. But
I also think that most of the time we need masterpieces to compensate the
intrinsic  sadness of our lives, to
understand  that other people feel
exactly as we feel and that broken hearts eventually recover (I explain this
way the success of a song as “I will survive”, a hymn for every one who has been
left). If at some point, hopefully, our lives will be always happy and we will
be able to recover from a broken heart as fast as we recover from a broken
tooth, we will not need anymore to find in artistic creations a mirror of our
own pain. I think we need to free love from pain, as well as we need to free
human lives (artists' ones included) from pain. Hopefully hymns from the future will
celebrate happiness and not the mere fact that we “will survive”.

[1] I do love and I do hate, you maybe ask how I can do this: I don’t
know. But I feel it is happening and it is an excruciating pain (the translation is mine).

Share on