The Bulls had been dominating the Pistons for an hour when Elena, a 30-year-old pharmaceutical company sales representative, tried her boyfriend's cell for the 12th time from her seat at The Palace arena in suburban Detroit.
They hadn't spoken in days, but his job as a physician kept him busy. She dialed again and got a recorded voice: "You have reached a number that has been disconnected." Elena's face flushed with fury. She'd been dumped.
Elena (we're not using her last name at her request to protect her privacy—you'll see why) stormed out of the arena and careened down the road to his house, where she leaned on the horn. "I was working off emotion," she says. "I was thinking, I'm not gonna be ignored! After all we've been through together, how dare you! I just felt so powerless." His lights were on. She pounded on the front door, to no avail.
Her car was bumper-to-bumper with his in the driveway. She slammed on the gas, pushing his car into a nearby tree and crumpling the fender. The neighbors flipped their porch lights on, and soon, a police car pulled up behind her. Elena tried to explain to the policewoman: Until recently, she'd seen her boyfriend five nights a week. They'd been together for a year. The policewoman knocked on his door and spent a few minutes inside. "I don't know what he said, but they didn't arrest me," says Elena.
This outburst might seem like the clichéd beginnings of ex-girlfriend legend, the classic trope of a woman scorned. But in fact, neurochemistry can explain Elena's actions. If you've ever found it hard to recover after a breakup, take note: Scientists and psychologists are finally giving heartbreak the attention it deserves, and what they're finding out can help us all take lost love a little less personally.
Elena had been elated when she first met the doctor out at a club, a year prior. "He came over to my house that night and didn't leave until 4 a.m.," she recalls. "From then on, it was constant calling, texting, and seeing each other. It was a whirlwind."
All that time together lit up Elena's brain with a raft of chemical activity biologically designed to bond the new couple, says neuroscientist Larry Young, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Emory University and author of The Chemistry Between Us. Each interaction released oxytocin in her brain, the neurohormone of sex and social connection, and dopamine, associated with rewards. "These spurts of oxytocin and dopamine form connections between the face and smell of your partner and the brain's reward system," says Young—meaning no matter your gender, the brain sees your partner, and the attention you're receiving from him or her, as a drug.
Five dates turned into 15, and Elena was hooked. For a year, her brain hummed along happily in a cycle of anticipation and reward—until the doctor abruptly disappeared.
Without the doctor, there was no relationship, and "any barrier to the relationship stimulates the dopamine system more," says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. "So you're more in love and trying to win [your former partner] back."
Fisher has found that the brains of people who've been recently dumped are "active in regions linked with profound addictions, like nicotine or cocaine," and quite literally undergoingwithdrawal from the drug that was the partner and the love she or he offered. This explains the uncontrollably obsessive feelings so many people experience after being left behind. There's an evolutionary reason behind it: It's nature's way of increasing mating success. If the brain simply let partners walk away, the human race would have failed eons ago. "The brain is designed to try to win this person back," says Fisher. "You get angry, say you're never going to talk to him or her again, and 10 minutes later, you're back."
Elena chalks up her bad behavior somewhat to latent issues from a previous relationship that collapsed weeks before she met the doctor. Psychologists say that not working through previous nasty breakups, as well as any history of childhood abandonment, predisposes one to overreact to romantic rejection. Some neuroscientists scoff at this notion, as the brain regions active in a breakup are ancient and primal. "These feelings—the despair, the fury, the craving—are operating well below the cortex" (where childhood memories are processed), says Fisher. Psychologists counter that your previous experiences fuel your reactions, like a gas tank.
Anyone who's been dumped can attest to the deep sting of that first moment of rejection. But the brain becomes truly deprived of oxytocin and dopamine during the weeks that follow a breakup. Last year, L.A. fashion publicist Karen Ahaesy's boyfriend of three and a half years moved out. "I brought up our future, which we'd discussed many times," says the 37-year-old. "He said, 'We need to take some time apart.' " Much to her surprise, that meant that he was moving out…the very next day.
Weeks later, she was still crying, she says. "I'd be talking to a friend about her life, and tears would just well up. I'd say, 'I don't know what's happening to me.' " This is a telltale sign of a brain barren of oxytocin. Her brain was used to oxytocin spurts from every hug, e-mail, and laugh from her ex-boyfriend. Without those rewards, the levels plummeted.
Sensing distress, her body produced floods of a stress hormone, CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor), which triggers the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, suppressing her appetite, memory, and immune system. This was why doing anything except binge-watching Netflix seemed impossible. "I was immobile for a month," says Karen. "Everything seemed meaningless. I wasn't taking calls, wasn't showering."
Not all breakups are this horrible, of course. How much your partner supports you emotionally and practically, and your future expectations for your life together, directly affects your reaction. Perhaps things might have been different for Karen and Elena both if they'd had more time to prepare. Extreme breakup behavior often originates with those who are caught entirely off guard. And "out-of-the-blue affects you differently at different ages," notes Jeffry Simpson, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. "The stakes are higher as you age because many people are looking to have a long-term relationship, so it's a blow to your vision of your future. It's also a blow to your view of yourself as being able to detect and fix problems."
People who are depressed or who have low self-esteem tend to take breakups much harder, even if they're doing the breaking up, says Simpson. But Karen had no mental health history, and in the weeks after the breakup, she physically hurt—something she'd never experienced during decades of dating. "I had a painful knot in my stomach at all times and was constantly out of breath," she says. This phenomenon—feeling actual pain post-breakup—is common; after studying functional MRI scans (which provide images of brain activity) of 15 dumpees, Fisher found heavy activity in regions associated with physical discomfort.
Three years ago, Rachel Sugarman, a 33-year-old teacher in Portland, Maine, left her husband after a rocky few years together. At first, she was relieved, but then she felt helpless, with bouts of unexplained crying.
Rachel's doctor prescribed a low-dose antidepressant that buoyed her into replacing all those daily little dopamine and oxytocin spurts that her husband used to provide. But she made one major misstep, say experts: giving in to the post-breakup hookup. "It wasn't a clear severing of ties," she says. "After our first court appearance for our divorce, we went home together." A breakup is about withdrawing from your ex, and how long it takes the brain to rewire can vary from weeks to many years. (A safe guess for a serious relationship is two years; that old adage that healing takes half the time of the relationship is false.) "Since love is an addiction, you have to treat it as such," says Fisher. "If you were trying to quit alcohol, would you leave tequila around? The longer you're away from the partner, the more that deep attachment decreases." Fisher encourages cordiality, not friendship, toward exes. "The dumper often feels so guilty that he or she wants to be friends," she says. "Say, 'How about after I get over this?' Don't call or e-mail. Hide the mementos. Just stay away from your drug of choice."
And, of course, there's the greatest healer of all: time. "I'm three months into the best relationship of my life, and I've never been happier," says Rachel. "I have a hard time remembering why I was so sad."
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Marie Claire.
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