In the recent book “Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human”, research psychologist Jesse Bering examines the neurochemistry of heartbreak.
He offers a scientific anatomy of heartbreak, citing the work of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher:
There are two main stages associated with a dead and dying romantic relationship, which is so often tied to one partner’s infidelities. During the ‘protest’ stage that occurs in the immediate aftermath of rejection, ‘abandoned lovers are generally dedicated to winning their sweetheart back. They obsessively dissect the relationship, trying to establish what went wrong; and they doggedly strategize about how to rekindle the romance. Disappointed lovers often make dramatic, humiliating, or even dangerous entrances into a beloved’s home or place of work, then storm out, only to return and plead anew. They visit mutual haunts and shared friends. They phone, e-mail, and write letters, pleading, accusing, and/or trying to seduce their abandoner.’
This is also known as the “Get Your Ex Back Delusion”.
I have clients who spend months going through what Fisher describes below, following the protest of lost love:
This impassioned protest stage — if it proves unsuccessful in reestablishing the romantic relationship — slowly disintegrates into the second stage of heartbreak, what Fisher refers to as ‘resignation/despair,’ in which the rejected party gives up all hope of ever getting back together. ‘Drugged by sorrow,’ writes Fisher, ‘most cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink too much, or hole up and watch TV.’ At the level of the brain, overtaxed dopamine-making cells begin sputtering out, causing lethargy and depression.
I’m not saying that couples that break up NEVER get back together and live happily ever after. I am saying that MOST couples who break up do so for a reason.
I’ve been there, but I recall having a different take on how to get better. When my girlfriend broke up with me in 2004, I went home with tears still wet on my face, and activated my JDate profile. Was I emotionally ready to date? No. Was I going to let my ex ruin my next six months by crawling into a hole? HELL NO!
But the most surprising part of Fisher’s theory – and the least supported part – is that there is an evolutionary adaptive function to being sad: it makes your ex feel sad, too.
When you watch someone you care about (but no longer feel any real long-term or sexual desire to be with) suffer in such ways, it can be difficult to fully extricate yourself from a withered romance. If I had to guess — in the absence of any studies that I’m aware of to support this claim — I’d say that a considerable amount of genes have replicated in our species solely because, with our damnable social cognitive abilities, we just don’t have the heart to break other people’s hearts.
Yeah, that’s true. And it’s why sad, broken couples get back together multiple times, even though they’re ill-fated. I’m not saying that couples that break up NEVER get back together and live happily ever after. I am saying that MOST couples who break up do so for a reason. And that sadness/guilt/inertia/fear/sunk costs usually bring people back, only to find the the same problems still exist in the relationship. To read more from this book, click here. And please, share your thoughts below about the wisdom of getting back together with an ex.