Losing Love Has Similarities to Addiction

Aftermath to a Romantic Breakup Is Marked by Withdrawal, Relapse, and Cravings

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 09, 2010

July 9, 2010 -- Been jilted by your lover? Are you broken-hearted from being dumped?

Researchers who've looked at the brains of the lovelorn say rejection by a romantic partner lights up areas of the brain that are associated with addiction, reward, craving, and depression.

Romantic love may be linked to addiction in the brain, but it is possible to break the habit, though it's not easy, says study researcher Helen E. Fisher, PhD, an anthropologist and noted relationship scientist at Rutgers University.

The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Fisher's team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of 15 university-aged heterosexual men and women who had recently been jilted by long-term partners, and who described themselves as still being "absolutely and very intensely in love."

The average length of the relationships was about two years. About two months had passed since one of the partners called it quits.

The participants' brains were scanned as they looked at images of their lost loves. Then each was shown a "neutral" image of a casual acquaintance of the same sex and age as the former romantic partner for comparison purposes.

The results were clear, Fisher says, even though she and her colleagues tried to get the participants' minds off their lost lovers by completing a simple math exercise that required concentration.

Researchers found that looking at photos of former partners stimulated several key areas of participants' brains much more than viewing pictures of "neutral" people.

"The evidence is clear that the passion of romantic love is a goal-oriented motivation state, not a specific emotion," Fisher tells WebMD, adding that the results showed that romantic rejection is a form of addiction, and those coping with these hurtful feelings are fighting uphill battle against a strong survival system.

"There's a whole pathway that when you are rejected becomes activated just as it does with nicotine cravings or alcohol," Fisher says. "These areas are associated with physical pain and decision-making. If you've been rejected, you're in pain, craving this person, trying to figure out what's going on."

Falling Out of Love

Fisher tells WebMD that rejection causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to wash over the brain, triggering feelings of frenzied desperation that can lead to behaviors such as stalking, homicide, and suicide.

"You crave the person who dumped you," Fisher tells WebMD. "You go through withdrawal, you can relapse, and cravings can be sparked months after you think you've gotten over it."

More good news is that though it may take a while, the researchers say they found that the greater the number of days since rejection, the less activity showed up in the brain area associated with attachment.

The imaging also showed that rejected lovers are trying to understand and learn from what happened, and the researchers conclude that falling out of love is a learning process.

"Romantic love evolved to start the mating process," Fisher tells WebMD. "Attachment evolved to help you sustain this relationship."

So what can the jilted do since there are no halfway houses for this addiction? "There should be," Fisher says. "It needs to be taken more seriously."

Her advice: "You've got to treat it as an addiction, and get rid of the cards and letters and don't call or write the person who jilted you. Don't try to make friends with this person for at least three years. Get exercise, which drives up dopamine and optimism. One thing we found in the study is that time does heal. Don't ruminate about what's happened, because if you do, you're going to plummet into depression."

Show Sources


News release, Rutgers University.

Fisher, H. Journal of Neurophysiology.

Helen E. Fisher, PhD, department of anthropology, Rutgers University.

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