Anyone who has experienced a relationship break up or divorce knows that it is painful beyond words can express. When you feel rejected, the emotions run very high. You try to wrap your brain around what went wrong and what you could have done to keep your partner from leaving. You reminisce about the good times, becoming angry that your partner took them away from you. Sometimes you try to strategize how you can get them back. In the worst situations, you may want to hurt your partner or even hurt yourself because of how upset you feel.
Needless to say, it is a tumultuous time often marked by irrational thought, desperation, sadness and impulsivity. Recent research has found that this might be due to the areas of the brain that are active during this process. Specifically, they found that relationship rejection has similar effects on the brain to cocaine craving, which helps explain why emotions and behaviors during this time can be so difficult to control.
Research published in 2010 in the Journal of Neurophysiology identified the parts of the brain activated after a romantic rejection. Young men and women who were recently rejected by romantic partners were asked look at pictures of their ex-partners and of strangers while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The participants all reported still being “in love” with their ex-partners, spending most of the day thinking about them and wishing they would return.
Researchers found that when the participants looked at the face of their ex-partners, only certain areas of the brain reacted. These areas are associated with motivation and reward, addiction cravings (specifically the reward system seen in cocaine addiction) and physical pain and distress.
Thus, the researchers concluded that romantic love and romantic rejection function very similarly to drug addiction and withdrawal, respectively. Romantic love, they stated, is a goal-oriented motivational state as opposed to a specific emotion. This means that, just as with a drug addiction, we are hard-wired to look for romantic love and do whatever it takes to maintain it.
This helps explain why the feelings of romantic rejection are so difficult to control and why they often lead to obsessive thoughts about getting back together, stalking, or homicide. Because of actual brain chemical changes, it is becoming clearer why depression and suicide are also common results from breakups.
Interestingly, however, these results are seen only in people who were rejected. The rejecters don’t seem to have these body and mind changes as a result to the break up. More research needs to be done to understand the neuroscience behind partners who end the relationship.
The study supports the commonly held belief that time heals all wounds. Over time, when participants came for additional testing sessions, the area of the brain associated with attachment showed less activity when they were presented with a photograph of their ex-partners.
Moving on past a romantic rejection, whether that be a breakup or a divorce, requires the same strength and structure as recovering from a drug addiction. More specifically, it is important to limit exposure to your former partner, establish a strong support system to help you regain self-confidence and self-control and allow yourself time to heal from the pain.
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