A friend once told me I was addicted to heartbreak. I’ve been annoyed ever since. How could I be addicted to something that has led to terrible haircuts, spur-of-the-moment vacations paid on credit cards, and an evening in the drunk tank? Then there are the myriad ways I’ve had my heart trampled on: Infidelity. Ghosting. Unrequited feelings. Differing goals, clashing opinions, and out-and-out maliciousness. Or the time when I was four and misconstrued the gift of a My Little Pony from a boy in my class for a marriage proposal.
At a time when we are the most connected but also the loneliest we’ve ever been, why hasn’t science figured out a way for us to circumvent the greatest social rejection of all?
As humans, we display tremendous resilience in bouncing back from adversity, with the ability to not only recover but also thrive after both physical and mental trauma. However, a broken heart can blindside even the most levelheaded of us, and while the science behind this is well-known, we haven’t yet found a way to mend a broken heart.
We know that love, in all its stages, triggers powerful and primitive parts of the brain. We know that when it’s taken away from us, we experience withdrawal as profound as coming off heroin, making the hurt feel wildly disproportionate to the action. We know heartbreak can lead to insomnia, weaken our immune system, and even, temporarily, lower our IQ. In short, when it comes to heartbreak, we can collectively agree on one thing: It really, really hurts.
During a now-famous study, Naomi Eisenberg, PhD, and Matt Lieberman, PhD, of UCLA, used a video game to analyze how emotional distress wasn’t, neurologically speaking, that far away from physical pain. By excluding their test subjects from a virtual game of catch, they found that the pang of social rejection sparked activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, otherwise known as our brain’s alarm system. Since the study, there has even been further research into the tangible effect painkillers may have on taking the edge off the next time you get dumped. But, clearly, shoveling fistfuls of Tylenol is not the way to scientifically cure heartache.
When it comes to heartbreak, we can collectively agree on one thing: It really, really hurts.
Instead, the universally accepted recourse is the great healer of time. But how we now spend that time has changed dramatically, as the internet has engulfed our daily lives. Previously, we’ve surrounded ourselves with friends bearing shots of tequila, who’ll white-knuckle ride out the wave of heartache with us. But now, major social rejection like heartbreak has more and more of us retreating into solitude like a cat disappearing into the woods to give birth. A cat with a strong internet connection and a nuclear bunker’s worth of snacks.
To make sense of why we continue to indulge in something that can cause us such unique pain, I spoke to Bianca Acevedo, PhD — a love expert. Or, to be more precise, a neuroscientist who has analyzed the effect of love on the human brain in the young, the old, in the straight and queer, and in short- and long-term relationships around the globe.
“When you’re building a romantic bond, you talk about each other’s dreams, ambitions, and common goals. You have mutual respect, and you focus your attention on each other,” Acevedo says. “Those human attachment bonds, once formed, are extremely strong, so it can take a long time to detach from that person, and in some cases, there will always be remnants of that bond.”
This breaking of attachment bonds has become messier given our increasing levels of connectivity; social media and technology are now such an intrinsic part of our lives that we can’t just passively avoid the places and people we shared with our ex. Instead, we read old texts, post tactical “that’ll show ’em what they’re missing!” selfies, and snoop their Instagram from the safety of our phones.
Guy Winch, PhD, a psychologist and author of recently released How to Fix a Broken Heart, advocates for “emotional first aid” involving a clean technological break, as petty as pressing the “block” button may seem, and even advises his therapy patients to keep a list on their phone of everything about their ex they didn’t like. “Every trip down memory lane… is only deepening your pain and complicating your recovery,” Winch says. “Hope can be incredibly destructive when your heart is broken… It can be the exact opposite of what we need to recover, because the most common tendency we have is to idealize the person who broke it.”
Winch’s urgency is refreshing. Though heartbreak is an experience that connects us all and inspires the greatest music, movies, and literature, we still seem to lack compassion around it. This, despite being the generation that is most aware of the delicate witchcraft involved in looking after our mental health. Why, when heartbreak shares many of the psychological and physical attributes of traditional loss, is mending a broken heart still, culturally, the preserve of foolish women brandishing Cosmo quizzes on “how to get over him”?
But as our society gets lonelier, we aren’t getting any gentler with our heartbroken selves.
Though I’ve been unceremoniously fired from a job I revered, experienced the loss of a loved one, been through illness, and struggled with serious financial debt, none have knocked me like heartbreak.
From longer-term loves to the fleeting “situationships” that shaped my formative years, the end of them usher in a potent mix of rejection, humiliation, and disorientation that gets me every time. I overanalyze the rejection, assuming there must be something patently “unlovable” about me, and I feel shame that friends and family will wonder why I couldn’t make the relationship work. Most of all, I feel disorientation to the point of seasickness while trying to get back to being alone but not lonely. And I’m guessing at some point you have felt the same. But as our society gets lonelier, we aren’t getting any gentler with our heartbroken selves.
“Not only can heartbreak feel like an emotionally devastating experience, but when you suddenly become single again, it can feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself in investing in the process of this merger or relationship that occurred,” Acevedo explains. “But societally, we still don’t treat it the same way as [for example] grieving someone passing on. So, allowing yourself time to both mourn and take stock of what happened is crucial.”
I ask Acevedo the not-at-all loaded question: “What is the point of all this?” Why aren’t we looking for the memory-nixing science from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that we’ve all fantasized about having during our hardest heartbreak?
Her response is comfortingly pragmatic: “From an evolutionary perspective, we know that companionship is a primal drive. Can you imagine if a member of a clan went missing and none of the other members of that tribe felt the need to go and look for them or didn’t feel the pain of separation?” Yes, it may seem unnecessary to go through periods of feeling pain and longing for someone—but it is human.
“You have to believe,” Acevedo adds, “that there will be other times where love will present itself.”