Love addict: the scientific reason heartbreak hurts

Pro tip: Crying in the toilets is a-okay. Sleeping with a guy who likes your tears is not.

Emily McDonnell
Jan 26 · 5 min read

I’d just had my heartbroken, and, to be honest, it wasn’t ideal.

My body — once described as superhuman by the surgeon who had reattached two ligaments to the inside of my knee, after my arrogance got the better of me on a skiing trip — was malfunctioning in a rather spectacular manner. My mind kept replaying scenes of “us”, my chest decided to act as if I’d forced it to run a marathon, and my ability to consume food eluded me. I could keep all of this under wraps and stumble through my day, pretending to function like a normal human. However, my eyes were determined to give me up and kept leaking at incredibly inconvenient moments.

After an outburst of sobbing at the coffee machine, prompted by my CEO asking how I was and why I looked a bit tired, I realised I needed to let it out. In the following weeks, I became a master of what I termed “the power cry” (think power nap but with more saline-based liquid). It became a kind of game: where was the weirdest place I could cry?

One time I booked a meeting room in our office. Another, I took a walk past Berlin’s tourist hotspots, sobbing under strategically placed sunglasses. And my personal favourite, in the garden of a club while my friends danced salsa inside. I definitely wasn’t as subtle as I’d hoped.

It was after one of these power cries that I posed a question to my colleague: why do we cry when we’re sad? What evolutionary purpose could this possibly serve?

I’m convinced that if I were left broken-hearted in the stone age I’d have just lain under a lone tree on the savanna and died. This heartbreak nonsense had me feeling like one mighty sick animal, and my appearance would have surely repelled any fellow caveperson empathetic enough to come and see if they could restore me.

My colleague answered with a shrug, “I have no idea, however, I did read that if a guy wants to have sex with you while you’re crying, he’s a psychopath. Apparently, there are chemicals in your tears that mean a guy shouldn’t be able to achieve an erection. Just so you know…”


This chemical angle piqued my interest, and, like all those who have had their heartbroken, I embarked on a quest to find a logical answer to the question of why I was feeling the way I was.

I took to Google, and tapped out the words “physical symptoms of heartbreak”. Surprise, surprise, there was a lot of nonsense. One article began by quoting the Terminator (no, not I’ll be back; something unpoetic said to a robot about how humans cry when they’re hurt), while another ended with the sentence “talk to someone, take care of yourself, get some sleep, and pet a dog.” Well, I didn’t have, or want, a dog. Next article, please.

A few clicks later and I found myself faced with an article published by the Journal of Neurophysiology titled: “Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love” by Lucy Brown et al.

From within my duvet den, face illuminated by the blue light of my laptop, I read and read. Brown and her team put heartbroken college students in a brain scanner, and intermittently showed them photos of their ‘rejector’ (I guess this is the scientific equivalent of scrolling through old photos and checking Instagram…), and the brains of the ‘rejectees’ (boy oh boy is scientific language kind) lit up like fireworks. Howso? Like drug addicts lusting for their next fix.

“In retrospect,” Brown writes, “it’s not surprising that the same areas of the brain that were active in the brains of cocaine addicts were active in these people who were heartbroken looking at a picture of their former romantic partner.”

“We crave the other person just as we crave nicotine or pain pills; you want to be near the other person, you’re constantly thinking about them, we even do dangerous things sometimes to win them back — we don’t eat or sleep, [and other behaviours include] inappropriate phoning, writing or e-mailing, pleading for reconciliation, sobbing for hours, drinking too much, and/or making dramatic entrances and exits into the rejecter’s home, place of work or social space to express anger, despair, or passionate love. “

Well, ouch. Is there rehab for the heartbroken?!

A later study by Brown and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher argues that “romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction.”

I felt validated: my want (and, in that moment, real need) for an intimate relationship had a fundamental biological cause, and therefore the resulting pain of losing this love did serve an evolutionary purpose. These feelings of heartbreak, the research suggests, are the activation of a survival mechanism that promotes a longing to seek protection in another. And on reading this, I could also validate my little foray into the world of dating apps, new-found interest in clubbing, and the decision to date the man who sold me my car after a string of flirty car-related emails were exchanged (the less said about this the better).

And tears. Tears are important! While research into why we cry is still in its early stages, mounting data suggests we cry to bond. As babies cry when they feel helpless and need someone, so to do adults cry when they are simply overwhelmed. These tears, caused by powerful emotions (sadness, yes, but also stress, excitement or pain), are to help us bond with others. Apparently, these tears even have a different chemical composition to the tears that form when we chop onions or cycle in the cold; emotional tears stick to our faces and run down our cheeks more slowly so that they are more visible to others. Plus, they contain a natural painkiller, called leucine enkephalin: I knew power cries were important!


While it would be months before I healed, I found solace in the knowledge that I was an addict whose pain would fade the longer I stayed clean. I could manage day-to-day, especially as I could remind myself that, scientifically speaking, just one hit of their Instagram was definitely not a good idea, but another cry might be.

Emily McDonnell

Written by

Words about #people, #politics and #travel

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