Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Breaking Up – Why it Hurts and the Proof it Will Pass

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Breaking up is really hard. Yes. It is.Good. Now that that’s cleared up, there’s some remarkable new research that explains why.

Romantic love is a specific form of addiction – there are similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving.

A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology has found that a relationship breakup may feel so painful because it activates the part of the brain associated with motivation, reward and addiction cravings.

There’s nothing sharp in the observation that breakups can send behavior a bit off the wall.

Though there’s nothing wrong with:

  • back-to-back doona days in a room that you haven’t left in days and which is cluttered with tissues, old photos (that may or may not be torn/ crumbled/ aimed at the bin) and DVD box sets;
  • obsessive googling of your horoscope in the hope that it turns up something about a ‘special meeting with a loved one’, or ‘she will leave him for her dream career – patting cats for rich busy people’, then, because perfect closure is excellent, ‘you will become a rich busy person. With a cat. And a rather wonderful someone’;
  • actually reaching 100 in your list of 100 Things I Always Hated About Him (you loved him yesterday remember, but go for it – just don’t send it to his mum);
  • posting regular Facebook updates with too many caps and exclamation marks like ‘Best. Night. EVER!!!’ Or ‘AH-MAZ-ING!!!! No words ;)’ when you actually spent the night crying into your cereal with Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ on repeat in that bedroom that is actually starting to smell like hate;

they generally fall just outside the lines of the everyday.


What They Did

The researchers recorded the brain activity of people who had recently been through a breakup, were still intensely in love with their ex, spent most of their waking hours thinking of them and desperately wanted the relationship back.

Participants were shown a photo of their former partner and then distracted from their romantic thoughts by completing a simple maths exercise. They then looked at a photo of a familiar ‘neutral’ person.

 

What They Found

Brain scans showed similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving. Looking at photos of their former partners stimulated key areas of the brain to a greater degree than looking at neutral photos. The key areas were:

  • a part of the mid-brain that controls motivation and reward;
  • an area associated with craving and addition, specifically the reward system also active in cocaine addiction;
  • the area associated with physical pain and distress.

And The Best Bit – The Proof It Will Pass

The study also found evidence that in relation to a breakup, ‘time heals.’

As time passed, brain imaging showed less activity in the area of the brain associated with attachment when the participants looked at photos of their former partners.


Breaking up feels awful and can feel like you’ve been sent on a lonely stint to crazy town. Let yourself drop your bundle for a bit (within reason – stalking and publicly bringing him/her down will never end well).

You’re going through a major upheaval and your brain and your body are going to take some time to adjust.

And they will adjust.

As awful as it feels, the pain won’t last forever. Now science has done a(nother) beautiful thing and given us the research that proves it.

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