When I was younger, and a relationship ended, I would do this thing. I would flip forward as many months as my diary allowed and I would write, “Well, how do you feel today?”
It was a small gesture that hinted at a better tomorrow. A day when I wouldn’t wake from an angry sleep, full of imaginary conversations with my ex. When I wouldn’t think every pining love song was speaking just to me. When I wouldn’t punctuate every conversation with, “What do you think he meant when he said X?”
When I would be Over It.
I hadn’t yet realised that the end of a relationship is not when you get over someone. That usually comes later. Like passing your test and actually learning to drive: the two events can be months, even years apart.
What, anyway, does getting over someone mean? It’s not forgetting them – that’s impossible. But it does mean getting to a place where they no longer define you, or when thinking about them not only doesn’t hurt, but has as much impact as an online petition – almost none at all.
In bereavement counselling they talk about the yellow ball-in-a-glass analogy. It goes like this: the yellow ball represents grief and the glass is life. Sometimes the yellow ball fills the glass, threatening to overwhelm it; sometimes the yellow ball is so tiny as to be virtually invisible in the glass. But it is not the yellow ball that gets bigger or smaller – that always stays the same size. It is the glass – life – that gets bigger or smaller. When life is busy and big, the yellow ball seems comparatively small. When it is folding in on itself, the yellow ball is all you see.
The part of the brain that is affected when we fall in love is way below where rational thinking takes place
The death of a loved one is perhaps not comparable to the rendering asunder of a relationship, but it’s a useful image to keep in mind.
In considering if you’ll ever get over an ex, it might be helpful to find out what happens when we fall in love; because all sorts of crazy and profound things happen in our brains. It is because of this that getting over someone isn’t a snap-your-fingers journey. There are powerful neurological and psychological factors at play.
When we fall in love, the part of the brain affected is called the ventral tegmental area. The VTA is part of the brain’s reward system (I think of it as a vending machine, popping out rewards when you give it what it wants), the part of the brain that makes dopamine, nature’s stimulant. But it’s not a thinking, sophisticated part of the brain. Oh no. It’s part of the reptilian core, way below where rational thinking takes place. It’s a place associated with wanting, focus, craving. It’s also the part of your brain that would go “Bing! Bing! Bing!” if you snorted a line of cocaine.
Some years ago, the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and the neurologist Lucy Brown hooked up various people who had just been dumped to a brain image scanner. They showed them pictures of their (recent) exes and watched what happened in their brains.
It showed something very interesting: that while the person was no longer in the relationship, no one had told their brain. There was still activity in the VTA, the part of the brain that is active when you are in love.
In other words, although they had been dumped, not only did the brain still act as if it were in love, also the rejection heightened activity, and obsession. As Fisher said when she presented her findings: “That brain system – the reward system for wanting, for motivation, for craving, for focus – becomes more active when you can’t get what you want. In this case, life’s greatest prize: an appropriate mating partner.” Cruel or what?
But there was also activity in two other parts of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain that deals with weighing up gains and losses – the part that becomes active when we are willing to take enormous risks; and the third and final part of the brain to show activity was the one that deals with deep attachment: the hypothalamus.
This makes oxytocin, the hormone which promotes bonding (it’s in breast milk) and makes us feel good – it’s released during orgasm.
So, far from being indulgent, when you’re trying to get over someone there are really powerful biological, neurological things at work. You feel desperately attached and attracted to your ex, you want to risk everything for them, and your A10 cells (I find it helps to have a name) are in overdrive, busy spraying dopamine over your brain and making you desperate for contact with your ex. No wonder you’re a mess.
Then there’s the psychological aspect. The moment the ex is in the past, especially if the split wasn’t of your choosing, he or she can take on fantasy elements. No longer imbued with human qualities, they become the lover who had it all, everything you wanted, oh my God you’re never going to meet anyone like them ever again.
This fools you into thinking you had it better than you did.
“But he/she was my soulmate,” is a common refrain. But if we really think about this, the thought that there is only one person for each of us, in the whole world, actually means that we are incredibly difficult to get on with. When a relationship ends, a bit of your imagined future dies, too. That is hard to deal with, because until a new landscape comes into view, all you can really do is look backwards or risk disorientation.
Then there might be friends who take sides, places you can no longer go to … Suddenly the world is not full of wonderful possibilities but restrictions. That’s not much fun.
Some people like to keep the thought of an ex in their minds because while it’s in the past, the hurt is all already known (no surprises!). If this turns into a fear of getting hurt anew, instead of moving forward into a brilliant future, it can seem less painful to cling on to the past, at the rock-face of rejection. This soon becomes a lose-lose situation. Plus, your fingernails wear out.
So, what to do? Fisher thinks that romantic love is “one of the most addictive substances on earth”, so you have to treat it as a drug. You need to go cold turkey. That means tearing up old letters or putting them somewhere out of reach for a while, and no “staying friends”, at least not immediately. No late-night texting (hopefully, like 99% of the population, you won’t remember giant mobile numbers by heart, so delete it from your phone). Break patterns – no visiting old haunts, until they become just places you’ve been, not vestiges of all you once hoped for; don’t spend time alone on Friday nights if you’re likely to get drunk and start dancing by yourself to favoured records.
Give your brain a chance to heal and your heart will follow.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 4 November 2015.
I had no idea of all this brain stuff when I was younger. I wish I had known! It would have explained a lot and made certain things so much easier..