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Some people are able to break up with a partner and just move on. Suddenly free on Friday and Saturday nights, they quickly book the time with friends, family, and other activities without missing a beat.
Most people, however, do not move on so quickly. Many people respond to romantic rejection with sadness, lonely nights at home, or ill-advised communication attempts with the new ex, often immediately regretted.
Why do some people have such a hard time letting go?
Research has some answers:
Keeping the Embers Burning
Helen E. Fisher et al. (2010) studied the reasons people remain interested in ex-flames post-rejection. They recruited subjects by word of mouth and through a flyer asking a question highly relevant to their research: "Have you just been rejected in love but can't let go?"
Sure enough, all of the study participants reported desiring to get back together with their rejector, as well as a lack of ability to control their emotions since the breakup.
This lack of control was manifest in maladaptive behaviors such as drinking too much, uncontrollable sobbing, as well as inappropriate communication with their ex-partner and pleading for reconciliation, among other behaviors.
Fisher et al. (ibid.) note that romantic rejection creates a profound sense of loss, and in extreme cases, can induce clinical depression, as well as suicide or homicide.
Their research involved studying brain activity when showing subjects a photograph of their rejector, as well as a photograph of a familiar individual, combined with a distraction-attention task.
Brain imaging of study participants demonstrated that passionate "romantic love" is a "goal-oriented motivation state" as opposed to a specific emotion.
Fisher et al. (supra) also found that looking at a romantic rejecter and craving cocaine have neural correlates in common, consistent with the hypothesis that romantic rejection is a form of addiction. Other research tends to agree.
Love as Addiction
M. Sanches and V. P. John (2019) in "Treatment of Love Addiction" note that this type of addiction is recognized as a type of mental disorder, although not recognized by the DSM-5 as a specific diagnosis.
The authors define love addiction or pathological love, according to available literature, as "a pattern of behavior characterized by a maladaptive, pervasive and excessive interest" towards a romantic partner, resulting in negative consequences including lack of control as well as abandoning other interests and behaviors.
Many people struggle with maladaptive post-breakup routines that wouldn’t rise to the level of a behavioral pattern, but are tremendously painful. The next question, is what can be done to ease the transition from couple to single, when romantic attachment is hard to break.
Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Softer
Research suggests that avoiding exposure of any type to an ex-flame after a painful breakup may help to break the addiction, and soften the heart to becoming open to consider relational alternatives.
Recovery strategies include staying busy, and intentionally interacting with family, friends, and a faith based support system instead of staying home listening to sad music. One of the greatest healers from a holistic perspective, however, is time.
Time cultivates perspective, changes perception, and allows healing to occur at a healthy pace. And time spent thinking about a failed relationship will be better spent reconnecting with friends and acquaintances and — potentially cultivating a new one.
By Wendy L. Patrick