Ex Files

How Our Brains Get Over Bad Breakups

Great news for the lovelorn: Our neurons are hardwired to help us move on from romantic rejection.

03.28.15 10:52 AM ET

Ever worried about the toll your disastrous love life is taking on your mental health? Now you can officially put those fears to bed as it turns out we’re much better at dealing with heartbreak than we might have thought.

A new research review has revealed that our brains are hardwired to handle falling out of romantic relationships and into new ones—meaning the devastation of breaking up isn’t, well, all that devastating. “Our review of the literature suggests we have a mechanism in our brains designed by natural selection to pull us through a very tumultuous time in our lives,” explains Dr. Brian Boutwell, associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University (SLU). “It suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time.”

“There will be a light at the end of the tunnel,” he adds.

Studies about love and breakups were analyzed in conjunction with one another, monitoring the process of moving on—or “primary mate ejection.” Work in the field of evolutionary psychology proved revealing: Men were found to be extremely sensitive to infidelity between their partner and another—far more so than the opposite sex. Women were more likely to reject their other half on the grounds of emotional cheating—something which has developed over time, with natural selection ultimately programming them to want to avoid a possible loss of resources such as the inability to provide for a child.

The team at SLU analyzed the research alongside a brain imaging study of men and women who claimed to be deeply in love, in order to study our neurological responses to matters of the heart. MRIs signaled increased activity in the brain’s pleasure zones of the lovesick participants—the same areas which see a spike when affected by substances such as cocaine.

“This circuitry in the brain, which is deeply associated with addictive behaviors ... is implicated in the feelings associated with romantic attraction and may help explain the attachment that often follows the initial feelings of physical infatuation with a potential mate,” the report says. To fall out of love, then, could be likened to going cold turkey.

One of the key factors in the research, as Boutwell points out, seems to be our natural disinclination towards monogamy, or the idea of a “soulmate.” Though we may fall in love in an all-consuming way, this is not to say that it can only happen with one person—if anything, our neurological ability to handle romantic upheaval cements the belief that a one-partner policy isn’t how we’ve naturally evolved.

On the hopeful side, “if we better understand mate ejection, it may offer direct and actionable insight into ways in which couples can save a relationship that might otherwise come to a stultifying and abrupt halt,” Boutwell said. It may seem a little strange to rely on science to tell us how to fix a failing relationship, but if there’s a chance it could work, who wouldn’t try it? Because if love really does affect our bodies like a drug, we should make it last as long as possible.