Berit Brogaard
Source: Berit Brogaard

I have run into a few people that seem to hate every single one of their exes. They never seem to take responsibility for the hand they had in the breakup. They seem to dump everything on their exes. In fact, they believe this so strongly that it almost appears that that they are delusional.

For example, a friend of mine was accused of adultery, even though she never became involved with anyone else until the relationship was over. One of my co-bloggers has been accused of being a liar and being manipulative, when in actuality one of her main issues is that she is being too honest—to the point of being compulsively honest. People know exactly where she stands and what she wants. Why do people seem to conceive of their exes in the worst possible light after a relationship?

There are many possible explanations. We know that we idealize our partners at the beginning of love relationships. We overlook their flaws and attend to their good features. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter responsible for this sort misjudgment. When relationships break up, it is rare that both parties are happy about the breakup and can remain close friends afterward. In fact, in the rare cases where that happens, the two parties probably do not blame each other. In most cases, however, breakups are associated with rage, anger, resentment, regret, jealousy, and so on. Dopamine plays a significant part in all of these emotions as well. So it is likely that the dopamine that is driving these feelings makes people see things that aren’t there.

Dopamine by itself can cause people to form beliefs that are not grounded in evidence. People whose blood levels of dopamine are higher than normal are more likely to attach meaning to coincidences and find meaningful patterns in arbitrary scrambled images.

Researchers from the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, examined twenty people who claimed to believe in paranormal events and twenty who claimed they didn’t. When the participants were asked to tell which faces were real and which were scrambled among a series of briefly flashed images, people who believed in paranormal events were more likely than skeptic participants to pick out a scrambled face as real. The results were the same when the participants were tested using words instead of faces.

After the initial trials, the researchers administered L-dopa, which has the same effects as dopamine, to both groups of participants. After taking this drug, skeptics made a lot more mistakes when looking for real words or faces than before taking the drug.

The results of the study suggest that dopamine can make you see things that aren’t there and form beliefs without solid evidential backing. These results may explain the tendency of people in love to idealize their partners and attach meaning to every little move he or she makes. When in love, your dopamine levels are high when you think of your lover. This makes your brain a less reliable instrument for forming solid beliefs or making wise decisions.

This delusional mindset may return full force when a relationship ends, especially if it wasn't your decision to end it. Your craving for a dopamine fix that only your ex can provide will not only make you slightly delusional, it can also make you angry and hateful toward the one person who is withholding your "drug" from you: your ex. 

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love.

Oxford University Press, used with permission
Source: Oxford University Press, used with permission

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