The Science of Falling Out of Love
New research explores different strategies for dealing with heartbreak.
Posted October 15, 2017
"The heart was made to be broken." —Oscar Wilde
Romantic breakups are an inevitable, if painful, part of living. Along with eliciting a wide range of emotions, including anger, sadness, and shame, a breakup can bring health problems as well. These could include insomnia, reduced immune functioning, depression, and even the temporary heart condition known as "broken heart syndrome." The severity of symptoms often depend on the strength of the relationship and how traumatic the breakup itself was.
According to the triangular theory of love proposed by psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, passion, intimacy, and commitment can interact in different ways to form a typology of different kinds of love experience. Of these different kinds of love, the most well known are infatuation (passionate love) and attachment (companionate love). Romantic couples can progress through different types of love over the course of a relationship — passionate love, for example, is most commonly seen in the early stages of a relationship before it settles into the more stable, companionate form). This means that the feelings that result from infatuation, whether mutual or one-sided, can be very different from what people in a long-term relationship may experience. It also means that the emotional pain after a breakup can be very different as well.
Although dealing with a breakup can take considerable time and effort, research has identified specific strategies people use to overcome heartache, some of which seem more effective than others. A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General tests three of these coping strategies from a neuroscience perspective to see how well they actually work.
For the purpose of their study, Sandra J. E. Langeslag and Michelle E. Sanchez of the University of Missouri, St. Louis focused on three common strategies for dealing with romantic breakups:
1. Negative reappraisal of the relationship.
By focusing on the negative qualities of ex-partners — "too clingy," "too cheap," "too old," etc. — it is often possible to reduce love and feel better after a breakup. Alternatively, it can also help to think about the negative features of the relationship itself — "It wasn't going anywhere," "I'm not ready to get serious," etc. Unfortunately, this involves dwelling on negative thoughts that can make an individual feel worse, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, negative reappraisal can be an effective coping strategy.
2. Reappraising the emotion itself.
Another way to cope with a breakup is to learn to accept the emotions that come with it. This can include recognizing that "post-breakup blues" are an inevitable part of a breakup. It can also mean admitting that you still have feelings toward an ex, and learning to accept these feelings without passing judgment on yourself.
For many, the simplest and easiest way to deal with a breakup is to throw themselves into some activity that fills their time. Whether by working harder and longer than usual, starting a new hobby, or binge-watching old movies, distraction can help people curb rumination and brooding, at least in the short run. While distraction is more of a short-term coping strategy, it can still help control the blues long enough to start moving on.
To test these three strategies, the researchers recruited 24 participants (20 women and four men), ranging in age from 20 to 37, who had recently experienced a breakup and were still reporting emotional distress as a result. Each participant provided the researchers with 28 digital pictures of their ex-partners. They also answered questions about their relationship, including how long it had lasted, its quality, as well as the amount of love they still felt for the ex on a scale from 1 (not in love at all) to 9 (very much in love). Participants then completed a questionnaire measuring how much control they felt they had over their love feelings.
For the next part of the study, each participant had their brain waves measured using an electroencephalograph under four separate conditions:
- negative appraisal of the ex-partner.
- reappraisal of love feeling
- a control condition.
During each trial, participants were briefly presented with a question or statement to stimulate one of the coping strategies being studied. For the negative reappraisal condition, they were presented with the questions about negative qualities in their ex-partner ("What is an annoying habit of your ex?" "What is something disrespectful your ex did?" or "What is something mean your ex said?"). In the reappraisal of love feelings condition, prompts included statements such as "Many people still love their ex," "It's OK to love someone you're no longer with," or "Loving someone is normal." The distraction condition included questions such as "What is your favorite song? Why?" or "Who is your best friend? Why?" (Participants were told to answer these questions mentally.) For the control condition, no regulation strategy was used. All conditions were given in random order.
After initial EEG readings were taken, participants were shown a picture of their ex with EEG results measuring the level of arousal. They also used a specialized slider to indicate how strong their love feelings were and valence of affect (how positive or negative they were feeling at the time). After the love regulation task was done, all participants completed a questionnaire measuring their likelihood of using each strategy when dealing with heartbreak.
As expected, results showed a strong correlation between the amount of love participants felt for their ex and how upset they were by their breakup. In weighing the individual strategies, negative reappraisal appeared to be especially useful in decreasing love feelings, though it also tended to make people feel worse, at least in the short run. Despite this disadvantage, it was the strategy participants reported being most likely to use after a breakup.
The other techniques didn't seem to work as well. Not only did love reappraisal fail to change love feelings, but participants remained skeptical about its value in dealing with heartache. Distraction seemed to help participants deal with emotional pain, but it did little to actually reduce love feelings. More important, it wasn't an effective long-term strategy, since it deals more with avoiding negative feelings rather than learning to overcome them.
When looking at EEG findings, all three strategies appeared to decrease ERP (event-related potential) amplitude when participants saw pictures of their exes. Since ERP amplitude measures motivated attention, this suggests that love regulation strategies work by desensitizing people to stimuli that can trigger strong emotions, such as a picture. This kind of desensitization also makes recovery from heartbreak easier by making people better able to handle situations in which they are reminded of their exes. Still, since the study only focused on relatively short-term effects, it wasn't clear whether the three strategies were equally effective in reducing love feelings over a longer time period.
Based on their findings, Langeslag and Sanchez concluded that negative reappraisal and distraction were the strategies people were most likely to use after a breakup. They also suggested that anyone trying to use these different strategies should be aware that they may not work that well together. Negative reappraisal seems to work best in decreasing unwanted love feelings and can be useful in a range of different ways. Not only can it help in a breakup, but it can also help people deal with unwanted infatuations, such as a one-sided crush or the attraction a married person might feel for a non-spouse. On the other hand, reappraising the emotion may also be used to increase love feelings in a fading relationship people may want to preserve.
Being able to deal with romantic feelings, wanted or not, is a skill which can be learned like any other. Along with dealing with the inevitable breakups across the lifespan, this kind of learning can be a vital part of staying emotionally healthy.
Langeslag, S. J. E., & Sanchez, M. E. (2017, August 31). Down-Regulation of Love Feelings After a Romantic Break-Up: Self-Report and Electrophysiological Data. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000360