Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Neuroscience of Relationship Breakups

Is the pain all in the brain?

Source: Geralt/Pixabay
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

An unexpected and unwanted breakup can cause considerable psychological distress. You may feel as if you have been kicked in the stomach or blindsided and knocked down. Feelings of rejection and self-doubt are common, as is the feeling of being stuck and unable to let go, even when one wants to. Friends and family may push you to get over it and move on, yet brain research suggests this can be very difficult to do, at least in the first few months.

Breakups and the Brain

The research on relationship breakups in unmarried people (generally college students) gives us some clues as to why these events are so subjectively painful. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans show activity in several specific brain areas when rejected individuals see pictures of their ex-partners. Researcher Edward Smith, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University, and his colleagues put out fliers in Manhattan and ads on social networking sites to recruit participants who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the last six months.

Using fMRI scans, the researchers assessed which brain areas lit up when participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners and simultaneously thought about experiences they had shared together. They compared this to when participants looked at pictures of a friend and were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when individuals looked at the partner pictures or experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the friend pictures. These brain regions, including the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, are known to be associated with pain experience.

Our brains appear to process relationship breakups in the same regions as physical pain. This doesn't however, mean that romantic rejection causes actual physical pain. Rather, your brain is signaling that both are important events to pay attention to. There may be an evolutionary reason for this. The function of pain is to alert the person to physical danger or harm so she can take protective action. In the animal kingdom, one's chances of avoiding predators are much higher as part of a group than alone, therefore social rejection may have been an actual threat to physical survival for our early ancestors. If this is the case, it might partially explain how difficult it is for many people to let go of the ex-partner and move on.

Obsessive Thoughts & "Cravings"

People who have recently been rejected by their partners often develop obsessive thinking. They may ruminate persistently about the ex-partner, how they are feeling, whether they are missing the relationship, and so on. These thoughts or feelings of loss may be triggered by places they used to go to together, people they used to hang out with, holidays, and everyday rituals that were shared. In this sense, processing a breakup is a bit like dealing with a trauma. The person cycles through periods of avoiding the emotional pain and being able to distract herself, and periods of being flooded by intense feelings and obsessive thoughts. There also seems to be a gender difference, in that men are more likely to distract and avoid feelings, and women more likely to obsess and ruminate. This may be because women have been socialized to take more responsibility for relationships, leading to more time spent thinking about what went wrong or what they could have done differently.

Recent research provides some suggestion that there may be a physiological basis to these "cravings" for the ex-partner. Lucy Brown, Ph.D., a professor in the department of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of 15 college-age adults who had experienced a recent unwanted breakup and reported still feeling love for the ex-partner.

Upon viewing photographs of their former partners, there was activity in the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex. These areas are associated with reward and motivation, specifically, the release of dopamine that is also seen in drug addiction. Therefore, people may experience cravings for their ex-partner similarly to the way addicts crave a drug they are withdrawing from. This can lead to intense distress and physiological as well as psychological discomfort.

Hope and Resilience

One issue with these fMRI studies is that they tend to use a small number of people who respond to advertisements for people who haven't gotten over their ex-partners. We don't know if these people are representative of the average person who goes through a breakup, or whether they answer the ads because they are especially distressed. This needs to be determined in future research. Despite the short-term pain of a breakup, longer-term findings indicate that most young people are resilient and recover. College students report feeling significantly less distressed about the breakup after about 10 weeks. Also, other studies have shown brain activity in the craving centers decreased as more time passed since the breakup.

Take-Home Message

Is there anything we can learn from these findings to help people deal with painful breakups? The analogy to addiction and pain may give people a framework for understanding the intensity of their feelings and can be a basis for developing self-compassion and realistic expectations. You might expect waves of strong emotion or "cravings" for the ex-partner in the initial period. Do not expect yourself to immediately be able to "just get over it and move on." Give yourself time for your feelings in the first few weeks. Distraction and self-care activities may also help.

Conditioning theory would suggest that places, people, or activities associated with the ex-partner may be particularly likely to trigger "cravings," so you may want to avoid these for a while and try to develop some new routines. You could try Rick Hanson's approach, focused on reprogramming the brain to think more positively. As with addictions, it helps to have a support group of people you can call on when you're tempted to do something foolish. If your feelings are too intense to manage alone or if you find yourself coping in unhealthy ways, you should speak to a counselor in your area.

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Marin County, CA. She also provides life coaching internationally via distance technologies. For more information, visit her website or follow her on Twitter (@drmelanieg) & Facebook.

More from Melanie Greenberg Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today