Feel Like You're Going Through Withdrawal? Your Brain on Divorce

“I'm all strung out, my heart is fried

I just can't get you off my mind,”

   From “Your Love Is My Drug,” Kesha

Pop singer Kesha compares love to an obsession.  Legendary crooner Billie Holiday describes it as an elixir, “the bubbles in a glass of champagne.”  The Gun Club sings, “She’s like heroin to me.”  Musicians frequently describe the power of love as equal to a highly addictive substance—and the pain of a breakup to withdrawal.

It turns out, these artists aren’t just being dramatic.  Science tells us that love is addictive.

Neuroscientists Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown are known for using fMRI technology to look at the brain activity of people in love—and in the throes of a romantic breakup.  In one study, they analyzed the brains of 15 young men and women who had recently been dumped.  Most said they still felt somewhat out of control. They were calling their former lovers in the middle of the night, showing up unexpectedly, or sending emails begging to reconcile.  Some had slipped into depression.

When researchers hooked up these forlorn lovers to an fMRI machine, they found brain activity in several regions, including those associated with love and attachment, and with the kind of crazed longing addicts feel when denied highly addictive substances.  These young men and women still felt in love, even though they weren’t spending time with their ex.  The gap between how their brains felt—and the reality—caused serious craving.

As Fisher and Brown put it, “The main results of our study showed that romantic rejection is like withdrawing from cocaine!”

 If your separation or divorce is making you feel like you’re going through withdrawal, it’s because your brain kind of is.  Detachment cuts you off from the wonder drug of love—dopamine.  

Like a junkie who needs her fix, you crave your ex.  You might think about her all the time, drive past her house, stalk her on social media.  These are actually normal responses to going cold-turkey from someone you’ve loved.

What’s more, our brains register physical and emotional pain in much the same way.  In Fisher and Brown’s study, the lovesick participants showed activity in the part of the brain linked to physical pain.  In another recent study, cognitive neuroscientists Edward Smith and Ethan Kross looked at the brain activity of 40 people who had experienced an unwanted breakup within the past six months.  Specifically, researchers mapped brain activity while participants:

1) looked at a picture of their ex

2) looked at a picture of a friend

3) were touched by a painfully hot (though not dangerous) object

4) were touched with a pleasantly warm object

They found that the same parts of the brain fired when study participants looked at their former loves as when they got physically burned.  The researchers concluded that, “social rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing, they share a common representation in somatosensory brain systems as well.”

To put it another way: Love hurts.  Or rather, loss of love hurts like hell.

One quick (temporary) solution: Take a couple aspirin and call a friend in the morning.  As Fisher and Brown put it: “We have to treat it like an addiction and think of it like a broken bone.  It will heal with time. It may even benefit from aspirin and other anti-inflammatory medicines!”

Merely acknowledging the power of your own brain chemistry also can help you move on.

Understanding that your brain got addicted to love in much the same way an addict gets hooked on cocaine can help you feel more compassionate toward your raging emotions—and toward an ex who is having trouble letting go.  Just as a drug or alcohol addict begins AA and NA by acknowledging and understanding the problem, seeing that your pain and suffering are real physiological responses can help lessen self-judgment and, ideally, free you to take positive steps forward.  Self-compassion is one of the traits that correlates most strongly with positive divorce recuperation, and Principle of Parting #1.

The other good news?  The withdrawal response does fade with time, and there are plenty of other (legal) ways to pump ourselves up with dopamine.  Here are five ways to break free of the pain and move on:

Here are some tips for besting our biology during a breakup. 

1. Ease off slowly. 

Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown advise students who’ve been dumped to go “cold turkey” to get over a lost love.  But this approach often isn’t realistic in divorce, particularly if you have children.  Nor is it necessarily beneficial.  Another way to think about the drug analogy is to ease out of your marriage s-l-o-w-ly—spend less time together rather than no time at all.  This gives your brain a chance to taper off the very real physiological side of marriage.  While some people rush to make it legal to achieve closure, divorce actually involves six forms of separation: legal, emotional, sexual, residential, financial and physical.  The physical, or chemical side takes its own time.  Recognizing this is another reason to strive toward a cooperative parting, rather than burn down your past relationship in a funeral pyre of anger and recrimination.

2. Get a Divorce Sponsor.

 Okay, there isn’t an AA for divorce, but many happily divorced people find their own “sponsors” to call in the middle of the night, or at least meet for coffee during a stressful day.  Sometimes an old friend or a new colleague who’s been through divorce steps forward to help, or a distant acquaintance draws closer.  Some people join a divorce Meetup on meetup.com, or a single parents group.  Boulder-based media strategist Steve Outing signed up for a 10-week “Rebuilding” course that included a weekly in-person meeting.  “The most important part was the social aspect,” he said.  “The rebuilding workshop had six to seven volunteers who had taken the course and served as mentors.”  The other participants became good friends for Oustin, and the mentor helped him during his hardest moments.

3. Do more dope(amine):

One way to taper off of an almost ex?  Schedule in more hours of other dopamine-generating activities. Exercising, listening to music, eating and even having sex all flood your system with dopamine.  Try waking up fifteen minutes early to do yoga, lift weights or dance around the house to upbeat music. Make a point of turning on a great playlist while you do household chores.  Even creating your own playlist can be powerful dopamine-generating exercise.  Make plans for an indulgent dinner—including dessert—with a good friend who is reliably supportive.  Flip through a cookbook and pick something new to make once a week for your family.  Sign up for one of those new Meal-in-a-Box services that deliver all the ingredients you need, plus a recipe, to your doorstep.  Head out to dinner at your favorite restaurant with your next blind date; even if the date is a dud, the meal will be great.  Find someone to have a fling with. 

4. Learn new strategies for stress.

You might write in a journal what is stressing you out, start a gratitude journal, or learn to meditate. Work more exercise into your schedule.  Reach out to a friend or listen to a funny podcast. Acknowledge that this loss is stressing you out, and try one (or more) known stress-reliever. 

To read about the work of Helen Fischer and Lucy Brown, and watch Fisher’s really amusing videos, go to TheAnatomyofLove.com.


Laura Brienza is the author of two nonfiction books for Globe Pequot Press: Discovering Vintage Washington, DC and New York's Historic Restaurants, Inns, and Taverns. Her writing has also appeared in Flavor & The Menu, Feminine Collective, 1st Amendment Media/IndyBuild, The Date Diaries, and she is a Weekend Reporter for Obsessed With Everything. Her plays have been produced and developed by The Lark Play Development Center, the Kennedy Center, and Luna Stage, where her most recent play Old Love New Love was hailed for its "sharp writing" and "poignant moments" by The New York Times.