Introduction to Heartbreak, Volume Two: The Brain in Love

Heartbreak is torture

The psychosomatic pain of heartbreak shows neurobiological evidence of stress similar to being submitted to torture. With time, the intensity of the pain may lessen, yet it is false to think that time heals all wounds! Many live the rest of their life with a captive heart, alone in the emotional desert of psychic numbness. There is only one way out of that deadly place: neuroscience calls it an evolutionary jump, like when humans learned new ways to survive glaciation.

The brain learns best when survival is threatened, because a threat can accelerate the learning process. I know a man whose child fell in the lake; although this man had never learned to swim, he remembered having seen how it was done. He jumped, swam, and saved his child. That is the kind of learning that is possible only when there is a threat. The imminence of a loss of love is felt in your brain with that same urgency. Loss of love is not a physical menace, but the brain does not differentiate between psyche and soma.

The first challenge is to become aware of the instinctual fear that makes us say “if you leave me, I’ll-die”. This fear poses a logical problem because to overcome it, you must learn to survive without the partner, which is precisely what you fear! You are like a patient who has been shot by an arrow⎯ Cupid’s arrow ⎯but is afraid to let the doctor pull it out. Living with an arrow sticking out from your chest makes life impossible. The evolutionary jump defined by neuroscientists is an intense effort of adaptation, following a radical and threatening change in the environment. Confronted with such a threat, either you jump, or you regress, get sick, or die. Heartbreak is a radical change in your environment. You need to pull that arrow out of your chest, without killing your capacity to love.

Recovery is not, as so many popular self-help books suggest today, an ego decision to move on. Recovery is the opposite of a willful decision, the opposite of an emotional shutting down which only mimics detachment. Heartbreak-through, paradoxically, happens if the heart continues its painful expansion, to teach you the darker dimensions of love.

At the beginning of heartbreak, the brain reacts like that of a drug addict suddenly deprived of his or her drug. The behavior of the love-crazy is similar to that of the addict desperately searching for a fix. As long as the “fix” is imagined as the return of the abandoner, one remains in the love addiction. Calling every ten minutes to leave messages on the answering machine, (“Where are you; why don’t you come back; who are you with; don’t leave me.”), waiting in one’s car to see him or her appear, sending a deluge of emails, crying and begging, are all typical behaviors of the first phase, when the addiction emerges. Hooked on hope, your brain is in a panic mode.

When asked, “what exactly is this panic; what are you afraid of, really?” the answer is always extravagant, something like “without him or her, my life is over, worthless; I can’t live without him or her.” It is no surprise that loss of love is at the core of depressive, suicidal and murderous states. For the brain, lack of love, lack of food, lack of sleep, or a pit bull jumping at you are all kinds of threats. How you respond impacts not only your health but your destiny as well. It is a situation that asks for urgent re-alignment of neuronal activity. In other words, either emotional suffering turns on the evolutionary switch, or your emotional shutting will destroy your capacity to love.

This book summarizes what you need to learn, and to do to turn on that switch.

I wrote from three different points of view.

1. Teacher and Researcher

As a teacher and researcher in psychology, I spent most of my adult life studying the symptoms of lost love, tortuous love, smothering love, condemning love, controlling love, insufficient love, betrayed love, compulsive love, codependent love. I studied and taught the theories that present themselves as antidotes to these poisons. This text is my report from the field: which theories are validated and which are not. Scientific psychology is now merging with neuroscience and debunking the pseudoscientific claims of egomaniacal psychologists whose primary aim is to sell their copyrighted approach to the psyche.

Neuroscience also invalidates self-help theories that have cheapened a true psychological approach while it validates a psychology that takes into account the unconscious dimension. You must “educate” your heart, a task that engages the cultural level of collective life as well as the personal unconscious. This Volume one could be called my version of a Manual for the Education of the Heart.

2. Therapist

Second, I am writing as a therapist who, for many years, listened to the stories of courageous individuals free falling from the summit of love, crashing down into the relational desert of mourning, grief, and loss. While witnessing their despair, I admired their courage. Love, its presence and absence, quality and quantity, form and essence, nurturing and toxic effects, its bitterness, and sweetness, is at the core of every therapy because love is fundamentally liberating. Love is also easily corrupted. Love develops the brain, but heartbreak transforms an otherwise functional adult into a cognitive dimwit. Love attaches itself to our neurotic traits, which then develop like barnacles on the hull of a boat.

3. Woman

And last, I am writing as an individual who has suffered her fair share of heartbreaks. As a young woman, I plunged into the cavernous mouth of that mythical beast we call Love, like a frog jumping into the path of a lawnmower. My heart was shredded, devoured, digested by the beast, its substance giving it the energy to spit me out like the pit of a sweet date. This humbling experience taught me the contrast between the sweetness of love and the tragedy of remaining innocent about its power.

With a lifetime of witnessing brave individuals outwitting that same cruel beast, I am convinced that a person suffering the torture of heartbreak can, should and must be helped by all possible means: neuroscience and friendship, medication and meditation, people and animals, massages and humor, music and literature, deep thinking and deep psychologies. The good news is this: if you love, your heart will be broken at some point or other in your life. If not, your love may remain the innocent love of a child. No one volunteers for such a painful experience; yet it happens and when it hits you, take that pain as what neuroscientists call a push from nature, to propel you beyond your current state of devastation.

The message from neuroscience is clear: following any trauma, one either evolves (learn, change, adapt) or deteriorates.   Some neuroscientists call that the “use it or lose it theory of neuroplasticity,” a kind of scientific confirmation that when you find yourself in deep waters, either you sink, or you swim.


Romantic breakup and mourning: same process

There are obvious differences between mourning the loss of somebody who dies and suffering the loss of somebody who chooses to leave you, yet the process of recovery is similar in both cases. In this book I chose to use, almost exclusively, examples where the abandonment is the result of a rejection by the partner, because such an insult to the ego is best at uncovering the projections going on in love, even more so than when the partner dies.

There is something final about losing your partner to death, yet there is something equally tragic in the recognition that one cannot resurrect the dead love of the abandoner. If you have been rejected, betrayed and abandoned, one of the best fantasies to entertain is to think of the abandoner as dead. It protects you against being hooked on the wrong kind of hope. We shall discuss, at the very end of this book, cases where the partners get back together after a breakup; but in every one of these cases, reunion was possible only after a radical transformation of the initial relationship. Something (the old self) has to die before a reconnection is possible. Paradoxically, only a real mourning of the relationship is what makes reconnection possible.

If the abandoner rejected you, the best attitude is to consider yourself just like a widow or widower and follow the same steps to recovery. Conversely, if you are a widow or widower, consider yourself to be just like any other brokenhearted person. You, too, feel abandoned, betrayed and left out in the cold. The partner may not have wanted to die, but he or she nevertheless abandoned you in the misery of widowhood. A partner abandoning you is one form dying takes, and a partner dying is one form abandonment takes. You are part of the same group, with the same challenges, including the terrible blow to your ego.