In the previous article concerning the ‘romantic break-up’ we discussed why the break-up occurs in the second stage of romantic love, which is the Personal Attraction stage.
The first stage of love is Lust, followed by the Personal Attraction Phase and if the love is to ultimately last the final stage of love is Attachment. Our behavior in love and at the various stages of love is determined to a significant degree by the particular hormonal biochemical complex that dominates that stage of love.
In lust these biochemicals are mainly Dopamine’s and then Serotonin and transitory Adrenal episodes. But all of these work together to affect our behavior in the Lust Phase and so it is at this stage that our decision-making is the most severely compromised. For example, our discrimination or selectivity as to who is a suitable or ‘appropriate lover’ is at its lowest level during this short but intense Lust Phase.
But by the Attraction Phase of love the Dopamines are gone and the Serotonin levels start to drop to near normal levels, but very importantly, they drop off in one lover before they do in the other. That fact is the underlying reality for most all ‘heartbreak’ resulting from a failed relationship. It is at this biochemical point that the break-up begins in the Personal Attraction Phase of Love.
This is because the lover whose Serotonin levels have returned to normal now sees the other lover more authentically than they previously did, or even could, while still under the influence of the high levels of the ‘feel good’ drug Serotonin.
They may even begin to then contrast what they now see in the their lover with their ideal ‘dream lover’. Especially if they are not matured in their romantic life experiences. If they do make this contrast then of course their lover will always fail to meet their ‘fantasy standard’.
How correct people are when they tell the lover that they are breaking up with, ” John, The chemistry just isn’t there anymore”
Hence, the partner with the returned normal Serotonin levels may begin to behave in a manner designed to effect the termination of the relationship. This behavior can sometimes occurs at less than the fully self-aware level.
In contrast though, the other lover is still very much under love’s biochemical spell. They thus feel ‘bewildered’ as to how the person with whom they shared so much tenderness and love and deep feelings of intimacy with has now somehow suddenly changed into a cold and adversarial person.
They feel betrayed and they can’t grasp why this has occurred. They think “He (or she) acts as if all the loved we shared never happened, how can he (or she) be this way?” They will often ask themselves “What is wrong with me, why does she (or he) suddenly see me as ‘not good enough’?” When in actuality this is not really the true issue at all.
Now let’s move on to why a romantic break up can be so terribly painful and especially why it can haunt a person for so long, even decades after the break-up.
First we need to recognize the depressive affect from the ‘withdrawal’ of the production of the biochemicals that make us just “feel great” when we are in love.
Dopamines while rather short lived are produced at some level especially during any physical sex between romantic partners. Hence, the withdrawal of the Dopamines following a ‘break-up’ follows a pattern similar to the withdrawal symptoms of any other narcotic such as heroin or morphine (though less physiologically severe)
Personally I feel that Love is an example of the ‘sum of the part being greater than the whole’ type of mystery.
The closer to the Attachment Phase of Love (dominated by Vasopressin) that the one partner is experiencing, and this will always be the partner in the relationship that is abandoned by the other, the greater the withdrawal symptoms (pain) will be for them.
Now while there may be no clear and measurable scientific basis for this as there is for the other biochemistry discussed here, this situation does agree with our common sense. That is the “deeper in love” a person is with the other then the more painful is the abandonment and betrayal of that other person felt.
As well as dopamine withdrawal, I personal believe that the Serotonin withdrawal is perhaps even more painfully felt. Consider how one ‘just feels good’ being around the loved one at the height of the relationship regardless of what they are doing together. The very presence of our lover elicits the Serotonin release in our bodies.
But in most relationships we are not always with our loved one. This engages another powerful psychological mechanism too.
For example, young lovers might have to clandestinely meet for one reason or another. They might also be separated by geographic distance. Alternatively they may just have work schedules that leave them apart most of the time.
The result is that they look forward with great anticipation to their next rendezvous and that in itself can affect a biochemical release. The Carly Simon love song ” Anticipation” echoes this reality.
But when we are intermittently reinforced like this there is then created the ‘intermittently re-enforcement’ pairing which is the hardest and most durable of all conditioned responses to extinguish. A simple and classic example of intermittent re-enforcement is observed in laboratory mice who are given a food pellet when they press a levered bar when a light in their cage comes on.
The mice that get the food pellet each and every time they press the bar when that light comes on will stop pressing that bar soon after the food pellets stops being delivered. They will stop ‘trying’ and stop pressing that lever much earlier than the mice that only got the food pellet intermittently. The ‘intermittently re-enforced mice’ have the more durable response that takes longer to extinguish.
So an intermittently re-enforced love affair where the lovers see each other only ‘intermittently’ naturally creates a behavioral condition that is not quickly or easily extinguished over time once the one lover is denied the company of the other.
This is one reason that a failed love affair can haunt a person’s thoughts even for years.
To a lesser extent and generally at a less intense level, a failed marriage can work the same way.
But there is another biochemical release at work here too and it may actually be one that is more significant than the intermittent re-enforcement condition in sustaining the pain over a lost romantic love. That biochemical release is adrenaline and it has a very unique role to play in both learning and memory.
Anything experienced or learned under an adrenal release, which is the “flight or fight” biochemical, is stored differently in the brain than anything learned under a non-adrenal state. Things experienced under an adrenal state create more durable memories and those memories will have associated ‘triggers’ that affect their recall.
This reality is far better understood and accepted I believe in the scientific community today than it was when I first started writing on this subject in 1972. It is important to understand that this special biochemistry of ‘adrenal created memories’ is the universal basis for the PTSD reaction (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
An example of an ‘adrenal memory trigger’ that we are all likely familiar with is worth presenting here. Imagine you are in an attic and you open a box and a fragrance is then released from that box that brings back a vivid memory to you. This vividness and sudden appearance of this memory may surprise you too. It is only then that you realize you even retained the memory.
Now think about that memory itself, was that memory not originally created under an adrenal release at some level? Any love affair for example will at times involve the adrenal release.
Now let’s consider the trigger for this romantic memory and the same concept applies to the PTSD episode that a combat veteran might experience too though the specific triggers may be different.
Imagine that you are driving alone at night in your car and an old song comes on the radio that reminds you of a past lover. You are surprised at how strong and vibrantly and emotionally charged that memory is that floods your consciousness.
Of course that song was playing at some moment during that past romantic affair when you were with your past loved one. Thus the ‘trigger’ for an adrenal created memory is always present when the original memory was created under the adrenal conditions.
But here we are speaking of the ‘self-aware’ or ‘super-conscious triggers’ to an adrenal memory and their subsequent affect on our behaviors. But the most significant triggers to our adrenal memories operate at the below the self-aware level. These subconscious triggers elicit the more behaviorally dysfunctional results for us too.
Allow me to offer another example. A patient had a terribly traumatic reaction to ‘Mickey Mouse’ when she went to Disneyland. The person in the Mickey Mouse costume approached her waving his hands and she had a severe panic attack and collapsed on the spot.
It was determined that the large white gloves of the Mickey Mouse costume were an adrenal trigger to her past forcible rape. Her rapist had worn white gloves. But she was totally unaware of this connection at the time. She reasonably thought that she might have some purely physical pathology that caused her passing out.
I will close this installment with the observation that many of the behaviors that we repeat and yet which clearly do not serve us, are at times based on subconscious adrenal triggers in our environment.
The PTSD condition exits on a wide continuum of severity though. Indeed that level of intensity may be so low that it may not accurately be called PTSD even though the operant biochemistry is basically the same.
At the very low end we might have a person who suddenly gets angry and ‘short’ with a person in the car who innocently announces ” Ok, now take the next right and we are there”. The driver’s angry outburst of behavior may have been subconsciously triggered by a stressful driving incident in the past when someone “offered unsolicited directions”.
Another ‘low intensity’ PTSD adrenal trigger might be the sound of dentist’s drill affecting a squeamish, startled or even a pain response. Appreciate too that there does not have to be an actual dentist drill to get this reaction, only something that sounds like a dentist’s drill.
At the more extreme end of PTSD episodes a person might have ‘very real’ visual or auditory hallucinations.
A failed love affair can most certainly result in PTSD behaviors, especially when it occurs in the person’s hormonally charged youth. These behaviors can adversely affect that individuals’ future romantic relationships too.. And yet those behaviors can be triggered at the non self-aware level. In the next installment we will look more closely at some examples of how that occurs and also the concept of finding “closure” to a romantic break up.
The past is inviolate and simply cannot be changed. But we can change how we view and process that past and in so doing we can change our path to a better future.
I very much believe that a greater knowledge of how our minds work is one of the important keys to achieving that and to becoming a more resilient, and a much happier, more fully self-actualized person.
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