Love is supposed to be this ultra-great emotion that leads to throbbing feelings of happiness, moments of unforgettable togetherness, and maybe flowers and jewelry, too. Unfortunately, the reality is that love often sucks. You fall in love with people who don't love you back, you get rejected by your idealized romantic partner, or you find yourself pining for somebody who treats you like crap. But there is hope. Though there is no quick fix for a broken heart, there are things you can do to make it easier to fall out of love with someone. We talked to the experts about the fastest way to turn your love around.
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Love and Addiction
There are a lot of reasons why you might want to stop loving somebody, but the two main ones are that they don't return your feelings or they treat you badly. Love may feel like it's something beyond your control, but psychological research shows that there are actually ways to tame this wild feeling. Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher has worked with neuroscientists to produce images of people's brains while they are in the throes of deep love for someone else. What they found was that feelings of intense love activated the brain's nucleus accumbens, a region associated with rewards — and with out-of-control addictions. As Fisher put it to me by phone, love activates the parts of our brains that are also activated in the brains of cocaine and cigarette addicts when they anticipate getting high.
So, Fisher recommends treating your love the way you would treat an addiction. "Throw out their cards and letters, or hide them in a closet," she said. "Don't call or look for them online. If you're trying to give up alcohol, you don't leave scotch on your desk." Ideally, you want to stop thinking about the person entirely, so getting rid of objects that remind you of them will help.
How To Stop Obsessing
But how do you prevent yourself from having thoughts of the person? You can't just throw your memories in a box. Oklahoma State University psychologist Robert Sternberg, author of "The Triangular Theory of Love,", shared a few tips via email:
1. If you must think about the person, emphasize his or her negative characteristics. (We all have them!) Realize how, in the long run, you will feel lucky you got out of the relationship.
2. Reflect on the fact that relationships can never work unless both people are willing to make them work. In the long run, it never would have worked.
3. Find someone else. Nothing to get over someone like finding someone else to occupy your attention. But realize the risk: Transitional partners usually do not end up being permanent partners.
4. Keep yourself busy. Don't even allow yourself the time to ruminate.
Sexologist Carol Queen agreed that thinking about the negative aspects of your anti-Valentine can help, but noted that sex often confuses the picture. "One of the biggest problems people have about falling in love with the wrong partner has to do with mistaking good sex, or even just strong erotic attraction, for love and compatibility," she warned. "They are separate things! It's great when you can have them both in one package, but don't make the mistake of defining sexual desire as love and vice versa."
Though you can't always find a new partner right away, whether for love or just sexy fun, one thing you can absolutely do is keep busy. That doesn't have to mean doing paperwork or writing angry blog posts. Try something new, random, or creative.
In a recent interview with Outside, two founders of Burning Man discussed how the festival's main icon was inspired by one man's need to get over a relationship. Joe Fenton, a member of the Black Rock Rangers, said, "[Burning Man founder Larry Harvey] told me very specifically that the figure was an effigy of his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his son. He told me he wanted to burn her out of his memory." Added Harvey, "That was not a conscious thought in my mind at the time. That was the result of introspection." Even if Harvey was only unconsciously purging his feelings, the result was that he kept busy and found ways to create community. Plus, never underestimate how distracting and cathartic it can be to burn things (safely!).
A Drug That Could Prevent You From Feeling Love
University of San Francisco psychiatry professor Thomas Lewis, co-author of the fascinating book A General Theory of Love, speculated via email about the difference between how we deal with falling out of love today, versus how we might do it in the future:
I suspect that there is nothing that a person can do that will make them fall out of love with someone, in the same way that there is nothing that a drunk person can do that will make him sober. Falling in love is a similar state of intoxication, and it's quite possible to demonstrate on neuroimaging studies that there is suppression, during the falling in love state, of areas in the brain that support critical judgment, and areas of the brain that process negative emotions. So in general, no amount of reasoning, and no amount of contradictory evidence about how noxious the other person actually is, wind up penetrating into the final output pathways of somebody who is in love. Of course, we have lots of cultural phrases and aphorisms that express the folk wisdom about this aspect of neurophysiology – "love conquers all," "love is blind," etc.
I said that there's nothing that the person can do, in and of themselves, that will make them fall out of love. I think it's possible that some modern neurotransmitter-altering medications, including some that probably haven't been invented yet, could potentially interrupt the falling- in-love state. I say this in part because of the recent discovery of a molecule (dihydromyricetin) that, when administered, prevents rats from becoming intoxicated when they drink alcohol. They can drink all they want, but pretty much nothing happens to their brain function (although something may happen to their livers.) If it is possible to prevent alcohol from being intoxicating, then I suspect it is at least theoretically possible to prevent love from being intoxicating, although I also suspect that love might be more complex than ordinary drunkenness. Love might well require more than one neurotransmitter system to be adjusted before it is neutralized. Certainly the dopamine system would have to be adjusted downward, and one can imagine that perhaps the endogenous opiate system would have to be tweaked and perhaps the oxytocin system might have to be tweaked.
However, all of that lies in the future, for people who possess more direct access to neurotransmitter manipulations than we have.
Let Some Time Pass
When I approached each of these experts with my question about falling out of love, many of them noted that they are rarely asked this question. Instead, they're usually asked how two people can remain in love over time. And this is good news for those of you who want to carve that painful feeling right out of your brain. Generally, the passionate intensity of love doesn't last. Sure, it can deepen into a lasting relationship or marriage, but it will never remain as intense or hurty as it is during that new relationship phase.
Fisher explained that there's truth to the old adage that time does heal, even on a neurological level. She and her research team found that people who had been rejected in love showed reduced activity over time in the vental palladium, an area of the brain associated with feelings of attachment. To help your brain with the loss, she added, try getting lots of exercise to drive up your feel-good hormones like dopamine. And get lots of hugs from friends — touching is a way to drive up oxytocin in your system, which could help you to feel calmer.
For better or for worse, the falling in love state doesn't last forever, whether we wish it to or not, and so if a person finds himself constrained by the ties of being in love with the wrong person, he might find some consolation in the fact that, some day in the relatively near future, probably no more than a few months down the road, he will be free.