Love and Despair – Recovering From a Break-Up
When we are in love, the world is golden and nothing gets us down. When we are out of love, we are desperate to regain those feelings we had while in love. The desperation can be so intense, we find ourselves thinking and doing things we would be ashamed to tell our best friend. The excitement of falling in love, being in love, is not just a thrilling psychological and emotional experience. It is as well a bio-chemical experience, what might be called a “high,” and there are resemblances to a chemical addiction, and withdrawal, which become evident when we break-up. Some of the neuro-chemicals in the brain associated with being in, and out, of love are ‘dopamine,’ ‘serotonin,’ ‘neuroepeniphrine,’ ‘adrenaline’ and ‘phenylethylamine.’ Depending on the level of these chemicals in the blood, we can be ecstatic, or terribly depressed. Some research has shown a similarity in blood chemistry and neural activity in regions of the brain between people in the first stages of love, the infatuation phase, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Most people are aware of ‘testosterone’ and ‘estrogen.’ These hormones, along with ‘pheremones’ are largely responsible for sexual attraction. Pheremones are hormones that are excreted or secreted, rather than remain internal. We often find ourselves attracted to (or repelled by) a person based on their scent. That scent is secreted or excreted chemicals, i.e., pheremones, Although pheremones and hormones may ignite the initial spark of a relationship, they aren’t able to maintain a relationship. The hormones ‘oxytocin’ and ‘vasopressin’ are released in the body during the heights and climax of sexual intercourse and reinforce the attachment and bonding that occurs from physical intimacy. If a couple were to meet and fall in love, and then take some medication that dampened these love chemicals, they would find themselves rather indifferent about their affections for each other. After years, or decades, of marriage, couples fall out of love due in large part to the waning of these chemicals. One or both partners may seek extra marital affairs to again feel the thrilling flow of those hormones through the blood. The despair we experience after a break-up is not because we are estranged from our loved one, but because the love chemicals in the blood are no longer there, they have diminished, or vanished. If those same love chemicals could be injected back into the blood, we would feel more than fine. A good solid, stable relationship has built up a bond of affection based on the initial stages of love. That stable affection can then in turn reignite feelings of lust and romantic love, which reinforce the stable long-term relationship. In many love relationships, it is the initial thrill and excitement that is of most interest and when that begins to wane, sexual activity can become more adventurous, which can be a good thing; but it can become overly aggressive, and violent, as well. Affairs outside the primary relationship can develop. The term ‘love addiction’ or ‘sex addiction’ are appropriate because of the chemical basis for these obsessions. It is not the wild sex or the affair we are after, it is the chemicals such activities generate in the blood stream.
Many people seek out drugs, either prescribed medications or illegal substances, to help them cope with the despair of withdrawal that often arrives with a break-up or separation. This, of course, makes perfect sense since the feelings of being in love are chemical in nature. Some drugs can dampen the feelings of despair; some drugs can escalate the feelings of euphoria. Neither one of them is a truly satisfactory solution to the break-up. There is however, a healthy way of responding to the despair a break-up can leave us with:
1) Exercise. There is such a close proximity of the word ‘exercise’ to the word ‘exorcise’ that one has to consider exercise as a way of exorcising the demons of chemical imbalance. Exercise has been shown to release neuro-chemicals that make one happy, even ecstatic, without being in love with someone. It is in fact the same chemicals, but produced in a different context, a self initiated context, one that is not dependent upon another person. Exercise not only produces these happy chemicals, it teaches us that we can generate them on our own; we become more autonomous, more stable within ourselves. It’s just a matter of doing it.
2) Proper Diet. Don’t eat junk. If there is any truth to the adage ‘we are what we eat,’ then if we eat junk, we are going to become junk, and feel like junk. If you have just broken up from a love relationship, you already feel like junk. It doesn’t help to compound the problem. Decide to eat well. Do your own little research project on what that would look like for you. Get to know your proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
3) Positive Focus. It’s often found that before a person fell in love, they were doing well enough in life. They held a job, had a variety of activities they enjoyed, good friends, interests, hobbies… And then they met somebody… fell in love… and lost all focus on the elements that had made up their life in favor of this one person. That positive focus needs to be regained. Those elements of one’s life gave it meaning, purpose and satisfaction. Reach out to friends, take up that hobby again, rekindle the interests that were enjoyable, fun and rewarding. It is an act of will and determination at first. But, you will soon find yourself in that good groove again. And, when you next find yourself in a love relationship, don’t forego these important elements of your life.
4) Talk story. If you have a close friend, relative, or even parent, who is supportive, caring and non-judgmental, share with them your story. You may have neglected them in favor of your now non-partner, but you can reach out again to them. Share with them your thoughts and feelings. It can be very helpful. If you do not have such a support person in your life seek out professional counseling. By talking it out, you can objectify what has happened to you and that can help you see things more clearly.
5) Meditation. Take time to be by yourself.
a. A long solitary walk can do wonders for the soul. While walking, recall the blessings in your life, all the good things you have had, and have now. Breathe deeply and walk with confidence that you are a capable person able to meet the challenges that life brings to you around any corner.
b. Sitting quietly alone, without music, television or other distractions is healing. There is a saying ‘feel it to heal it’ and meditation can be the perfect opportunity to do just that. This type of meditation is not about gaining a peaceful state of mind, it is not about obtaining insight or enlightenment; it is about feeling the pain, not denying or avoiding the hurt but rather acknowledging it, even honoring it, as a human experience we are all prone to. During this kind of meditation, upsurges of emotion are to be expected. If the urge to cry emerges, it is to be allowed. Crying is one of the best ways of releasing pent up painful emotional energies. Don’t be ashamed, don’t be shy…let the healing balm of salt-water tears cry out….
c. Visualization is a form of meditation in which we see, clearly, in the mind’s eye, with detail, an image of our choosing. Visualize yourself healthy, happy, friendly, understanding, strong and stable. Add affirmative statements to your visualizations that reinforce your worthiness and value as a person. Be aware that the mind does not register negative goals. That is, if you say, “I will no longer think about (name of person), the mind only hears “think about (name of person).” It does no register the ‘I will no longer’ part. So, you would rephrase it to say something like ‘I now think clearly about my immediate tasks at hand.”
6) Masturbation. This can be a sensitive topic; however, there is enough objective information based on decades of research to say it is both normal and healthy, for both sexes, at any time, not just after a break-up. As the writer/director/film-maker Woody Allen said in his classic movie “Annie Hall,” “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with somebody I love.” Masturbation may be a necessary component of the ‘withdrawal’ from sexual activity with a partner. Furthermore, it is known to produce happy chemicals and reduce sexual stress and tension. If you are inhibited, anxious or concerned about this very common behavior, you may need to do some research and reading. There is plenty of reputable studies and sound advice out there.
7) Future Orientation. The mind is ‘teleological’ by design. That means it is goal directed. If you continue to think about the past, the mind will tend to take you in that direction. You will repeat old patterns, maintain old thoughts and beliefs. If you think about the future, where you are headed, the mind will focus in that direction. You will generate new thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and strategies to get you moving that way. Perhaps you have heard it said that ‘the grass is greenest where it is watered the most.’ Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. Focus on your goals, not on your obstacles. Focus on your successes, not on your mistakes or failures. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
8) Know yourself. Self-knowledge is a life long developmental task. Recognize the break-up or separation despair you feel now as part of the self-knowledge curriculum. And, consider the love you have lost, and the despair you have found, as a stepping-stone to an expanded self-awareness, and a greater capacity for compassion. There are clearly risks in a love relationship. You can be hurt, even devastated. And yet, new life does rise up out of the ashes. Although you may think your heart is broken and you can never love again, your heart can also be viewed as opened, for, indeed, a broken heart is an opened heart, and able to become more capable of loving, and being loved, than it has ever been before.
Ken Fields is a nationally certified licensed mental health counselor. With over 25 years in the mental health field, he has worked as as an individual and family therapist throughout school districts and within communities, a crisis intervention counselor, a clinical supervisor and an administrator in a human service agency. He has taught classes in meditation, visualization, goal setting, self-image psychology, anger and stress management, negotiation, mediation and communication, crisis intervention, and parenting. Mr. Fields specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Family Systems Therapy and Communication Coaching. As a practicing counseling psychologist, Mr. Fields brings decades of specialized training and applied skills to his work. He now provides quality online counseling and can be found at http://www.openmindcounseling.com