Three years as a Psychology undergrad has taught me a lot of things about love – and I don’t mean in the romantic sense. Open any psychology textbook, from GCSE to PhD level and you’ll find a section on forming romantic relationships; how and why they are formed and why they will eventually end. However, there is very little in mainstream psychology teachings regarding break-ups and the emotional baggage they bring with them.
Break ups are painful and, unfortunately, an inevitability of life. Unless you’re very lucky to find ‘the one’ at 16 and live happily ever after, with no arguments, minor break ups or betrayals, heartbreak is coming for you (sorry in advance). This article comes after hearing that a young girl I work with has recently broken up with her first serious boyfriend and it got me thinking about my first boyfriend at the age of 15 – looking back, I was distraught, I felt as if it was the end of the world and I would never, ever love again. Six years later and a few more relationships under my belt, I feel so silly that I was ever so upset over something so insignificant. But here’s the thing, no matter how young you were or how short the relationship was, losing your first love hurts the most.
When a relationship ends, your body and emotions are in a tangle. You feel rejected, you want to reconcile, but you’re also so angry and so hurt you never want to see the person again but yet can’t stop yourself when it comes to embarassing late night calls, ominous texts or stalkerish behaviour (don’t pretend none of you have ever deliberately gone somewhere you know your ex will be, like some crazy masochist). When they say love is a drug – they really mean it!
In 2010, a psychological study (Sorry, I’m about to get nerd on you!) found that people who had recently been broken up with and were reportedly still ‘in love’ with the rejector showed similar patterns of blood flow in the brain whilst looking at photos of their lost love ones that drug addicts experience when looking at provocative photos of drugs. These findings go some way to explaining why heartbreak has such an adverse affect on us – our brains still associate the person with pleasant rewards (like nicotine to a smoker) and when we do not receive the ‘reward’ our body begins to go through withdrawals, hence the sometimes slightly maniac attempts to get in touch with our exes.
When it comes to explaining why the first-love-heartbreak is the worst, I can tell you that, similarly to drug addicts, your brain creates thousands upon thousands of neural circuits associated with that person, be it the warm fuzzy feeling you get, the happy memories or seeing their favourite programme on the T.V. When you go through a break up, all these neural circuits then have to be brought up and readjusted in order to register the person’s absence. I’d like to believe that this is akin to the function of a vaccination – when you first experience heart break – this is the antigenic material that teaches your brain how to react and ‘fix’ the problem, and as the years go on and you get hurt again and again, the brain gets more efficent at dissmissing the feelings of heartbreak at a faster pace – clever little brain, eh?
The bottom line is that love hurts and short of going to love rehab where dozens of scorned women sit around watching repeats of bridget jones and eating tubs of phish food or undergo a complete frontal lobotomy, you’re just going to have to experience it and learn from that experience and move forward. I believe the break up is, in many cases, more of a profound experience than the relationship, this is where you learn about yourself (and usually the other person). Break ups teach you to love yourself again, independent of someone else, and I think that is the most invaluable thing you will ever learn.