A couple of years ago, I had one of those heart-smashing, can’t-get-out-of-bed, answerless breakups. It was the end of a year-long hot-and-cold, can’t-live-without-you type narrative where, in the end, I was ready to risk it all for the relationship—and my lover simply wasn’t. Even though friends, a wise therapist, and even a helpful stranger or two were kind enough to explain what had led me to this pain (read: I was an emotional band-aid for a man in desperate need of one), I couldn’t seem to cope. I knew the truth, but instead of setting me free, it felt like I was trapped in a love I knew was no longer good for me. I needed more information on why I couldn’t stop hurting.
In the throes of a vicious cycle tears and questions, I turned to the only thing I had left for answers: science. In the last 20 years, a new research frontier has opened up about the biochemistry of love, from revealing studies to TED talks, which in turn are helping us understand more than we ever have about the chemical and physiological facts behind love. And in August 2023, Vanderpump Rules star Raquel Leviss explained part of the reason for her scandalous affair with Tom Sandoval had to do with a phenomenon known as love addiction. If, like me, you’ve ever experienced the soul-sucking, crushing power of an unrequited or messy romance, you might also find solace in these eye-opening facts.
Falling in Love Really Can Happen in the Blink of an Eye.
According to a 2010 Journal of Sexual Medicine study, “it takes all of a fifth of a second for that truly, madly, deeply feeling to register.” Yes, that’s science confirming that a look in a bar or the start of a hello from the right (or wrong) person, and you’re toast, due to a mix of brain chemicals when we see the face of an “engaging individual” that create an intense rush of arousal and pleasure that we experience as love. For me, it took about 30 seconds to happen—before I’d finished even introducing myself—for the spark to take hold.
Rejection in Love Can be Like Quitting Cocaine.
A 2010 research article in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that “looking at [a photograph of] a romantic rejecter and cocaine craving has several neural correlates in common,” thanks to complex neural and biological systems we have that are connected with reward and emotion. Given this, social media stalking your ex (and his new hot girlfriend) is akin to a gateway drug and your drug dealer rolled into one. So, while it may scratch some deep and addictive masochistic itch, proceed in your stalking an ex with serious caution.
Love Makes You See Things with Rose-Colored Glasses.
When you’re in love, you experience a rush of brain chemicals called dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin, all of which promote feelings of pleasure, attraction, trust, arousal, and obsessive thinking. And there’s more: This combo of chemicals also makes you feel less sadness, anxiety and fear. Essentially, your brain while in love is creating those rose-colored glasses that you’re seeing your partner with. At this moment, I’d like to take a minute to go back in time and alert myself to the danger of ignoring my hint of anxiety about the red flags my ex showed me in the beginning—anxiety that those love chemicals were all too ready to suppress.
Love Addiction is Real, Science-Proven Phenomenon.
According to a 2010 research article in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, love addiction is disturbingly similar to drug addiction, and refers to a pattern of repeat behavior that feels so amazing that it leads to an obsessive craving to be with your object of desire—at first. But over time, those feelings of elation are followed by a lack of ability to function in your life as you once did. In other words, an inability to focus at work, listen to your friends talk about their problems, or be invested in healthy hobbies or relationships outside this one. Sound familiar? It did for me.
Interestingly, this kind of pattern usually happens in relationship dynamics that lack intimacy and growth (read: mind games, commitment-phobia, or hot-and-cold behavior). But don’t start shaming yourself. Being addicted to love isn’t uncommon—some research indicates that five to 10 percent of the population may suffer from it—and I can only speculate this has gotten worse thanks to social media.
You Can Heal a Love Addiction Like a Drug Addiction.
“Heartbreak—or withdrawal from addiction to a person—could certainly be treated like drug abuse withdrawal, and a coping mechanism could be like a 12-step program,” says Dr. Lucy Brown, Ph.D, Clinical Professor in the Department of Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine. Brown co-authored a 2016 research paper which found that some of the most healing activities for a breakup can be starting new habits, finding fresh interests, medication or therapy, and to simply wait out the days and nights of cravings—they will slow down over time, take it from me, who once believed it was impossible.
Your Brain Really is Working Slower After a Breakup.
If, after a breakup, you feel like your mind has turned to mush and you’re not able to come up with witty responses or on-point ideas at work, you’re not being paranoid. A 2011 study in Neuropsychobiology found that post-break up brain function in comparison to brains happily in love exhibited clinical depression symptoms as well as reduced blood oxygen level dependency. In other words, your brain isn’t operating at its normal speed, and that’s related to the fact that it’s being deprived of all those feel-good chemicals I mentioned earlier. Consider this your excuse to eat a pint of ice cream (or in my case, a basket of fries; sugar and carbs can help immediately alleviate blue feelings and low energy—just don’t make it a regular habit.
You Won’t Feel This Way Forever.
There’s no exact science for how long you’ll feel like shit after heartbreak (the same way recovering from a hangover can take some people an hour or a day). “Time to recovery varies a lot depending on the person, length of the relationship, and the ways one chooses to deal with it,” says Brown. “It may take two months, six, or even a year if no one else turns up to have a relationship with. A great way to get over heartbreak is to find someone else and fall in love again—or reinvent yourself and your life, which can help too.” Though I am all for finding new love, I’d like to encourage those of you heartsick out there to first seize the opportunity for a reinvention of some kind—I know from experience that it can take you places you never thought you’d make it.
In the end, learning the science behind love, addition, and heartbreak didn’t really shift the pain of rejection and the grief of loss, but it did help ground me in cause and effect. I was able to step back and give myself a break from the desperate need to be over it all, and fast. Yes, my heart needed to heal and I needed to process what had happened in the failed relationship—but I also needed to give my body and brain time to catch up, too. This knowledge gave me a sense of understanding and wherewithal going forward—and, even better, knowledge to help check the natural (chemical, biological!) reactions to falling in love again in the future.