Heartbreak Has No Gray Zone

Photo: Malte Mueller/Getty Images/fStop

The arc of an ideal breakup is that it goes from being exquisitely painful to (1) being less painful but still pretty bad, (2) eventually becoming not all that painful anymore, to (3) occasional pangs of anguish, which in time become almost nice — unless I’m completely alone in this. (These pangs are along the lines of: Oh yeah, remember so-and-so? Isn’t it crazy how everything can change?)

Anyway, this trajectory of “devastation into eventual healing and moving forward” makes sense in light of a recent Elemental story outlining how heartbreak might be literally withdrawal, on a chemical level, similar to drug withdrawal. The brain is essentially “addicted” to love, writes Rosemary Guerguerian in a story referencing anthropologist Helen Fisher’s 2004 book Why We Love, and abruptly being cut off from a source of pleasure and comfort can be the same as going cold turkey from a controlled substance, such as nicotine or cocaine.

The withdrawal parallel also makes the sacrosanct post-breakup rule of going a full two (or three, or three thousand) weeks without being in contact with the person who broke your heart seem especially sensible: You’re detoxing. You’re in withdrawal. Even the smallest dose will set you back to the beginning. It’s like Dua Lipa said: “Don’t pick up the phone … don’t let him in … don’t be his friend.”

Get it all out of your system, fully, and then think about what to do next. Do not muddy the waters. Just don’t freaking do it! Sorry, I got carried away. I feel strongly about this. In some things there are no gray zones. This includes looking up recent exes on social media, gazing wistfully at pictures on your phone, and engaging in any sort of communication with the person whatsoever. Just don’t do it! Don’t do this to yourself!!

In related heartbreak content, NPR recently resurfaced psychologist Guy Winch’s famous 12-minute heartbreak talk from 2017. The talk has 9 million views and can be summarized thusly: Why is heartbreak so pernicious, irrational, and devastating? Again, it’s because love is addicting, and being heartbroken is like going through withdrawal. But more than that, your memories of the person who broke your heart can act like a poor man’s substitute for the initial “drug,” thereby prolonging your pain, addiction, and withdrawal — depending on which of those memories you choose to play and replay. As Winch puts it: “Since [my patient Kathy] could not have the heroin of actually being with Rich, her unconscious mind chose the methadone of her memories with him.”

The way to get over heartbreak, in Winch’s telling, is to make an exhaustive list of all the things that were wrong with your ex, and keep that list close by. “Keep it on your phone,” he says. And then read the list whenever you start to feel nostalgic. Their feet smelled, they insulted you when you were cheerful, whatever. Close the void and move on.

Heartbreak Has No Gray Zone