Brain Studies Show Why We Can 't Let Go of Former Loves

Carol Lennox by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

So many of us continue to let exes live rent free in our heads, lug our baggage around with us, and wear our bleeding hearts on our sleeves as if they’re badges of honor. All the cliches. Why is it so hard to let go?

In the distant past, I’ve called or texted a lover to the point of absurdity. I did it so many times in one evening my sister, Elaine Cole commented, “Carol, we’re simply going to have to do something about this obsessive/compulsive behavior.” Bear in mind, she isn’t the therapist — I am. And she was right.

I was with that same guy off and on for four years. Way too long, given his tendency to disappear and cheat. Even so, when he moved out without warning, I went to his new apartment, and in a dress and sandals, climbed the stair railing onto his second floor balcony, and knocked on the french doors.

We don’t plan to do these unhinged things. We claim it’s love that makes us become someone even we don’t recognize. What causes such irrational responses, and why is it so difficult to release someone who we believe loved us? Neuroscience is showing us it’s the fault of biology, evolution, and brain chemistry.

Love itself seems to be hardwired into our biology. It’s why we “fall in love”in the first place. Moreover, it’s why our brain encourages the love/lust/attraction we feel at one time for someone to stay around like an unwanted guest after a breakup. Or like a rejected lover who won’t go away.

If love is indeed hardwired, how do we ever let go? We can’t eliminate the hardwiring, but there may be ways to soften the negative aspects of it. We can change the software. We can even write our own. Let’s look at the hardwiring first.

From the perspective of neuroscience, “Love is a complex neurobiological phenomenon,” that’s been hardwired into our biology through evolution. “Relying on trust, belief, pleasure, and reward activities” concentrated in the limbic system (Esch and Stefano 2005), humans have been conditioned to bond, attach, and stay together, at least long enough to raise offspring. The original basis of love, and the development of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides in the brain that encourage attachment, is to assure the survival of the species. That’s a powerful primal reason to continue loving those we once loved.

Oxytocin, the bonding neuropeptide released between mother and baby when the baby nurses, is the same one released during sexual activity. Vasopressin is a neurpeptide released during attraction to promote the desire to bond. These two chemicals create feelings of calm and security, something we all crave. Thus, the more you make love, the more you, in effect, “make love.”

When and how do the feelings of calm and security in a love relationship become drama and climbing stair railings? When the loved object leaves us. Why not just move on?

Because it’s not just about bonding long enough to raise offspring, which is where love gets complicated. The libido, or experience of lust, is driven by the hormones estrogen and testosterone. The type of romantic love we see in movies, or that drives us mad in our own lives, is associated with adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. These neurotransmitters create feelings of attraction that cause obsessive thoughts about the person, focused attention, and exhilaration; feelings we call love.

When the exhilaration ends after a breakup, it’s entirely possible that the obsession and focus of attention remain. Whether this is out of habit, is learned behavior, or is a strong desire to feel the exhilaration again, is the million dollar question. I believe it’s all three.

Neuroscience is working on ways to help us let go.

As a therapist, I believe in the use of antidepressants to bring relief to those who enter clinical depression after a break up or loss. Regulating serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, eases the pain we feel when someone breaks up with us. Antidepressants do this by encouraging our brain’s nerve cells to open up, rather than shut down, so these neurotransmitters we produce in our bodies will continue to surge through our brain.

We don’t know why the brain’s nerve cells shut down during depression, but we know keeping them open works to alleviate it. When our own brains are operating as they should, by moving these “feel good” neurotransmitters through, we aren’t so desperate to reclaim our love interest in order to feel okay again.

Other chemical interventions that have been suggested are the use of propranolol to relieve trauma. This Beta Blocker apparently works to dilute or soften the memories of a traumatic relationship or breakup. It works best immediately after a trauma. However, is it really the memories we want erased? Remember the movie “Sunshine of the Eternal Mind?” Erasing the memories didn’t keep the lovers apart.

I, for one, want to keep my memories. Memories teach us many things: about who we were at the time, about what we find pleasurable, and about what we learned from the relationship. Without the memories, or the impact of them, we might go out and pick up the same baggage, just in a different size, shape, or color.

What we want eased, or even erased if possible, are the obsessive thoughts, painful feelings, unrequited longings, and the general insanity. Forgiving could help, but not forgetting, neither the good memories, or the memories of why the relationship didn’t work.

Beyond chemical intervention, how do we release the obsessions, longings, and feelings of unrequited love for someone or the someones in our past?

Use the memories. Not to wallow in the good ones, which fuels the longing to get the positive feelings back in the person of the former love. Use the negative ones, to remind you why the relationship didn’t work. Cognitive Behavioral therapy helps with cognitively reframing the relationship story, and with reminding ourselves what is actually real, rational, and true of our memories and feelings.

More experiential therapists, like I am, may recommend rituals. What I discovered for me, is that the ritual had to be truly my own. It had to be one I came up with.

It’s fine to start with the recommended ones, though. One that I used for my first love was assigned by the leader of a Vision Quest I attended. Writing both the positive and negative memories on pieces of paper, and burning them one by one in the campfire I had built while camping alone in silence, was the beginning of releasing the pain. Still, as the memories limned by bright embers flew into the dark, dark, night, something remained.

Many years later, I was meditating during my birthday trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, my spiritual home. I’ve spent twenty years as a martial artist in Aikido, which is based on sword movements. As I meditated, a vision came of me standing in the middle of a circle, surrounded by the men with whom I’d had an intimate relationship, physically or emotionally.

Connecting each of them to me was a silver cord, held lightly, and forming the appearance of a web. I slowly swung my sword in a circular kata from the center to sever each cord. From their place of freedom from the cords, each man was then free to move forward or away, while I stood free.

The result? A lightness of Being. Freedom. Willingness to try again, if or when the best opportunity arrives. Brain chemistry intact, I can move down my path now, without the baggage, without the regrets, without the web of binding cords. And with the good memories and the powerful lessons learned from having loved and released.

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My purpose is to inspire and inform. You can read more by me on, and on the Good Men Project. I've had a lifetime of valuable experiences, and I want to share the lessons I've learned readily, or been forced to learn. I'm a psychotherapist, a hypnotherapist, a mother to my amazing son, Blake Scott, whom I write about often. I also write about race, equality, social justice, sex, government, and Mindfulness, not in that order.

Austin, TX

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