By Jocelyn Voo
CNN.com | October 16, 2007
(LifeWire) -- After a break-up with with your spouse, significant other or love of your life, you might try to remain friends with your ex, slowly cut off contact, or torch every last relic of the relationship.
But one thing is inevitable: Eventually you have to move on. So why is it that some people have a hard time letting go, months or even years after ending a relationship? Although it's natural to mourn the loss of a relationship, some people take such feelings too far.
One example at the extreme end of the spectrum, is Lisa Nowak. The former NASA astronaut and married mother of three was accused earlier this year of trying to kidnap the woman who was dating Nowak's former lover, Navy Cmdr. Bill Oefelein.
Nowak -- who is awaiting trial -- pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping, battery and assault, and the defense has filed notice of intent to claim temporary insanity by citing obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, insomnia and a brief psychotic disorder.
There is scientific evidence of love's grip on the brain.
The addictive nature of love is highlighted in research conducted by Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and author of "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love."
When Fisher applied brain-imaging technology to a group of volunteers looking at photos of their romantic partners, she discovered that the areas of the brain that lit up were the same as those that corresponded to drug addiction.
"When I first started looking at the properties of infatuation, they had some of the same elements of a cocaine high: sleeplessness, loss of a sense of time, absolute focus on love to the detriment of all around you," Fisher said of her research when interviewed by Psychology Today magazine. "Infatuation can overtake the rational parts of your brain."
Although love addiction is not classified in "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV," the official handbook used by mental health professionals in the United States, we are culturally, socially and psychologically groomed to be addicted to love, says Brenda Schaeffer, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based psychologist, certified sexual addiction specialist and author of "Is It Love or Is It Addiction?"
"All addictions address three neuropathways needed for healthy living: arousal, fantasy and satiation," Schaeffer explains. "Food, alcohol, smoking and dependent love addiction are all satiation drugs."
Why can't we let go?
When a relationship ends, not only do you have to struggle with the person's absence, from your life, there is a concomitant chemical withdrawal, Schaeffer said. Even for the most stable, well-balanced individuals, that can be difficult to face.
There are many reasons a person might have difficulty letting go of an ex, Schaeffer says, including a need for control or predictability, fear of the unknown, basing one's self-esteem on how others view them and substituting drama for closeness.
Some people experience actual withdrawal symptoms when a relationship ends, yearning for the high or rush associated with the love interest.
According to Psychology Today, "Levels of phenylethylamine (PEA) -- a chemical in the brain involved in the euphoria that comes with falling in love -- rise with feelings of infatuation, boosting euphoria and excitement. Love and sex addicts may simply be dependent upon (this) physical and psychological arousal triggered by PEA ..." and other factors.
The thought that "this person is the only one for me" is the root of the affliction.
"The fantasies feed the addiction," says Susan Peabody, a love-addiction teacher for 22 years and author of "Addiction To Love: Overcoming Obsession and Dependency in Relationships," who is based in the San Francisco Bay area. "You carry around these fantasies of when the relationship was at its peak, and it's on a loop in your brain."
"Until you fall in love with someone else, it stays with you, and that can go on 20, 30 years," she says.
Since obsessive love addiction is fueled by fantasy, modifying your thoughts is the best way to get over an ex. To break the cycle, Schaeffer outlines the following steps to help people forget the past and focus on the future.
- Assess yourself for love addiction tendencies honestly. Some signs include obsessive thoughts about another person that interfere with your life and feelings of worthlessness or depression when not in a relationship
- Know healthy love exists and how to identify it.
- Be willing to face the pain letting go produces.
- Discover and address the underlying causes and psychological beliefs that support the compulsive/obsessive behavior. Ask yourself questions like, "What do I believe about relationships, love, and myself? Why might I fear closeness? Do I believe people will disappoint me or I will disappoint them?"
- Don't forget the past; utilize it. Acknowledge that you will move beyond any painful experiences and focus on future relationship success.
- Find a support group such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous or a therapist trained in love addiction to help you through this transition.
Here's the good news for people who think the time may be right to cut the cord. A study released in August by Northwestern University indicates that people -- especially those deeply in love -- overestimate how badly they'll feel after a breakup.