Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Why is it difficult to end a relationship?


They say that love blinds us. For neuroscience, this is true: some regions of the brain responsible for social judgments – whether a person is trustworthy or not, for example – are less active when we contemplate the object of our passion, be it a child or a boyfriend. Maybe that’s why they tend to look cooler in our eyes than in others’. Come to think of it, if we all have faults, how many couples would fail to form without the help of a little mutual blindness to small problems?

Social love blindness may even explain why, when things go wrong, those who aren’t involved can see enough reasons to end a relationship more easily than the parties concerned: the guy is a creep, her jealousy is sick, he’s never home, she likes someone else.

However, even when the blindness wears off and we’re aware that we want someone who mistreats, despises, ignores and sometimes even rejects us, the brain’s first reaction can be… to insist even more on winning back the love of the person in question. Friends, whose brains have not been influenced by so-and-so, repeat that we are better off without him or her. We know that, but… Why can it be so difficult to say “enough” to a bad relationship? Masochism? Guilt? Karma?

In a way, addiction. A person’s love is perhaps the best of addictions: something we want more of, and always, and for which we do whatever it takes. It stimulates the brain’s reward system, which brings us pleasure, well-being and happiness – and makes us want more of all this with that person. The expectation of the pleasure of being with them is motivation enough to seek them out.

The problem is that, curiously, when what caused pleasure in the past stops working, or only works sometimes, the reward system responds for a while to these memories with even greater activation, which motivates the brain to dwell on the subject almost obsessively until it regains its former well-being. This is exactly what makes us press the button on the remote control whose battery has run out dozens of times in a row, ever more desperately. You see that it no longer works – but what if, thanks to luck or your charm, it does?

If it does, great – or not, because if the lull is only temporary, it’s all over again soon. And if it doesn’t, there’s only one recipe for rehabilitation: time, abstinence and other pleasures.

Originally published in May 2007 on Folha de São Paulo.

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