"The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost." - G.K. Chesterton
*note: This is the last part in my love series of: What Love Is; When Love Begins; What Love Does; When Love Ends. I’ve been reading these three books about love since last summer, and I’ll be sharing their insights for four weeks. In a brief overview, The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, a marriage counselor for over 40 years, is about the different ways we receive and show our love. Why We Love? by prominent anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D examines love from a biological and chemical level, and focuses a lot on what’s happening in our brain. Lastly, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, renowned psychoanalyst and social philosopher, is a classic that explores the deep complexities of love.
The story of Cinderella has been retold countless times throughout centuries and different cultures. There are constant adaptations to it, and yet it remains a timeless classic. I’ve always wondered why this particular fairy tale is still so popular and known. Regardless of whether you like this story or not, it portrays a truth about love that we all long for and anyone can relate to. The prince was in a crowded ballroom with many gorgeous women of high rank and status, all pining for his attention. Yet, out of everyone in the room, only one caught his eye. We live day to day meeting many people, some who would make ideal partners, some who wouldn’t, and yet we end up only wanting one person. Finding that one person is not easy. What if Cinderella never would’ve shown up? Would the prince have picked someone else to marry? Would he have fallen in love, or lived loveless?
There are so many factors that go into finding the right person to fall in love with. Fisher explains that timing, proximity, and mystery are only a few of the ingredients. She says we all have a love map that is built up by our experiences, the way we were raised, our lifestyles, religious and political beliefs, etc. Commonly, we seek people who are like ourselves, but who are still mysterious to us. We generally seek “the same ethnic, social, religious, educational, and economic background, who have similar amount of physical attractiveness, a comparable intelligence, and similar attitudes, expectations, values, interests, and social and communication skills,” says Fisher (pg. 103). Those are a lot of ingredients, which is why love can be so hard to find, and why we hold on desperately when we find it.
I’ve dated different people, and have had many crushes. I’m a very hopeful person, and every new prospect excites me. Despite my hopefulness, I’ve learned that it’s very hard to find someone who I can really like, and far more difficult to fall in love. There have been three guys in my life who I was inexplicably absolutely crazy for, yet I only had a relationship with one of them, which was my first relationship. When I had moved on from that relationship, I thought it’d be easy to find someone else amazing. It’s not. For the other two guys, other circumstances were at work. For one, he was emotionally not ready for a relationship. The other was not ready to commit and just wanted to have fun. It was bad timing. Throughout my experiences, I’ve learned a truth about love: it sucks, it’s not easy to find, but it’s still worth seeking.
Love makes us so hopeful, and the widespread popularity of online dating can attest to the fervent search for love that many seek. Fromm wisely comments, “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love” (pg. 4). Fisher adds that there are two basic types of romantic love: “reciprocated love - associated with fulfillment and ecstasy; and unrequited love - associated with emptiness, anxiety, and sorrow" (pg. 25). There are also different types of rejected love – either your love was never returned, the other person stopped loving you, or obstacles kept you and your beloved apart. Fisher says, “Almost no one in the world escapes the feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, fear, and fury that rejection can create” (pg. 153). Almost every person has been on either end of rejected love, doing the rejecting or being rejected. Fisher cites that “Among college students at Case Western Reserve, 93 percent of both sexes reported that they had been spurred by someone they passionately loved. Ninety-five percent also said they had rejected someone who was deeply in love with them” (pg. 153).
On the rare chance that we find love, it makes us blissfully happy and crazy. And, as I mentioned in previous posts, the in love experience is temporary and either fades into the end of the relationship or to a more committed one. When it fades, Fromm explains, “The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, they take their intensity of the infatuation, this being "crazy" about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness” (pg. 4). Then the relationship ends, and the lovers have to part, which is possibly the saddest experience we can ever know. Fisher quotes Emily Dickinson about this experience, who said, “Parting is all we need to know of hell.”
When I first fell in love, and then lost that love, I became certain that we as humans were only meant to stay with and love one person for our entire life. The emotional and physical attachment you feel when in love, combined with the complete agony of separation just led me to believe that we were not meant to experience such pain. Yet Fisher has found that humans are among only 3 percent of mammals who pair up to raise their offspring. Further, it’s common for parents (human or animal) to separate after the child is old enough to fend for his/herself. “Everywhere in the world where people are permitted to divorce (and economically can divorce), many do,” says Fisher (pg. 132).
In studying the trends of separation, she found that “couples around the world who divorced, tended to part during and around the fourth year of marriage, in their middle twenties and/or with a single dependent child” (pg. 133). There were many exceptions to this, but this looked like a common pattern. From her data, and from the experiences of all the failed relationships that happen in or outside of marriage, it just seems like love is most often destined to fail rather than succeed. When that love fails, we go through two necessary stages: protest and resignation.
Protest, the first stage of heartbreak, is when we are “overcome by longing and nostalgia.” After all that wasted time and energy finding and securing our partner, when it’s over, we’re willing to fight to get it back. Fisher says, “they devote almost all of their time, their energy, and their attention to their departing mate. Their obsession: reunion with their lover” (pg. 161). When your love has been rejected, all you desire is to be with your loved one again, which causes you to do some crazy and irrational things, searching for the smallest sign that things can work out again. Protesting is correlated with the first three stages of grief, which are denial, anger, and bargaining. The reason for this protest is that all the chemicals associated with romantic love – dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – increase to potent levels, “intensifying ardent passion, fear, and anxiety, and impelling us to protest and try with all our strength to secure our reward: the departing loved one” (pg. 163). Similar to the way a glass of alcohol can make your feel at ease and happy, but too much can make you lose control and do irrational things you'll regret later.
A lot of side effects are happening in this stage, which Fisher explains on a chemical and psychological level. You experience frustration attraction, which is when your romantic passion intensifies because there is an obstacle. When you feel your partner slipping from you, you get a renewed energy to keep them with you. This can also be applied to the beginning stage of love. When the one you love is out of reach, or you have to work really hard to get them, your passion is inflamed. Fisher explains that when an expected reward is delayed, the dopamine-producing neurons in your brain work for an extended period of time, which increases your levels of dopamine. “Very high levels of dopamine are associated with intense motivation and goal-directed behaviors, as well as with anxiety and fear,” says Fisher (pg. 162). Basically, when you can’t have the object of your love, your dopamine levels rise to increase your motivation to obtain this love.
When a relationship has ended, you’ll also experience separation anxiety, which is “generated by the panic system in the brain - a complex brain network that makes one feel weak, short of breath, and panicky” (pg. 163). I remember once experiencing this anxiety very clearly the day after my first relationship ended. I was eighteen, and my mom went to work, taking the car with her. I woke up realizing how alone I was, and tried calling all of my friends. I was shaky and had trouble breathing. When only one answered, but was busy, I panicked even more. I dreaded the thought of staying home all day being left alone with my thoughts and my pain. I had to get out of my house. So, I walked 15-20 minutes to my uncle’s house, because I knew even if he wasn’t home, there’d be a lot of comforting animals there (plus I had a key to his house).
Abandonment rage is the most interesting and complex thing that happens to us after our love has been rejected. Love and hate are intricately linked in our brains. The circuits for both follow pathways that run through similar regions in the brain. Rage is triggered in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala when an expected reward is in jeopardy or unattainable (pg. 164). Our brain functioning drives us to try to get something or someone we want. When we can’t have it, we get mad, like when a child can’t have a toy. Frustration-aggression is the “rage response to unfilled expectations” (pg. 164).
What’s really interesting about this rage is that it serves a really important purpose. Many psychologists have theories about this purpose, but Fisher’s seems the most accurate. Its purpose is “to drive disappointed lovers to extricate themselves from dead-end matches, lick their wounds, and resume their quest for love in greener pastures” (pg. 166). Think about how mad you get after a relationship has ended, or someone has rejected you. Usually, you’re filled with thoughts like, “I never want to see him/her again;” “I want nothing to do with that person.” You need to get angry, so that you don’t go back to them, because the relationship probably ended for a reason, and should stay ended. Or that person doesn’t want to be with you anymore, so rage helps you to stop trying to go after someone who it’s never going to work out with. It’s nature’s “powerful purgative mechanism to help us release a rejecting mate and get on with living,” says Fisher (pg. 167).
When all the fueled hectic emotions of the protest stage fade, you’ve come to the second stage, which is resignation and despair. In the five stages of grief, this would be depression, the fourth step. This is the stage where the disappointed lover gives up. Your energy to try to get your old love back is spent. You suffer from the despair response, which is the “deep sadness and depression triggered by loss of a loved one” (pg. 168). Fisher found that “in a study of 114 men and women who had been rejected by a partner within the past eight weeks, over 40 percent were experiencing "clinically measurable depression"; of these, some 12 percent displayed moderate to severe depression” (pg. 168). Chemically, your brain is responding to hopelessness. Fisher says, “As the abandoned partner gradually realizes that the reward will never come, the dopamine-making cells in the midbrain (that became so active during the protest phase) now decrease their activity. And diminishing levels of dopamine are associated with lethargy, despondency, and depression” (pg. 170).
Just like rage has a purpose in our healing and moving on process, so does depression. Some scientists believe that the original intention of depression is shown in abandoned infant mammals. It was “to conserve stamina, discourage them from wandering until their mother returns, and keep them quiet and thus protected from predators” (pg. 170). Fisher believes that depression pushes us to abandon hopeless relationships, so that we can pursue other successful ones. Just like anger pushes you to not want anything to do with your former lover, once that anger subsides, then depression makes sure you remain hopeless about any prospect with him or her. Sadly, this hopelessness is projected to life and love in general. It reminds me of The Princess Bride when Buttercup says, “I will never love again.” We truly believe these words in our despair.
There are better benefits to depression than mere hopelessness, which doesn’t seem like a benefit at all when you are experiencing it. Fisher says, “Mildly depressed people make clearer assessments of themselves and others... Even severe and prolonged depression can push a person to accept unhappy facts, make decisions, and resolve conflicts that will ultimately promote their survival and capacity to reproduce” (pg. 172). The whole purpose of depression after you’ve lost a loved one, is to help you to move on to someone better, or more suited for you. While you are in love, you can’t think straight, and believe that the person you’re with is nearly perfect. When it has ended, anger drives you away, and sadness helps you reflect and learn. During this depression is when you can reach the final stage of grief, which is acceptance, though it’s a very long and difficult process to get there.
Fisher says many psychologist believe that love is an addiction, “a positive addiction when your love is returned, a horribly negative fixation when your love is spurned and you can't let go” (pg. 182). Interestingly, “drugs of abuse” and love both directly or indirectly affect the same pathway in the brain, the mesolimbic award system, which is activated by dopamine. Brain scans of people in love compared to those who just injected cocaine or opioids show that many of the same brain regions become active.
Lovers show the three classic symptoms of addiction, which are tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse (pg. 183). In the beginning of your love, you’ll crave your partner and can’t get enough of them. If the partner ends the relationship, “the lover shows common signs of drug withdrawal, including depression, crying spells, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), irritability, and chronic loneliness” (pg. 183). Then the rejected lover goes through unhealthy and humiliating lengths to get their “narcotic.” When lovers relapse, it’s the same way that drug addicts do, “Long after the relationship is over, simple events... can trigger the lover's craving and initiate compulsive calling or writing to get another "high"” (pg. 183).
Is there any end to heartbreak and can people truly move on? Yes, because people do it every day. Fisher explains that there are a lot of things you can do to help you get over a former love, but the first and most important thing is to get rid of everything that reminds you of him or her and end all contact. She quotes Charles Dickens who said, “Love... will thrive for a considerable time on a very slight and sparing food.” Another really important concept to use comes from any 12-step program, “One day at a time.” And of course, the dreaded true advice that everyone gives is time. Fisher reassures us that, “your addiction to a former lover will eventually subside. We heal. Sometimes it takes a few weeks. More normally it takes months. Often it takes more than two years of separation” (pg. 191).
“People never forget a true love, of course,” says Fisher (pg. 192). I also believe that true love never truly dies. I’ve written about my first love in a post called, “Do you ever forget your first love?” and I’ve mentioned him enough times throughout different posts. That’s because he will forever be important to me. A couple years after our break up, we spoke to each other and both admitted that we would always love each other, just not in the same way we once did. I'm not the only one who believes love lasts forever. An old coworker who was a little over forty had just ended a twenty year marriage when I met her. She was full of rage when she spoke about her ex-husband, but she also told me that it's because she would always love him. It didn't mean she would ever be with him again, nor did she want to. In fact, because she loved him, she wanted nothing to do with him.
Firsts love shape how you love, and sometimes even who you end up loving. Though I haven’t lived an easy life, my break up with my first love is probably the most agonizing pain I’ve ever suffered. I was depressed for months. I felt hollow inside for weeks. I remember feeling like someone had brutally torn a limb from my body. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t ever find love again. It took two years for me to move on from him, and another year to let go of the thought of ever having him back in my life. Though I’ve never known a pain like separating from him, and I would never want to relive it, it was completely worth it, because it meant that I loved just as deep as my pain went.
Fromm says that to love, you need faith and courage. He explains, “To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment” (pg. 116). To truly love someone is one of the bravest things anyone can ever do. It is the risk of allowing someone else to hurt you in a way no one else can. Fromm adds, “while one is consciously afraid of not being loved, the real, though usually unconscious fear is that of loving. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee” (pg. 118). When you let yourself love someone, you can’t make them love you back. If they do love you back, you can’t make them love you the right way. And if their love for you ever ends, you can’t make it return. All you can do is have faith, trust, and hope that you find what you’re looking for.
Chapman notes, “Love doesn't erase the past, but it makes the future different” (pg. 132). If you are ever lucky enough to find love, it will be the best thing that has ever happened to you. If that love ever ends, it will be the worst. Regardless of what happens, it will change you. If you’ve ever lost a love, don’t give up hope, because Fisher says, “of all the cures for a bad romance, by far the most effective is to find a new lover to fill your heart” (pg. 192). Your lost or rejected love was a learning experience at the least, and now you can begin anew. Fisher has studied passionate love and rejected love across different cultures and people, and she provides the most reassuring insight I’ve come across – “We were built to love and love again” (pg. 152).
The 5 Love Languages the secret to love that lasts by Gary Chapman
Why We Love? by Helen Fisher
The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm