Can we fall in love?

In May 2020, Omar Ruiz finds himself heartbroken. “My wife told me she was no longer in love with me,” and shortly after, the couple, who had been married for 11 years, separated.

Not only was he crushed, he said, but as a marriage and family therapist, “this whole process challenged my professional identity,” said Mr. Ruiz, who is 36 and lives in Boston. . “How could I help couples when my own marriage is falling apart?”

And so he determined that he needed to fall in love.

“People say grief is normal, so we shouldn’t try to fix it,” said Sandra Langeslag, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studied the effects of ruptures on the brain. But she points out that there are many common and even serious illnesses that we try to cure, so “why shouldn’t we try to help people who are heartbroken and try to move on?”

Heartbreak inspired music, poetry, visual arts, ice-cream filled listening sessions with friends and even a new hotel. And whatever the reason – be it death, cognitive impairment, divorce or otherwise – most who experience it hope to recover and perhaps even fall back. in love with someone new.

But what if we actually had some control over the process? Can you deliberately fall in love? Part of the science says yes.

“You can work on it,” said Helen E. Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior fellow at the Kinsey Institute, who lives in New York. She studies the anatomy of love, and in 2005 studied brain imaging of 100 people using MRIs to identify romantic love circuits.

Dr. Fisher said he discovered that the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, of the brain, which plays a role in the type of circuitry involved in satisfying hunger and thirst or other feelings of reward and well-being. being, activates when you are in love, making it “an urge, not an emotion.” This biological function makes falling out of love as hard as trying not to be thirsty. In other words, it’s not easy.

Kisha Mays, 40, who runs a business consulting firm in Houston, continued to love her former boyfriend even when he was in prison. They were on and off for years, she said, and got back together for two years before he was released in October 2021. Then two months later, she said, he broke up with her.

“Now it’s just about healing, rebuilding and learning to trust again,” Ms Mays said, noting that Reiki and spiritual healing – as well as throwing away all her possessions – have helped.

Dr. Fisher would agree with Ms. Mays’ technique: She suggests treating the recovery process as an addiction and discarding cards, letters and keepsakes that remind you of the person. Do not keep in touch or ask mutual friends how this person is doing. “You’re just waking up the ghost,” she said.

Dr Fisher, which put 17 people who had just been dumped by brain scans, found activity in both the VTA and in brain functions related to attachment and physical pain. “Not physical pain anxiety, but physical pain,” she said.

Dr Langeslag also said there was hope for the broken hearted. She ran two studies to see if people could try to feel less in love. Strategies that worked? First, it helps to have negative thoughts about the person you’re trying to fall in love with. The wrong side? “Thinking negatively makes you feel less in love, but doesn’t make you feel better,” Dr. Langeslag said. “Worse, actually.”

Then what ? Distraction. Think of things that make you happy other than the person you’re trying to fall in love with. It made people happier but no less in love.

The solution? The “one-two punch,” as Dr. Langeslag described it, or: negative thoughts about the person followed by a dose of distraction.

His research revealed that people were able to deliberately diminish their love, but not banish it altogether. According to survey data collected from his self-reported subjects, the average time it took to heal hurt feelings was six months, although healing time depends on several factors, including the length of the relationship.

Rachelle Ramirez, a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon, still remembers a time when negative associations did the trick for her. When she was 15, she had what looked like an incurable crush on a classmate who was far less interested in her.

“When I say his disinterest was excruciating, it’s often taken as teenage melodrama,” said Ms Ramirez, who is now 47. “That assumption falls far short of capturing the pain” she felt thinking of him.

So how did Ms. Ramirez cancel it? “I imagined him covered in vomit and holding dead kittens,” she said. “I know it was extreme, and I wouldn’t suggest everyone try it, but it worked for me.”

Some don’t buy into the idea, whether it’s supported by science or not, that it’s possible to want to fall in love.

Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist in Chicago who specializes in neuropsychological assessment, is wary of the notion of being able to control the breakup. “Love and affection are basic human needs. You can’t deliberately deprive yourself of them. It would be like saying we could consciously choose to stop breathing,” Dr Cook said. not have that power, and pretending we have it is a way for the psyche to trick itself into thinking it’s in control, and that’s an unhealthy coping mechanism.”

“Humans can fall in love with someone, but not on purpose,” she added. “To suggest that humans deliberately act in a way that depletes a basic need goes against the fundamental nature of what makes us human and what science tells us about our species.”

It took more than a year for Mr. Ruiz, the marriage therapist, to successfully fall in love. He said it took a combination of a divorce mediator to help him detach himself more completely from his wife, as well as immerse himself in activities with his friends and family. And the help of a therapist.

“I thank my individual counselor for reminding me that marriage breakdown is a two-way street,” he said. “My ex-wife and I are held responsible for what happened.”

Her therapist “also reminded me that I’m human and I’m as vulnerable to relationship issues as anyone else,” he added.

It helps reframe the notion of falling in love or falling in love, said Damon L. Jacobs, a marriage and family therapist in Manhattan. “Relationships are conduits for more energy, joy and fulfillment, but they are not the only source,” Mr. Jacobs said. Having this mindset, he said, can help you embrace pain with more grace and perspective.

“When things don’t work out,” he said, “we know we’re still amazing, powerful, fierce, loving people who will continue to grow, love, and thrive.”

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