To recap from my first Answer for Everything post, according to Charles Duhigg, the habit loop is a cue => routine =>reward. For your brain, the reward comes in the form of dopamine. A craving is registering the reward before completing the routine. The craving becomes an expectation, and if/when that expectation is not achieved, your brain produces anxiety chemicals in the absence of dopamine.
The habit loop explains what makes love, or unrequited love, so complicated. Because someone else is now in control of completing your habit loop. In a romantic relationship, you are handing over what limited control you have over yourself to someone else; and based on your actions, you are trusting someone else to satisfy your cravings and complete your habit loop; and that’s just when that person feels the same and there is a mutual attraction. When a crush or attraction is unrequited, or you break up with someone, it is like a craving you can’t satisfy, creating anxiety and obsessive or impulsive behavior (Greenberg).
Have you ever had a craving so strong you say something like, “man, I would KILL for a cheeseburger.” The beauty being you can just go out and get one — if you can’t exercise self-control. But a craving in the form of attraction is not as simple. You don’t want to satisfy one craving. Instead, it is a layered and multifaceted form of reciprocation involving the need for closeness, touch, validation, security, routine and love. That is what it means when people say, “I am yours and you are mine.” That limited control over what was once yours is now theirs. That is why trust is so important. To an extent you are now responsible for their feelings and the choices you make directly affect that person and vice versa.
There are areas where this dynamic can turn into codependency or the opportunity to gaslight and manipulate, but at the very least it is something special. That is why it stays with us for so long, even after it’s gone. Like in Outlander Season 3 when Jamie Fraser’s brother-in-law compares his amputated leg to Jamies broken heart, “feeling a pain in a part of ye that’s lost”. It feels like it is still there, and even though you know it’s not, somehow it will always be a part of you.
Saying your heart belongs to someone doesn’t mean it is a possession, a commodity or even worse, something you are entitled to. It means you’ve found a place where it belongs, and that is with another heart and soul. Similar to another Outlander example where Jamie says, “love is when you give your heart to someone and they give you theirs in return.” It means you made a conscious choice to love someone and in that sense, your heart belongs to them because now it is theirs and no one else’s.
It reminds me of Westworld Season 2, when Kohana says to her husband Akecheta before he leaves, “Take my heart when you go,” and he responds, “Take mine in its place.” You have made a mutual exchange and loving someone means your heart doesn’t just belong to you anymore.
This is why if/when it doesn’t workout you feel like something was taken from you. Like there is a hole inside you cannot fill. You feel wronged or worse, that you were wrong. According to Kathryn Schulz, Author of Being Wrong, “our errors are evidence of our gravest social and intellectual failings.” This creates a sense of urgency and dependency on the social imperative of being right. Simply put, because if you’re not right, then you are wrong. Which is simultaneously paired with the anxiety that comes from having to “question the nature of your reality,” as they say in HBO’s Westworld.
When something great happens, you hope you can live in that dopamine fueled moment forever. Hope it will always be that way. According to Leiberman and Long, Authors of The Molecule of More, hope produces “desire dopamine” powered by novelty, possibility and anticipation. The realm of possibility is unfortunately at odds with what’s called, “control dopamine” or “here-and-now dopamine”. The authors say, “Passion rises from the world of possibility, and fades when confronted by reality” (Lieberman and Long).
Reality operates in the brain’s frontal lobe responsible for logical thinking (Lieberman and Long). This means the brain produces dopamine by remaining present and understanding the methods required to achieve what we desire. The “thrill of the chase” is unconscious or instinctual. Like the Joker said in the Dark Night. “I’m like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it”. And that seems like an ongoing problem with any goal, let alone a relationship.
The real challenge is managing the relationship once you have it. According to Leiberman and Long, to do so, we must make a conscious choice to commit to a relationship. This creates a transition between the pursuit (desire dopamine) and maintenance (control dopamine). The mistake we make is fixating on our hopes instead of managing our expectations. Sometimes we assign a special meaning to “love at first sight” but we forget what was easy and felt natural, now takes effort and hard work. That’s where managing our expectations is crucial. Because without them, resentment builds.
Scott Adams, author of Dilbert and the book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, describes desire and control dopamine as “systems-versus-goals”. He says, “a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you are waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.” In this context, meeting someone and having a relationship is the goal. The system is what you contribute to that relationship every day to make it successful.
Nothing compares to the attraction or pull towards someone. That feeling of knowing this person is special — and even that can’t compare to the feeling of knowing that person feels the same. The pinnacle of all cravings. It’s like a dream. One you hope never ends. That’s one reason love stories take the form of fantasies filled with magic and wonder: because the dopaminergic chemistry of your brain resembles the power of a magical spell during the honeymoon phase of a relationship. That is when your brain is overflowing with dopamine for as long as 18 months. Scientists equate this time to being under the influence of drugs. It is what makes everything so memorable and euphoric (Lieberman and Long). Makes everything feel like a dream.
“You know that place between sleep and awake? That is where I’ll always love you.”– Tinker Bell, Hook
The hardest part is not that the dream may end, but that when it does, both must awaken together and make a conscious choice to commit to one another. With men, that conscious choice has a significant effect on our physiology. Men will start producing less testosterone — what helps men gain a mate — and start producing vasopressin, the male version of oxytocin (Lieberman and Long). Unfortunately, sometimes one might awaken before the other. Those are the Romeo and Juliet scenarios where a miscommunication or poor timing can leave us shattered, irrational or even suicidal.
When the spell breaks, we can find ourselves hanging on like in the beginning of Cliffhanger. Holding on so tight, but knowing they are slipping away — and it feels like a matter of life and death. Then you fixate on that moment, or many. Dwelling on what you could have done differently. And if a theoretical solution is possible, we will do anything to throw ourselves back into that relationship and try again like some perverted scientific method.
This resembles the conviction and anchoring bias. We hold on to the good memories and use those as justifications for why a breakup makes little sense. It can lead to cognitive dissonance because those memories contradict how terrible it feels to lose someone. It makes us question ourselves and the person we thought we were. Suddenly we are not the person they fell in love with or we changed, and if that’s that case, who are we?
One major mistake I’ve made is trying to find that answer by mending a relationship without looking inward. But in those situations, sometimes the goals of both parties are different. One might want validation and the other vindication. Here, the system doesn’t matter. As a result, your world completely changes and longing for something you once had becomes a craving. It can become a yearning and then “pining”. Which means, “suffering a mental and physical decline, especially because of a broken heart or miss and long for the return of”. Even more so if you lacked confidence or a sense of self before the relationship. That leaves us clinging on to the idea of the person we once loved becoming the linchpin in our personal narrative. Take that away and everything comes crashing down.
Relationships equal validation. But when you ask why it didn’t work out, you need to answer the question as honestly as possible. Don’t say because of that one time in 1992 he wrote me a love letter that said blah blah blah. All that means is at that specific point in time that person meant those things. It reminds me of the stock market. There are a million reasons the market was up or down on any day. What we know is that if you are invested, there can be significant growth over time. Other times the market has a complete meltdown for reasons outside your control. But no matter how invested you are, there is only so much you can control. All you can do is use it as an opportunity to reinvest in yourself so you are ready for the opportunities ahead. It’s the motivational version of buy low and sell high.
In writing this, I was hoping to have more answers. I think the point I am trying to make is what most people already know; that love is magical, but can also mislead us psychologically. That it’s ok to invest yourself completely in a relationship. However, without a balance between our sense of self and devotion for another, we will most likely overextend ourselves.
For example, according to Yuval Noah Harari, Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, banks loan ten times the amount of cash they have, which leads to solvency issues in the event of an economic crisis. I think this is an interesting correlation to how human beings love. We give more of ourselves than we can afford. Therefore, in the event of a breakup, we leave ourselves emotionally bankrupt. On the opposite side, someone who has been hurt in the past and therefore guarded, could rationalize keeping their money — or let’s say, emotional capital — under the mattress because that’s where they think it’s safe. But if we don’t invest that money, we limit the possibility for growth (this can also apply to friendship).
I don’t want to diminish love by treating it like a business, but I think it helps to define terms. Outline what a successful relationship means to you while being as objective as possible. I would wager eliminating assumptions could only help. This way when the dust settles after the honeymoon phase, you actually know the person you’ve spent that time with. And if there are any surprises, you have more data to make an educated decision. This way we are not instinctively running away out of fear or staying because of a conviction bias, loss aversion, or worse, merely out of habit.
Avoiding loss is a natural survival instinct. The trick is overcoming the fear of loss so it doesn’t hinder something special. One question I ask myself is, how can someone take something from you if you’ll have it forever? When I think about the one that got away (cue), I always feel the need to tell her how much she means to me (routine). I think it will change something or make me feel better (reward/validation). What I have to remind myself is if I loved her as much as I believe I did, then she will always know that. Even though we’re not together anymore, it’s something I cherish and will always be with me. Something that will forever make me better, not worse.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, and thank you. I will leave you with an excerpt from the 2007 movie Stardust, with Claire Danes and Charlie Fox. Which I think helps illustrate my point. That love is magical, but also a mutual exchange with a system or a plan.
“You know when I said I knew little about love? Well, that wasn’t true. I know a lot about love. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen centuries of it. And it was the only thing that made watching your world bearable. All those wars. Pain and lies. Hate. Made me want to turn away and never look down again. But to see the way mankind loves. I mean, you could search the furthest reaches of the universe and never find anything more beautiful. So, yes, I know that love is unconditional. But I also know it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, unbearable, and, well, strangely easy to mistake for loathing. And what I’m trying to say, Tristan, is I think I love you. My heart, it feels like my chest can barely contain it. Like it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you. And if you wanted it, I’d wish for nothing in exchange. No gifts, no goods, no demonstration of devotion. Nothing but knowing you love me, too. Just your heart in exchange for mine.”
Greenberg, Dr. Melanie. “This is Your Brain on a Break Up.” Psychology Today, Psychology Today, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201603/is-your-brain-breakup.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York, Harper, 2015.
Lieberman, Daniel Z., and Michael E. Long. The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. BenBella Books, 2018.
Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. New York, 2010.