Helen Fisher, PhD

What’s Going on In Your Brain When You Get Dumped, According to a Scientist

amanda mcarthur

may 22, 2020

Few things feel worse than getting dumped.

Whether it’s out of the blue or it’s been a long time coming, the end of a relationship can be a painful thing—particularly when you didn’t have any say in its conclusion. But why exactly is that pain so severe, and why can it linger for so long? We were curious, so we asked Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and expert on all things that happen in the brain when you’re in love.

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Sweety High: What parts of the brain are most active after someone’s been dumped?

Helen Fisher: My colleagues and I put 15 people who had just been dumped into a brain scanner, and many brain regions are active when you’ve just been dumped or broken-up with.

We found activity in brain regions related to intense romantic love, as well as regions related to deep attachment. Just because somebody dumped you doesn’t mean you’ve fallen out of love with them. You’ve remained in love with them for at least a while and you’re very attached to them. We also found activity in three brain regions related to craving and addiction, including a brain factory associated with both substance addictions and behavioral addictions, like gambling.

Last but not least, we found brain activity in a brain region linked with physical pain—not just the trauma that goes along with physical pain, but the pain itself. It’s the same brain region becomes active when you have a really bad toothache.

Oddly enough, we also see activity in a brain region linked with figuring out your gains and your losses. When somebody has dumped you, you might say, “Well I really liked his mother. Will she still talk to me? We went out with those friends. Are they still my friends? Who gets the dog? What have I gained? I’ve gained my freedom. I’ve no longer with a man who was cheating on me. I can get on with my life.” You lie in bed trying to figure out what you’ve gained, and what you’ve lost.

SH: With those brain regions active, what feelings or actions might manifest?

HF: There are three basic phases of being dumped. The first is shock, followed by protest and resignation. You can hardly believe it, and then you begin to fight it. Women will try to bargain and win their guy back, and try to compromise and talk it out. Both sexes will try to make you jealous by showing up with somebody else or confront the abandoning partner as well as any new person that partner is with. Then after a while, they give up. They can fall into lethargy, and a sense of hopelessness and despair. It can overtake you. And then, after a while, you begin to recover. You slowly return to normal and then you start to look for love again.

SH: What steps can we then take to heal after being dumped? 

HF: I often wonder why evolution made it so hard to get out of these ways of thinking. The one thing we’ve been able to prove is that time heals. Among our 15 people dumped, we compared those who were farther away from the experience. The longer it’s been since you’ve been dumped, the less activity we saw in the brain regions linked to attachment. You slowly begin to feel less attached and less in love with this person. Still, it certainly helps if you treat it as an addiction and you don’t meet up with them, don’t text them, don’t save their letters. It really speeds up that process.