In May 2020, Omar Ruiz found himself heartbroken. “My wife told me that she was no longer in love with me,” and soon after the couple, who had been married for 11 years, separated.
Not only was he heartbroken, he said, but as a marriage and family therapist, “this whole process challenged my professional identity,” said Mr. Ruiz, 36, of Boston. “How could I help couples when my own marriage is falling apart?”
And so he determined that he needed to fall out of love.
“People say that distress is normal, so we shouldn’t try to fix it,” said Sandra Langeslag, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has 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 in distress and try to move on?”
Heartbreak has inspired music, poetry, visual arts, ice cream-filled listening sessions with friends, and even a new hotel. And regardless of the reason, be it death, cognitive decline, divorce or otherwise, most who experience it hope to recover and perhaps even fall in love again with someone new.
But what if we actually had some control over the process? Can one deliberately stop loving? Some of the science says yes.
“You can work on it,” said Helen E. Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior fellow at the Kinsey Institute in New York. She studies the anatomy of love, and in 2005 she studied the brain images of 100 people using MRI to identify the circuitry of romantic love.
Dr. Fisher said she found that the same area of the brain associated with hunger and thirst, known as the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, is activated when you’re in love, making it “a drive, not an emotion.” . ” This biological function makes falling out of love as difficult as trying not to feel thirsty. In other words, it’s not easy.
Kisha Mays, 40, who runs a business consultancy in Houston, continued to love her ex-boyfriend even while he was in prison. They were on and off for years, he said, and got back together for two years before he was released in October 2021. Then two months later, he said, he broke up with her.
“Now it’s just healing, rebuilding and learning to trust again,” Mays said, noting that Reiki and spiritual healing, as well as throwing out all her belongings, have helped.
Dr. Fisher would agree with Ms. Mays’ technique: She suggests treating the recovery process as you would an addiction, and throwing away the cards, letters, and keepsakes that remind you of the person. Do not maintain contact or ask mutual friends how that person is doing. “You’re just raising the ghost,” she said.
Dr. Fisher, who put 17 newly abandoned people through brain scans, found activity in both the VTA and brain functions related to attachment and physical pain. “Not anxiety related to physical pain, but physical pain,” he said.
Dr. Langeslag also said that there is hope for the heartbroken. He conducted two studies to see if people could try to feel less in love. The strategies that worked? First, it’s helpful to have negative thoughts about the person you’re trying to fall out of love with. The low? “Thinking negatively makes you feel less in love, but it doesn’t make you feel better,” Dr. Langeslag said. “Worse, actually.”
So what? Distraction. Think of things that make you happy other than the person you’re trying to fall out of love with. This made people happier but not less in love.
The solution? The “one-two hit,” as Dr. Langeslag described it, or: negative thoughts about the person followed by a dose of distraction.
His research found that people could deliberately decrease their love, but not completely banish it. The average amount of time to heal from hurt feelings, based on survey data collected from their self-reported subjects, was six months, although healing time depended on several factors, including the length of the relationship.
Rachelle Ramirez, a writer and editor from Portland, Oregon, can still remember a time when negative associations worked for her. When she was 15 years old, she felt what seemed like an incurable crush on a classmate who was much less interested in her.
“When I say his selflessness was excruciating, it is often seen as adolescent melodrama,” said Ms. Ramirez, now 47. “This assumption doesn’t come close to capturing the pain” she felt at the thought of him.
So how did Mrs. Ramírez annul it? “I pictured him covered in vomit and holding dead kittens,” she said. “I know it was extreme, and I wouldn’t suggest everyone try this, but it worked for me.”
Some don’t buy the idea, whether it’s backed by science or not, that it’s possible to be willing to fall out of love.
Bethany Cook, a Chicago clinical psychologist who specializes in neuropsychological assessment, is wary of the idea of being able to control heartbreak. “Love and affection are basic human needs. We cannot deliberately deny ourselves. That would be like saying that we could consciously choose to stop breathing,” Dr. Cook said. “We don’t have that power, and pretending we do is a way for the psyche to fool itself into thinking it’s in control, and it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism.”
“Humans can stop loving someone, but not deliberately,” he added. “To suggest that humans deliberately act in a way that satisfies a basic need runs counter to the basic nature of what makes us human and what science tells us about our species.”
It took Mr. Ruiz, the marriage therapist, over a year to successfully fall out of love. He said it took a combination of a divorce mediator to help him separate from his wife completely, as well as immersing himself in activities with friends and family. And the help of a therapist.
“I thank my individual counselor for reminding me that the breakup of a marriage is a two-way street,” he said. “Both my ex-wife and I are responsible for what happened.”
His therapist “also reminded me that I am human and just as vulnerable to relationship problems as anyone else,” he added.
It helps reframe the notion of falling in or out of love, said Damon L. Jacobs, a marriage and family therapist in Manhattan. “Relationships are conduits for increased energy, joy and satisfaction, but they are not the only source,” said Mr. Jacobs. Having this mindset, he said, can help you accept pain with more grace and perspective.
“When things don’t work out,” he said, “we know we are still wonderful, powerful, loving people who will continue to grow, love and thrive.”