To sum up my blogs of the past few days, you learned to love that person on many levels including a deep neural physical level in your brain. That fact, that the love you feel for that person is something you have learned to feel, is tremendously important. It is important because, if you learned to love someone, you can unlearn that love.
If you can learn to unlearn, what freedom! You won’t have to spend years struggling in the backwash of an old love affair. You won’t have to rely on illuminating the whys and wherefores of your former relationship with insight.
If love is learned, you can unlearn to love someone, because you want to stop the pain.
You won’t have to rely on wishful thinking (“if only, if only”), the advice of friends or “experts,” or the random chance of inspiration or insight, or the slow passage of time.
You can do it yourself. And you can do it now.
Recent scientific studies have tracked down your former love’s existence to the deepest, most fundamental level in your brain. “He” or “she” is a systematic part of your nerve-cell pathways and is embedded in the neurons and synapses of the brain.
When you lose someone you love, your brain reacts by trying to make those connections in your brain like those unfortunate people who lost an arm or a leg but still “feel” hot or cold or pain in their missing limb.
Since “he” or “she” is still in your neural connections, you expect to see, hear, feel, and touch “him” or “her” when you wake up in the morning, when you turn around, and when you close your eyes.
Insight or working through your memories of the happiness, pain and sorrow of a lost lover continually reinforces the damage, while not thinking about “him” or “her” weakens the pain.
That’s why traditional therapy prolongs the pain and sometimes makes it worse. Traditional therapy asks you how you felt about “him” or “her.” And asks you what “he” or “she” was like? And why did you feel that way? I don’t ask those questions because, as I’ve just pointed out, going over how you felt and why you felt that way just reinforces all those old thoughts and images. When a new patient comes into my office suffering from the pain of a lost love, I don’t even let her tell me the whole story and I don’t let him go into the details. They have already gone through their story with all of its painful details a thousand times in their own mind.
I’m not saying your memories of “him” or “her” aren’t accurate. I’m saying it doesn’t matter whether your memories of “him” or “her” are accurate or not.
It doesn’t matter what “he” or “she” said or did because your memories cannot and will not help you get over the pain. In fact, as I’ve said, going back over those memories feeds your pain.
Recent work on the neurophysiology of remembering is shaking the most basic assumptions we hold about memory. When you remember a deeply painful experience, you also experience a surge of adrenal stress hormones which increases the strength of the memory. So, every time you recall a painful memory, a fresh rush of epinephrine and cortisol reinforces the event’s emotional impact and its ease of recall.
In other words, each time you remember something painful, the memory and the pain and stress that go along with that memory are strengthened.
Your pain is refreshed and renewed with every recollection.
Traditional therapists thought that the way to get over the pain of painful memories was by understanding those memories. They assumed that the way to overcome the pain of a former love was to examine those memories of your former love so you could understand why you were in love in the first place. Then, armed with your new “understanding,” you could “grow” out of your former attachment.
It’s a nice theory, but modern research has shown that reviewing your memories of “him” or “her” not only doesn’t help your pain, it makes it worse.
Memory is an unreliable witness. Painful memories are especially unreliable. However real your memories may seem, things may not have happened the way you remember they did. The American Psychiatric Association warned that it is ‘impossible to distinguish false memories from true ones’. (“It is not known how to distinguish, with complete accuracy, memories based on true events from those derived from other sources.” American Psychiatric Association, 1993 to pick just one study of many that prove the same point.)
In outlining the science of behavior therapy in his introduction to How to Fall Out of Love Dr. Wolpe went on to explain how behavior therapy works:
Reducing anxiety is central to behavior therapy.
The elimination of anxiety is most easily accomplished by inhibiting the anxiety with a competing response. If a therapist can evoke a response (deep relaxation, for example) in the presence of a stimulus that provokes anxiety (criticism from your father, for example), the bond between the old stimulus and the anxiety it caused (fear of criticism, for example), will be weakened. Eliminating or significantly reducing your anxiety removes obstacles between you and functioning creatively and comfortably in everyday living.
This book illustrates the way behavior therapy deals with emotional involvements that have outlived their appropriateness. People who are depressed or oppressed by obsessive thinking about another person will learn how to use competing thoughts to break their repetitive chains of thought.
People who are habitually dominated by others will learn how to overcome feelings of helplessness by learning to be assertive.
Joseph Wolpe the great behavioral scientist, the father of Behavior Therapy, and my mentor at Temple University Medical School, wrote the introduction to How to Fall Out of Love. In it he explained the foundation for behavior therapy.
Our emotional habits resist logical argument or good advice, because something learned emotionally cannot be dealt with purely at an intellectual level.
He wrote: Anxiety is central to unadaptive behavior. Anxiety is learned behavior. Because of certain experiences, an individual forms the habit of reacting automatically with anxiety or fear to certain situations. Sometimes fear is appropriate, because real danger is involved. In cases where no real danger exists, the fear or anxiety is inappropriate (a fear of heights while looking out of a window would be an inappropriate fear). For some people, such anxiety, whether it’s fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of rejection, fear of what others think, fear of taking risks, fear of criticism, fear of intimacy, and a whole range of sexual fears, can become so debilitating that it seriously interferes with daily life.
I was giving a seminar on sexuality at the very posh Carlisle Hotel in New York City years ago. I wanted couples to reconnect, communicate, throw off their old sexual habits and bring romance back into their sex lives. I’d invited BobJudd, a young copywriter from JWT, then the world’s largest advertising agency, because I wanted a professional to write a brochure on my course which was fundamentally about communication. I thought a bright young copywriter would understand and communicate my ideas and I’d been told that Bob was the best.
After the first morning session, Bob and I were having lunch and he said, “you have a wonderful program. I think you should do a book about sexual communication.” And I said I had a better idea for a book. I had a program to help people get over a lost or impossible love affair. And the program worked. Bob said “great.” He said he was going through a divorce and he understood the pain and the need for a program that really helped. “Let’s call it ‘How to Fall Out of Love,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands have gone through my program ( in How to Fall Out of Love) and have fallen out of love in the sense that they no longer constantly think about the person they formerly loved, no longer feel great pain and longing when they do think of that person, and are able to build new relationships with new people.
As I said, I first wrote this book more than thirty years ago, and I am really happy it has helped so many people. It makes me smile when I see copies of that first book, worn and dog-eared, passed from one person to another for sale on Amazon and eBay with the words, “this works.”
The program in the new version of How to Fall Out of Love is behavior therapy.
That is, it is based on what neurologists, behaviorists, and other scientists have found
out in the laboratory about the way we learn. So it’s not a pep talk for following moral
guidelines. It won’t give you directions for achieving more insights. And it will not offer
the platitudes of “common sense.” How to Fall Out of Love is a straightforward positive
program based on observed facts. I developed the program at Temple University Medical
School and at Princeton University. It has been enormously successful. As I’ve said I
wish it could be in the bookstores now, but doing it right takes a little time and while
the first galleys are being printed now it won’t be available until January 6 next year.