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.
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.)
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.
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.
In going over the original version of How to Fall Out of Love I was impressed by the advantages of a systematic program. It really does help to observe and organize your feelings. It helps, because as psychologist Dr. Herbert Fensterheim has shown, once you observe your feelings, you objectify them and gain perspective.
Gaining perspective lets you see your feelings from a distance.
That distance makes your feelings less overwhelming and easier to handle. It also helps to have a step-by-step program of positive things to do rather than struggle with an tide of amorphous, overwhelming feelings. And it helps to have specific goals so you can measure your progress.
I re-wrote How to Fall Out of Love because I wanted to make it brand new again. And better in every way. I know so much more now. After 30 years of practice, I have a tremendous amount of practical experience to draw on. And I wanted to make this book relevant and useful to a new generation who despite all the smart phones apps and Facebook friends, have trouble getting over a love affair gone wrong.
The world has changed but human nature hasn’t really changed at all. And loving someone who doesn’t or can’t love you is just as painful as it ever was. I wish I could just wave my magic wand over the old book, click my heels three times and before you can say google, it would be brand new and out in the bookstores and on Amazon.com today. But it has taken a little more than that…
On my last trip to L.A., several friends and patients asked me, why are you re-writing How to Fall Out of Love. It’s still in print after thirty years. Why change it?
It’s a good question. I know How to Fall Out of Love has helped thousands of people. I have received letters and calls from all over the country from people who say that this book “saved my life.” I met a woman in Palm Beach, Florida, who had been walking toward the ocean intending to wade into the water and swim out as far as she could and drown. She saw How to Fall Out of Love in a bookstore window on her way to the ocean and thought it must be fate. She bought the book and started reading it as she continued walking but turned around when she reached the beach. I met her several times because she kept showing up at my television interviews all over the country. She felt I had saved her life.
When you can’t see or touch or talk to “him” or “her” as you usually do, the limbic part of your brain (which is responsible for your emotional life and where a lot of the formation of your memory takes place) where “he” or “she” has been embedded, becomes hyperactive, trying to make those connections.
Hyperactivity in the limbic, or emotional part of the brain, has been associated with depression and low serotonin levels, which is why you may have trouble sleeping, obsess about your former love, shut yourself off from other people, lose your appetite and nothing feels good anymore. Scientists have also detected an associated deficit in endorphins, which modulate pain and pleasure pathways in the brain and contribute to the physical level of pain you feel during a breakup.”