The Bane Of Friendship

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Friendship. It’s so many wonderful things. It’s caring. It’s affection. It’s laughter and inside jokes.

It’s also the last bastion of the freshly dumped. After all, how many breakup conversations include the phrase, “can we just be friends?”

So why do we go along with such a “request”? Are we that desperate? Do we get so attached that we’re willing to settle for friend status just to stay in someone’s life? Take the story of Jackie:

Jackie is a strong, independent woman (usually). She is also the victim of a recent breakup. Robert, her live-in boyfriend of three years, has decided that he needs time to “figure things out.” He still wants to be friends, but he needs to take a break from the relationship.

Jackie reluctantly accepts this arrangement, and the two continue to see each other once or twice a week, essentially at his discretion: she makes herself available when he calls, and only sometimes is he available when she calls.

Months pass, and Robert still hasn’t figured out what he wants. Though Jackie makes a few half-hearted attempts to date other men, not surprisingly, these dates go nowhere. She continues to pine for Robert.

So, why does Jackie put up with Robert’s wishy-washiness? Perhaps a better question is, what is going on inside Jackie’s brain….

When we first grow attracted to someone, our brain releases what I like to call “happy” neurotransmitters. As we spend more time with this person, these chemicals continue to be released, and we begin to develop an actual physiological attachment. That swooning, euphoric feeling these neurotransmitters produce is what we perceive as “love.”

And boy, are these neurotransmitters strong. When the one we love is gone, we feel sad and hopeless. We may even become physically ill. The saying that “love is a powerful drug” isn’t just poetic license. It’s literal.

In fact, these neurotransmitters are so powerful that they inhibit rational thought. Even if our beloved is full of faults, we happily overlook them. We justify our beloved’s actions, we make excuses, we tell ourselves that love is about compromise and understanding. Even if this person is completely wrong for us, we cannot bear the thought of not being with them.

Unfortunately, breaking that attachment is no easy task. Even if we resolve to break the bond, it may take months, even years, to do so. Our brain simply needs time to re-equilibrate its neurotransmitters. When this balance is regained, the sight of our beloved will no longer induce a physiological response, and we will no longer feel that euphoric rush in their presence (and despair in their absence). At this point, we’ve finally broken the attachment. We’re “over” this person.

Once the attachment is broken, we begin to view the other person objectively. We see their faults and realize that they may not be right for us. Have you ever thought back to someone you dated—someone you were really into—and wondered, “what the hell was I thinking?!?” The answer is, you weren’t. You were simply stricken by these love-inducing neurotransmitters.

After three years together, of course Jackie is going to feel an attachment to Robert. Of course, she’s going to want to see him still. And, of course, she will never break her attachment if she continues to spend time with Robert as “just friends.”

So then, how do we break this bond? The easiest way—relatively speaking, since there is no easy way here—is to cut off all contact with this person, at least until we’re over them.

As much as we want to stay in touch, as much as we still want to be friends… don’t! If we continue to see this person, our brain will continue to release these neurotransmitters of love. Sure, we feel better when we see them, but when they are inevitably gone again, our brain goes through the same withdrawal process as a drug addict. Their presence gives us the high that we crave, but their absence leads to the subsequent crash. The best solution is to quit cold-turkey.

So, the next time you find yourself unable to get over someone, ask yourself this:

Are you truly ready to break the attachment?

If you’re just not ready, fair enough. If you still want to be with this person, and deep down, you’re not yet willing to give up hope, so be it. If you can settle for being friends, it’s your life.

On the other hand, if you believe you are ready to break the attachment, cut your ties now. It’s the only way your brain will stop releasing those confounded neurotransmitters every time you even think about the person you feel hopelessly in love with.

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  • Alex O'Sullivan

    Wow, this is really true. Great article.

  • Thanks for this!
    Oh how I wish you wrote/I read this three years ago.

  • dude i dont think you ever get laid. you’re such a loudmouthed wuss…

  • Yay neuroscience; this reminds me of a quote from BtVS:

    Spike: You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’til it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’til it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Real love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood. It’s blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.” -“Lovers Walk”

  • I really enjoy all of the articles you’ve written, but this one is very helpful! I had always thought that the “friends” avenue was the noble thing to do, and it has always led to further heartbreak. Now I realize that its alright to cut ties for a certain amount of time. I like that you tie in facts with emotions. Thanks 🙂

    • Hey, thanks! Yeah, I think the problem is that a lot of times, we say we’re trying to be mature by staying friends. And we might even convince ourselves that’s what we’re doing. But, deep down, we’re still secretly hoping that they’ll take us back. And cutting off ties would be admitting that we really are ready to move on.

      I think I had to “learn” this four or five times before I finally got it. 😉

  • More about breaking the bond;
    So what if a part of you is ready to let go, but some other annoying part just refuses to?
    saying that, I’ve pretty much forced myself to let go by getting rid of all her contact details etc, etc.
    Does it just need more time?

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by.

      Ultimately, everyone is different, and no two people will be affected in the same way. But, yes, my experience has been that the saying “time heals all wounds” is pretty dead on. You just have to let your brain re-equilibrate its chemicals. That’s really what it comes down to.

      Good luck, though. I feel ya.

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