We’ve all known the torture of a lingering heartache, whether it’s holding on to the hope of someone who is slipping away or having someone relentlessly pursue you despite your best efforts to push them away. Knowing how the brain works when we’re in these situations is a powerful way to prevent the sickening feelings of unrequited love.
1. Become a habit. Almost anything or anyone can become a habit, and habits are hard to break because they become cravings. In fact, neuroscience tells us that once a habit forms, the brain automatically becomes less active in deciding how to respond to a cue. The more practiced the response to the cue, the deeper the habit. So if you call someone everyday on your drive home from work, you are probably doing this habitually. On the other end, that person expects to hear from you every day at that certain time, so you are a habit for them as well. Here’s how you make a habit:
- Start with a cue: something that makes you think of someone: a text from them, a song you danced to, a phrase you said, type of car they drove, driving to work, seeing your phone, etc.
- Perform an action to respond: Think about that person, call that person, text that person, check your phone, etc.
- Get a reward: hear back from that person, spend time with that person, get attention in some way from them, interesting conversation, fun times, etc.
How to change a habit: According to The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, “unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.” Whether you have become someone else’s habit or craving or whether you are habitually thinking of them, you play a part in changing the habit. Duhigg explains that any habit can be changed with effort, but you must keep the cue and the reward the same. So when you get in the car after work, instead of calling a certain person, listen to a podcast or call your sister. Whatever comes closest to giving you the same reward (i.e. interesting stories, good conversation…) will work the best to change the habit. If you are the reward for someone else’s habit and you want to break the habit, simply stop giving the reward (i.e. your company, your attention)
2. Schedule partial reinforcement. Mice, pigeons, chimpanzees, people… we all work the same on this one. When creating a desired behavior, if we are reinforced at inconsistent intervals or ratios, we are more persistent in our carrying out that behavior. So, if we text someone one time and get a response, then 3 times and get a response, then two times before a response, and so on, we are more likely to text more because we never know how many times it will take to send a text before we get a reward (a text back). Or if we text someone once and get a response 30 minutes later, then text and get a text back immediately, then text and get a text back the next day, we always suspect that a reward is right around the corner if we wait long enough.
Either of these kind of texting (or calling, or dating, etc.) are awful for extinguishing a behavior (pursuit of someone). As psychologist Michael Domjan puts it, “Partial reinforcement seems to teach individuals not to give up in the face of failure, and this learned persistence is retained across an unbroken string of successes.” In fact, partial reinforcement is so powerful, it lasts long after it ends. Two groups of animals were trained for a behavior with either partial reinforcement or continuous (every time) reinforcement. Then both groups were trained with continuous reinforcement. When all reinforcement was taken away, the group that was always trained with continuous reinforcement stopped performing the behavior, but the group who initially trained with partial reinforcement kept performing, supposedly with the expectation of sometime again being rewarded for it.
How to manage reinforcement: Chances are, you are on a partial reinforcement schedule with whoever you are hanging on to or trying to let loose. Break this habit by being consistent. If someone’s keeping you hanging on, take yourself out of the passenger seat. They are probably getting continuous reinforcement from you. You answer or respond to them every time. You can either turn the tables and only sometimes respond to them (which may backfire if they don’t care or if this keeps them on your mind), or you can never text them and stop encouraging any more texts by your responses.
If you’re trying to shake someone, either never answer a call or text, or always answer a call or text with a definitive negative response.
3. Use somatic and visual cues. Memories are made more powerful with the presence of scent somatic (scent) and visual reminders. Without our conscious knowledge, smells may trigger memories of a person, place, or time. Scent’s ability to fly under the radar is what makes them so dangerous. Visual reminders are more easily identified, but can be just as powerful when they are omnipresent in your life or when they crop up unexpectedly. Perfume that lingers on a borrowed coat or cologne on a couch pillow can conjure up vivid memories and longing for a person. Likewise, a surprise encounter with the sight of a person or a visual connection to a person can knock you off your feet. Scrolling through pictures of an ex out with friends on Facebook and bumping into a crush at social events are surefire ways to keep yourself hanging on to that person.
How to avoid disruptive cues: One strategy successful people use when trying to resist a temptation is to hide it from view. According to Walter Mischell (the psychologist who pioneered the Marshmallow Test), kids who covered up a desired treat were likely not to succumb to the temptation of eating it. When getting over someone, stay off of social media and avoid going places where it is likely you will run into that person. Be sure to do laundry if you have clothes with their scent on it.
When trying to be forgotten, send no messages or pics for sure, don’t go to a place where you’d typically run into that person, and limit or block what that person can see on your social media accounts.
4. Encourage the optimism bias. Bad things won’t happen to me, they’ll happen to other people. I’m a little bit better at most things than most other people. Sounds arrogant, but according to the field of neuroscience, it’s how we’re hardwired to think.
That’s why when we subtly drop hints that, “Hey, I’m not that into you…” the recipient isn’t always quick on the uptake. In their mind, you have been busy every night for the last two months, but you smile every time you see them and one time said that you’d like to see a movie with them. When you find out that the guy who’s been flirting with you has a “in a relationship” status on Facebook, you reason that maybe he never updated the info after his last relationship ended.
How do you correct the bias? Be explicit, present, and definitive in your communication. It’s tempting to use the slow burn approach to phase someone out of the picture. Most people favor that method. However, if you are always busy when they ask you to do something or if you “aren’t in a good place to start a relationship”, you’re leaving a little window of opportunity for them to use their optimism. You are partially responsible for their continued pursuit. Instead, be clear. “No, I don’t want to go,” or “You seem really (nice, fun, sweet, etc.), but I don’t see it working out between us.” On the other side, recognize your own optimism bias and realize that you are probably seeing things the way you want to if most signs are pointing another direction.
5. Take away power to choose. Any time we choose to do something, especially in America, we feel better about the thing that we’ve chosen. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people choose something- whether it be a partner, picture, task, or beer- whoever has the most definitive choice over what option they obtain values it the most. In the long term, they like their choice much better than the other options available, even if initially they didn’t care or couldn’t decide which one they liked best.
What commonly drives us crazy is when we aren’t given a choice to let someone go. We must let them go because they won’t have us. Why the hell won’t they just have us? On the flip side, we may decide not to get involved with someone and don’t talk to them, so they have no choice but to not have us. We’re the one cookie the bakery is sold out of, and consequently, we seem better than we ever would have if we were right there sitting on the shelf.
How do you harness this power? When you reject someone, make it feel like they are choosing to leave you. Asking a simple question like, “Do you think we really work well together? I know I have difficulty communicating (as much/as little) as you like, do you think that I am a good choice for you.” When someone you like isn’t reciprocating, list the things you’re looking for in terms of interaction and communication (which are probably two things driving you crazy about your crush at the moment) and decide that you need someone different who operates on a the same wavelength as you do. Tell yourself he’s absolutely not what you could ever want.
Sources: Michael Domjan The Principles of Learning and Behavior Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit, Tali Sharot The Optimism Bias, Sheena Iyengar The Art of Choosing, Walter Mischel The Marshmallow Test