Are we in control of our own hearts?
Who hasn’t suffered a broken heart over someone we knew wasn’t good for us?
Maybe it was the pathological liar who was still secretly sleeping with his ex. Or the hapless boyfriend who couldn’t hold down a steady job, or the one who really wanted kids, even though you intend to be happily child-free for the rest of your life.
On the other hand, haven’t we all been in a relationship where the spark has fizzled with one of the good guys, leaving us desperately wishing we could get it back? You remember the way you used to get butterflies when he smiled, the rush of warm feelings when his name flashed on your phone, and how you went around with a goofy grin all day when you first fell in love – and you miss it.
What if you could actually program yourself to fall in or out of love? No more listening to sad songs and trying to mend your broken heart; no more trying to resurrect feelings that have died.
Turns out, we might be able to do just that. A recent study published in the scientific journal Plos One looks at the ‘regulation of romantic love feelings,’ aka, whether or not we can control our warm fuzzy feelings toward our partners – or our ex-partners.
The science behind the butterflies
Your stomach is doing somersaults, your palms are sweating, your heart is thudding – and you’ve never felt better. What gives?
When we fall in love, we feel it in our whole bodies. There’s a good reason for that. During the infatuation and attachment phases of a new relationship, our brains flood our bodies with chemicals. There’s adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and makes you sweat; serotonin (sometimes called the ‘happy hormone’); oxytocin, which is released during orgasm and which bonds us to our partners (also known as the ‘love hormone’); and dopamine, the neurotransmitter that has roughly the same effect on your brain as a line of cocaine.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher says couples in love often show the signs of a dopamine surge: “increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in the smallest details of this novel relationship.”
No wonder we feel good when we’re falling in love – we might as well be snorting drugs. And when that love ends, of course we feel terrible.
The ‘love regulation’ method
University of Missouri-St. Louis researcher Sandra Langeslag and Erasmus University Rotterdam researcher Jan van Strien conducted what Langeslag calls “the very first study” to determine whether or not we can program ourselves to fall in or out of love. They asked 40 study participants – half of them in relationships, half of them with freshly broken hearts – to bring in 30 pictures of themselves with their current or former SO. Then they had them look at the images in a slideshow, all the while focusing on either positive or negative aspects of their former partner.
They call this technique ‘reappraisal’ – and you can try it for yourself.
If you’re trying to fall out of love, gather up a bunch of pictures of the person in question and while you look through them, focus on something you hate about him or her – the way he chews so loudly, or that time she was rude to your friends. That’s ‘down-regulation’ of feelings.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to fall in love again, scroll through those pictures and think about something you love about your partner – the way she takes such good care of you when you’re sick, or that magical beach vacation you took together. That’s known as ‘up-regulation.’
Does it work?
Langeslag and van Strien found that, indeed, the study participants who engaged in up-regulation seemed to feel more in love after the study, while the down-regulators felt less in love afterward. They measured this by looking at the participants’ ‘Late Positive Potential’ brainwave, which Langeslag says “indicates how emotionally salient a stimulus is for you.”
Does this mean we’re the masters of our own brains, and can truly make ourselves fall in or out of love?
Maybe not entirely – but it does mean we can nurture our relationships by focusing on the good stuff, or get over a broken heart faster by zeroing in on the things we disliked about our former partners.
Okay, this isn’t exactly a huge revelation; focusing on the positive is a well-documented way of strengthening your relationship. As noted relationship expert and couples therapist Dr John Gottman says, “Every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay.”
And as for that guy who wouldn’t get a job and slept with his ex? Stare at his picture and think about his disgusting morning breath until you’re over him. Science says it just might work.
Comment: Do you think you can make yourself fall in or out of love?