How To Fall Out of Love

Listen to this episode

S1: My mind was like ten thousand thoughts at once. It was just like, why did that happen? Why was I so stupid to let that like maybe I imagined all of the the chemistry and all of the things. Maybe it was just like he got drunk and he just kissed me and it wasn’t like a big deal.

S2: Outwardly, I can I can put on a great like here I’m doing fine like nothing ever happened sort of situation. But then inside I feel like, why couldn’t he pick me?


S3: Welcome to How to. I’m David Epstein. We’re just coming off a Valentine’s Day. So you’re probably sick of romance by now.

S4: The flowers, the candy, sappy movies where star crossed lovers run to meet each other in the rain or kiss in the rain or serenade one another in the rain. Yes, you get the picture. Our listener this week has been avoiding every reminder of romance because our own love story took an unexpected turn.

S1: My name is Sarah. I am 25 years old. I work in a technology field.

S5: Once upon a time, Sarah met a boy named John. It was in grad school and they bonded over the fact that they’d both just moved to the U.S. from India.


S1: It felt like there’s one other person who gets how it is coming from.

S5: A very similar upbringing by John and Sara could talk about anything politics, video games, cooking. Sarah even supported John through his own brutal breakup. By the time graduation rolled around, they were best friends and Sarah was feeling something more that didn’t help. The John’s both funny and good looking. What actor would you choose to play him in a movie about his life?


S1: A lot of people say that he looks like Ryan Gosling, so maybe Ryan. OK, all right.

S5: Well, I hope to God he doesn’t hear this. Oh, God.

S4: So this is where the how to podcast enter stage left. Sarah had actually just listened to a previous episode called How to Propose to a man that convinced her she could be the one to make the first move. So a house party with a bunch of friends, she decided to shoot her shot.


S2: And we kissed that night and obviously we were very drunk and I at first I did dismiss it as just nothing. But then the next morning I think we’d all woken up and we were like making coffee or something. Like I pulled him aside and I was like, he’s like I just wanted to let you know, I like to, like, pursue this romantically. And he looked shocked at me like he never expected this sort of situation where you had kissed the previous night.

S5: I mean, you’re not doesn’t seem like you’re totally coming out of left field.

S1: He took a bit of like he took like a few minutes to, like, process it. And then he was like, I don’t think it’s good that I don’t think we should, like, you know, pursue each other romantically. And I think I want to keep our friendship intact, like I value you as a friend and punch in the gut. I felt my heart just said I’m pretty sure it showed on my face that I was a little disappointed. But then I just went, OK, yeah, that that makes sense. I don’t want to lose the friendship. And we kind of decided that we we won’t talk about it.


S5: That was about eight months ago and they haven’t talked about it since, which works fine for John, but pretty terribly for Sarah.

S1: Like right now when I talk to him or like when we get on a call, I start having the same feelings. Like the best way I can put it is, is in waves. I Googled a lot about how to get over unreciprocated love with best friends. And so. Oh yeah, this is great. Like I am over this. We can continue being friends. And on other days when we are kind of sharing that emotional bond, I feel those those feelings resurface again.

S4: On today’s episode, How to Fall Out of Love, what do you do when you can’t get over someone who turned you down, especially when that someone is your best friend?


S3: We’ll bring on Helen Fisher, the scientific expert on the neurochemistry of love.

S6: Every time you talk with him, an email with them, you are continuing to keep the fire alive.

S5: Slate plus members, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate, it only takes a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey. Back in the late 60s, Helen Fisher was studying anthropology at New York University, delving into the mysteries of the head heart connection.

S7: The ah ha moment came as it was about three o’clock in the afternoon. I was walking along in Greenwich Village right near that park, and I suddenly thought, wait a minute, could I put people in brain scanners and see if I can find the brain circuitry of romantic love? People live for love. They kill for love. They die for love. It’s got to be somewhere in the brain.


S5: And so Helen and a team of researchers started putting love, struck people in MRI machines to scan their brains.

S7: We put happily in love people in their 20s into the scanner. And I began to think to myself, you know, who gives a damn? The real problems come when people are rejected in love. That’s when they suffer. If I’m going to make any contribution to this planet is going to be understanding rejection and love, not happiness and love. So that’s when I started putting rejected people into the scanner. And they were a real mess. I mean, you know, there was sobbing. One girl hadn’t left her bed for three days. Other people came in looking very bedraggled. One person cried so hard in the scanner that we couldn’t use the data.


S5: She please stop crying. You’re going to break the MRI machine.

S7: Thank you very well. It certainly ruined the experiment, but I felt so sorry for him. But anyway, the bottom line is we did discover that time heals. There’s a brain region called the ventral palate where there’s a lot of receptors for oxytocin, and that’s one of the basic neurochemicals for feelings of attachment. And we found that the farther you get away from that original moment of rejection, the less and less activity there was in that brain region linked with attachment.

S5: Helen’s written a half dozen books and is the chief scientific adviser for Her research has shaped how we think about the neurochemistry of love and help people like Sarah get over their exes.


S8: You said you read a lot about getting over, you know, unrequited love.

S4: What are some of the things that you tried?


S1: One of the things I read was put some time and space between the two of you, since we’re already kind of best friends at this point, it was really hard for me to give that sort of space. And I stopped watching rom coms for a while, you know, sitcoms that had a lot of love in it, especially like friends, because I was a big Ross and Rachel fan.

S8: Lately, I’ve I’ve sort of had feelings for you. You’ve had feelings for me. Yeah, what, so you had feelings for me first you cook.


S1: It’s bringing back all these feelings and it’s also giving me a weird kind of hope that things might, in the long run work out for us, which I feel is kind of that hope was kind of hindering me from moving forward. Another thing I did was definitely start dating casually right after and to the poor man I went on a date with. I am so sorry because I was lying about how I was kind of in love with my best friend and on our first date. And I’m pretty sure he was very bored with me and works every time, I’m sure. But yeah. And I tried Casual Deeping, but then I just felt like, oh, I should not be doing this. I’m still not over him. Oh wow. And like it’s a weird mix of like dude. And then there’s other days when I’m like, oh this, this is fine. Like I’m an independent woman, I can do this.


S5: So Helen, what’s your first just reaction to hearing Sarah describe her situation.

S7: OK, well, first of all, Sarah, I’m sorry that you’re struggling with this. And by the way, I’m not a psychiatrist or a therapist. I am an anthropologist. But I really do study love. And the fact that you said that it comes in waves, I really think that that is a very strikingly smart description of how you feel that it can come and go, this incredible feeling of being partially in love with somebody and then having periods of time when you think less about the mysteries, etc.. So I was very impressed with that. Just a couple of questions here. Do you live in the same town right now?


S1: No, we used to live in the same town when we were in grad school, and then we both went for work.

S7: And how often do you talk on the phone?

S1: Roughly once or twice a week. Sometimes it’s it’s just like maybe 30 minutes. We just catching up and, like, doing that sort of stuff. And sometimes it can go on for like three hours. Does he know how much you’re suffering? I don’t think so, because the thing was once when we decided that let’s not make this a romantic thing, let’s not talk about this, I just assumed that we would never talk about it ever again. So I never brought up any feelings beyond that. Does he know you’re going out with other people, trying to go out with other people and bring it up casually in a conversation like, hey, like I went out on a date with this guy and he just said, oh, that’s good. And that’s about it. Do you know whether he’s got another girlfriend? Well, he recently did disclose that he is like pursuing a girl. So I pretended like I was perfectly fine with it, like it didn’t affect me.

S7: Well, first of all, Sarah, I mean, it’s very hard to do. Nobody gets out of love alive. We all have situations like this. And bottom line is, you have been dumped. I mean, even though he doesn’t probably realize it, he’s taking it lightly. You’re you’re being very gracious about it. But the bottom line is, is very difficult to maintain a friendship when you’re madly in love with somebody exceedingly difficult. This is an addiction. We have found that in the brain. When you’re madly in love with somebody, there’s a little factory in the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area of the VTE, and it pumps out dopamine and that dog mingles all over the brain. It gives you that feeling of elation and giddiness and euphoria, sleeplessness, just a craving for that emotional reunion.


S4: Helen says that another part of the brain that becomes active when you fall in hard is the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with addictions to drugs, gambling, food, pretty much anything right now. There is basically an addict for John, the right thing to do.

S9: The simplest is not simple. It’s simple, but not easy is to cut off the relationship with them for a couple of years because every time you see them, you’re pumping up the dopamine system again. And from what little I’ve seen you you’re a beautiful girl. You’re certainly extremely articulate, extremely intelligent and going someplace on the planet. And you got a way, whether you want to waste time right now on a beautiful friendship, when, in fact, if you were to cut it off for a while and begin to go out with other people, you are going to be closer to finding somebody who really adores you.

S4: So here’s our first tip for getting over someone, if you want to recover as quickly as possible, cut yourself off. Helen says that each time you talk to that person, you’re giving yourself a dopamine kick that you become further dependent on. It’ll feel terrible at first, but giving yourself space from someone is the fastest way to get over them. It’s just that Sarah doesn’t know how to do that and stay in her group of friends.

S2: If I stop hanging out with him, it means I don’t hang out with the other friends that that form that circle of friends.

S7: Well, the bottom line is all of these people, I guess you’re in your middle 20s, all of them are going to fall in love with somebody if you don’t want to give up the friends and you don’t want to give up the friendship with the man. Then you’ve got a couple other choices, definitely go out with other people and definitely don’t tell them how you feeling. Give them a chance. You’ve got to give other people a chance. By the way, he might come around, you know, particularly Helen. No, no, no, no, no. Stop. Now, listen to me. If you see less and less of him and start going out with somebody else and begin to build a new life. He may come around, but by then you’re gone and you’re going to look back at it as a wonderful and very painful experience, but you will be gone and so you will be able to cope with it.


S6: But until Sarah moves on with someone new, can she and John continue to be just friends who are just going to be friends?

S10: OK, great friends.

S3: The best thing you realize, of course, that we can never be friends.

S6: So many movies like When Harry Met Sally teach us that love always wins, but that’s pretty much because nobody wants to see a movie called How Harry and Sally obviously couldn’t be friends or lovers. This is real life. So how can Sarah recover after falling for John?

S4: Come back to us after this quick break.

S5: We’re back with Sarah and our love expert, Helen Fisher. Sarah’s struggling to move past her unreciprocated romantic feelings for her BFF John.

S7: Helen says to get over that, Sarah should aggressively wind down the intimacy of their friendship, because every single time you talk to them, you’re setting yourself back and don’t go playing the music that you danced to together, get rid of the cards, and then you probably have cards and letters and things that he gave you. Put them in a box. You know, you got to get away from the triggers and don’t put them in a special place like under your bed and put them in a place where you know, where it’s cold, for Christ’s sakes, bury them in a deep grave in Siberia. Love letters is David. David’s got it right.

S1: I’m trying to think like I archived all of our pictures. So Google photos or like Apple. iCloud doesn’t remind me every three months. Hey, remember when you did this fun thing with him and you hung good for. You know, I also like I think we took a road trip together and this is going to sound so silly. I had a pack of chewing gum that we bought and we that we used along the road trip and left was the chewing gum is still sitting in my drawer.


S5: Get rid of that one way or another. Get rid of that. Helen, you really reminding me of these famous studies about soldiers coming back from Vietnam in like hundreds of thousands of them were addicted to heroin in Vietnam and came back in? The researchers were expecting that we were going to have this incredible addiction problem because heroin so addictive and almost none of them relapsed. And this, like, went against all kind of medical dogma. And it turned out that it was this incredible change of the environment. Yeah. That made it so easy for all the triggers were gone. Yeah. Overnight. And you’ve been talking about love sort of in the context of addiction. Is that something similar where you’re you’re really trying to change your environment to get rid of all those?

S7: Absolutely. Perfectly said David. I mean, that gum means something to her. We’re an animal that symbolizes, you know, anthropologists spend a lot of time about wondering when it is that humankind was able to distinguish between water and holy water or between a pack of gum and aromas. And you’re very young. It’s a beautiful time for you. I hate to see your waste in it, but we all do. We all stay in relationships too long. There’s nothing unusual about your experience. What’s unusual is that you’re such a grown up about it and that you’re trying to figure it out.

S6: So here’s our next tip. If you’re trying to change your emotions, change your environment, get rid of the reminders that trigger unwanted feelings, it’ll feel like ripping off a Band-Aid. But breaking these cycles, Helen says it’s the only way to make your brain stop relying on that kick of dopamine you get from feeling in love.


S2: I understand the triggers. And, you know, you have like a lot of memories and stuff attached to them. How do I stop the memories themselves? What do I do when the memories are the triggers? It’s not even the chewing gum. It’s like something random might be thinking about and working. And then I’d suddenly remember. Well, yeah, that was a nice thing.

S9: Yeah, I remember that what I did once there was a guy and I created a one liner you’re always supposed to start with.

S7: I love being myself, so I love being myself with the perfect man of my own. I love being myself with a perfect man of my own. Now, perfect was all the list of traits I was looking for and of my own meant to me somebody who loved me. So when you’re in the shower and you start thinking about it, when you’re driving along in your car and you start thinking about it, come up with some sort of aphorism that has nothing to do with him and just start repeating it over and over and over to yourself. I mean, what I used to do was exactly the wrong thing. I turn up music to kill yourself by and I first dance and cry. Now, that’s stupid. I knew better than that. But the bottom line is I was the beginning of things. I should have gone out taking a run myself, going to see friends done anything except resurrect the ghost. So come up with one of those aphorisms. Can you cook up one now? Something that you could say right now. What would be your first stab at that? I love being myself with the perfect man.


S1: For me, something like that, I guess. I love being myself with a person who loves me and enjoy spending time with me. Do you mean it? You have to find something that you actually mean. Well, I, I, I keep telling myself I deserve better than to be. Yeah. Don’t do that. That’s going back into that world, OK?

S7: You’ve got to think up, you’ve got to think forward, not back. Nothing about I deserve better. No, I love being myself with the with the most handsome, charming, smart, funny guy that adores me. Forget about him. Don’t don’t. Don’t go back. Go forward. OK.

S1: I love being myself with the person who respects me and reciprocates or the love I have to offer. Perfect. OK.

S6: Here’s another tip, create a forward looking mantra. This is a tip we’ve heard from other experts on this show referring to a mantra it can interrupt counterproductive thought cycles. In this case, Helen says, you should start with I love being myself. So it avoids looking backward and triggering more memories. And what if scenarios.

S2: I’m following your advice, I’m definitely going to try and reduce our conversations to life as minimum as possible. But my question would be, should I still tell him how I feel, that I’m still struggling with the feelings?

S7: It’s worth saying that, you know, unfortunately, I triggered the brain circuitry for romantic love for you that night, and I’m having a hard time getting over. It is just a wonderful guy. And I know that it will be better for me to see if I can’t. Talk to you, OK? And I do think that if you pull away without him understanding it, I think it will be hurtful to him and hurtful to you and somewhat dishonest. The one thing that Cupid is going to help you out with is time. Time is going to help. And what you should probably do, maybe after you talk to him on the phone, is get some exercise that’ll drive up the dopamine system, make you feel better, go out with are you making any new friends in this new place?


S1: Yes, I did start running again. And I have and I started I joined a salsa class. Neomi I found a friend who was also willing to go for salsa classes. And so we do this online salsa class that we do together.

S5: So that’s very poor. You got to make new friends. You got to keep moving. Sarah, have you tried much online dating?

S1: I have. And I, I it’s it’s been a roller coaster. At first I just thought I should just swipe right on every person I think remotely is is my type. I literally swipe right on so many people to the point where I, I, I was tired, I had the data again, I was done.

S7: It is very tiring. I can’t agree with you. It is work. So I would say if you do it on the Internet after you’ve met and I mean met either on the Internet or off in the Internet, but seeing them engaged in conversation with somebody you can look at stop and get to know at least one of those people more. Do you have anybody that you can talk to accept him in an intimate way?

S1: I I haven’t explored another friend I can talk to because I. OK, this is my thinking that if I talk to someone about it, it becomes real. I don’t want it to be anything. I just want to go away. Can I hear you? I wanted to be like magic and it just like disappears. I feel like the minute I talk to somebody or like. I know.

S7: I know this sounds very funny and that’s really smart because one of the problems with women is that they keep they talk about it too much to their friends. And so every time after a while, they’re resurrecting the ghost. And I was having a ridiculous, ridiculous love affair.


S5: Helen told us her ridiculous love affair went on for nearly two decades and involved romantic getaways to more than 100 countries.

S7: And I saw the world many times and all of that. And I got some wonderful things out of it. But goodness, it was just a heartache the whole time. And I talked about it so much to my friends and they and they were all very sweet to me. And and it kept on saying, could be commiserated. And I finally realized that all that commiserate and just brought the ghost back again. So I think you’re on the right track, girl. I really do. I think you’re stepping away slowly. At least you’re getting some exercise. At least you’re making new friends. And if you can just think about moving forward instead of constantly sitting in this put in.

S6: Here’s our next tip, focus on the future, build up your life with activities you enjoy and with new friends, maybe don’t swipe right on everyone, but go on dates, even if it doesn’t feel like your heart’s fully in it. Yet, by opening yourself up, you’re getting closer to embracing this new stage of your life and eventually new feelings for someone else.

S9: Someday you will be ready. That’s the only really honest thing I can tell you from studying the brain. The day will come when you have had enough, and at that point you will be able to begin to go out with people with a genuine interest. Until then, I would not wallow in the past.

S6: For all her scientific expertise on the cycle of love, heartbreak and recovery, Helen also happens to be living it herself right now. And Helen, you actually just got married like this summer, right? I did to John Tierney, the science writer. Absolutely. And I think it read in your wedding announcement that he broke up with you at Grand Central Terminal. Absolutely. That seems like a terrible symbol. It’s like I’m breaking up with you so you can get on a train and go away. He got on the train. I walked home and sobbed. Helen had been dating John for six months at that point, but they’d known each other for decades. But then you didn’t contact him for six weeks?


S9: I did not contact that’s really important. And what was really important about it is he knew that here was a woman who wasn’t going to play him, who wasn’t going to go hammering on his daughter, wasn’t going to stop and leaving flowers on his doorstep. I didn’t contact him. And then he then he wrote me a note and said to me, I made a mistake. You’re the best thing that happened to me.

S4: Still, Helen waited two weeks before inviting him over.

S9: I said, you know, you start sleeping with somebody, you can trigger the brain circuitry for romantic love. So are you willing to take that chance? And he said yes. And so Helen got married. I had always thought that being married was not very different from living with somebody. And that’s what I’ve learned. It’s richer and deeper. So you’re still learning about love and romance? Yeah.

S5: Which leads us to our final tip or inspiration, really, at 75, Helens had serious relationships and serious heartbreak, but each time with time, Helen was able to move on and eventually found the man she was supposed to marry. But until that happens for Sarah, she had one last crucial question for Helen.

S1: A friend suggested, get a bit, get a dog or a cat. You just need to have something else to love. Your thoughts on that which you like better, cats or dogs is your question. I like you equally.

S7: Well, then I’d get a cat. And the reason I would get a cat is because someday you’re going to find another boy and you’re going to want to spend the night and you’d want to have to raise home to feed a dog. A cat can manage. You’ve been gone. All right. That is very.


S3: Thank you to Sarah for sharing her story with us and thanks to Helen Fisher for her great advice. Be sure to look for all her books, including Anatomy of Love, A Natural History of Mating Marriage and Why We Stray, in a quick update from Sarah.

S10: Hey, everyone. How do firstly, I replied, Helen’s self affirmations. It has been very helpful. I have been writing them on postcards. Bring them all around the house. Furthermore, I finally talked to a friend and it’s just heartwarming. I just wish I had talked to her before. Anyway, thank you so much for bringing Helen on here and I hope you guys keep doing your amazing work.

S3: Do you have a broken heart that needs mending or maybe something else we can help fix? Send us a belated Valentine and how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like what you heard today, please give us some love wherever you listen. By leaving a radio interview, it helps us find more lovelorn listeners. Outas executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob, our technical director, and Charles Duhigg is that guy whose initial advice prompted Sara to ask John out. Just Sam. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.