By John Lee Pendall
It never gets old because it never began.
Hi, I’m John, and I’m a serial unrequited lover. I recommend avoiding this at all costs. I’ve fallen in love six times in my life, and each one was one-sided. I’ve never really sat down and explored the reasons behind this. A few friends have suggested that I fear intimacy, but that’s not it. Well, it might be a little bit.
Really, I think neuroscience has the best answer: dopamine. I love me some dopamine. The “honeymoon” phase is usually the first part of long-term relationships. The brain is pumping out dopamine and oxytocin like crazy. The slightest touch or smile, their laugh, the way they walk and talk, all of these little things can flood the brain with feel-good juice. Then, of course, it passes. The brain gets habituated and starts releasing less and less dopamine over time.
When you love someone from afar, that never happens. Years (literally) can go by and every little thing they do can still send you swooning. That’s because the rewards (laughter, smiles, hugs, etc.) are infrequent. Infrequent rewards get us hooked a lot harder than reliable rewards do. Mice who are only randomly rewarded when they press a lever press hit a lot more than mice who get a reward each time they press it.
Unrequited love is more common in people with chemical imbalances because, well, we’ve got to get our neurotransmitters somewhere. Also, narcissists are well aware of this phenomenon and they use it to their advantage. Dependent partners sometimes stay in abusive relationships for a long time because of those rare moments when their partner is loving and kind.
How does all of this fit on a Buddhist website? This is about craving and attachment.
The Buddha didn’t talk about happy juices in the Sutras, but they’re still at work nonetheless. In light of neuroscience, the Second Noble Truth could be, “Suffering is caused by the mesolimbic dopamine system.”
If we get hooked on dopamine, then we’re going to build a tolerance or go through withdrawals. We’re gonna do a lot of off-the-wall shit to keep the dopamine flowing (like falling in love with people who have no romantic interest in you). One solution is to get your dopamine elsewhere: meditation. One study showed a 64% increase in dopamine in subjects (all experienced meditators) after they meditated (using Yoga Nidra) for one hour.
Pali Buddhism is a renunciant path. Practitioners learn to stop looking to people, places and things for happiness and instead find satisfaction in the practice itself.
By that logic, I could break my habit of falling in love with unavailable women by focusing more on mindfulness, meditation and ethics than on trying to find love. The problem is that everything’s impermanent, so any dopamine we get from “outside” isn’t going to last, but if we rely on something that isn’t external to us, then we can find a stable dopamine supply.
All of that said, I’m still sad. It’s hard to let go, and it hurts to hold on.
Hope is a beautiful thing, but it can cause so much pain. I need to follow Farong’s advice: “During times of confusion, give up all affairs. When you’re aware and don’t discriminate, confusion will stop, and be undistinguished.” Like any addiction, the way only way to kick it is to stop feeding it, and love is most definitely an addiction.
The pain will fade, the brain gets clean. Sometimes, all you can do is put your foot down, take a breath and wait it out.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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