Whether we realize it or not, we actually experience our first heartbreak at birth. Torn away from the once familiar and protective space of a mother’s womb, we come into the world wailing at the separation. This is appeased rather quickly with skin-to-skin contact, or what is referred to as “kangaroo care” in the hospital room, but it’s safe to say that a loss is felt and a longing for oneness has begun. By the time we reach adulthood, it’s likely that we will experience several more incidents of heartbreak. However, as our relationships get more and more complex, the way we recover from them isn’t always as straightforward.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Growing Self Counseling & Coaching based in Denver, is one of many experts who recognizes the power behind human connection—both the good and the bad. That’s why she argues that it’s completely natural to want love and to feel completely broken and unraveled when it is no longer there. After all, forming good and healthy bonds is what we’re all put on this earth to do. Sometimes, though, these bonds just don’t work out. In her new book Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love, Bobby explains the prolonged connection to a past relationship and how it can be just as profound as an addiction to heroin or cocaine or alcohol.
Dangerously in Love
For some reason, we tend to think of love as a purely emotional phenomenon but there’s actually a large scientific component behind the intoxicating experience. Biologically, we are affected. Chemically, we are under its influence. As Bobby describes it: “When people fall in love, it is a very distinct, physiologically-based mood state that is an altered state of consciousness that has a great deal in common with cocaine addiction. They experience euphoria, more energy, a decreased need for sleep. They are in all kinds of tumultuous things as a result of being awash in dopamine, the exact same way that cocaine stimulates you.”
Due to our strong human craving for connection, the bonds that we make in a romantic relationship are particularly sticky and powerful and, along with this power, potentially dangerous. “Love and pain are light and dark sides of the same coin,” Bobby says. “It’s emotional algebra. The more you care about someone, the more it will hurt when the relationship ends.” Whether we like it or not, the risk comes in playing the game. And this game, unlike any other, is naturally irresistible.
Finding Mr. or Mrs. Right
Over time, we’ve picked up many cues when it comes to finding the “one,” some of which, unfortunately, are very misguided. For instance, one of the greatest characteristics that people look for in a relationship is “having butterflies.” However, this particular attribute may not actually be a good thing to begin with. In fact, from a psychology standpoint, butterflies are simply a symptom of anxiety. “It doesn’t mean a thing, except you feel anxious,” says Bobby. “The truth is, we develop those butterfly-y, tingly feelings for all kinds of people and that has nothing to do with their suitability as a long-term partner.” She goes one step further to point out that having butterflies, or anxiety, may instead be a sign that there’s something to be worried about, rather than excited.
Another thing that people often do is rush into things in such a way that they are no longer able to make rational, healthy decisions for themselves anymore. To this, Bobby advises taking it slow and really getting to know the person, which realistically can take several months to do. Instead of the constant communication that culture propels, she suggests, “Go out to dinner and then go home again—and don’t talk to them for a few days.” Keeping a distance may seem detached or unengaging, but it’s exercising temporary restraint for a potentially lasting reward. “If you are rushing into something and allowing this biochemical passion to sweep you away, you could wake up several months from now and find that you have bonded to somebody who is of low character, whose values and life goals are very different from yours and who may make you miserable as a long-term partner.” Choosing how you spend time with someone in a romantic context is a way to prevent unwanted attachment—because once the feelings kick in, it’s often very hard to turn back the dial.
More Than a Sob Story
Even with all the precautions in place, however, there is still no sure shot when it comes to love. People deserve to have loving, healthy relationships in their lives, but it’s clear not every romantic relationship ends up that way. In Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love, Bobby not only provides understanding and sympathy for those in a difficult place after a breakup, but also gives professional guidance to what someone can do to help him or herself move on and eventually love again. She presents stories of clients she’s worked with in the past so readers can have real-life cases to relate to. She also teaches people how to develop a healthy, new relationship that’s based on their core values and what they want.
In order to heal the broken-hearted and extend recovery, Bobby turns to the tried-and-true principles of the industry’s most successful program: Alcoholics Anonymous. As we now know, attachment is at the core of any addiction so having a community of support can be incredibly healing. And for those who have lost the very attachment bond that they would usually find their source of healing in, this community of support is even more pivotal. In Bobby’s own words: “Support groups and building healthy relationships and being integrated into a community is so important for anyone with a substance abuse problem, but for somebody—an exaholic—it’s even moreso because they have lost the center of their lives.”
Where Do Broken Hearts Go?
Whitney Houston sang about it in her 1988 hit to no response. Now, 27 years later, we finally have an answer—or, at least a direction to point towards. “Exaholics” isn’t just a term used in Bobby’s book to refer to those suffering from an addiction to their ex, but also the name of an online support group that utilizes the 12-steps to foster recovery within their community of now 6,453 members. Bobby is one of ten experts on the board who hosts free webinars and posts blog tips for users, many of whom sign-in daily as part of their routine.
Dr. Jeff Gardere, who some may know as “Dr. Jeff” from the reality TV series The Real Housewives of Atlanta, is also a member of the Exaholics team. As a clinician and "America's Psychologist," he sees how breakups can affect an individual physiologically and refers to the effects as “withdrawal symptoms.” “We see people who start having issues with raised blood pressure,” he says. “Their emotional immune system tends to become lowered so they tend to be more at risk for colds. They end up having some addict symptoms where they’re having stomachaches and headaches all the time.” Their behaviors may also become very self-destructive as people often look towards unhealthy substitutes to feed their addiction and what was previously the main supplier of dopamine to their system. Whatever the case may be, the Exaholics community is a safe and accessible space to share in the process of breakup recovery as well as encourage each other while “counting days,” a term used on the site to keep track of how long a person has refrained from contacting his or her ex—the ultimate sign of abstinence.
The Power of Connection
It’s no surprise that having healthy and secure attachments is one of the keys to happiness. We not only see this as a general rule to life but also in the specific confines of recovery. Bobby even goes so far as to say that “the degree to which people are able to develop healthy, supportive, new attachments is the degree to which they will be able to heal from their substance abuse problem.” That one-on-one correlation is exactly why AA works so well. Friendships, mentorships and sponsorships are all ways that those in the recovery community stay so strongly connected and are of such great support and inspiration for each other.
If you or someone you know is thinking about jumping back into the dating pool, it is important that any remaining void from a previous relationship is filled with new and healthier ones. You should also clearly assess what went wrong in the past and what you can do better in a new relationship. These things will help you enter into the next chapter of life as a much wiser and stronger individual. Not only will you be a better person to date, but you can also be the support that someone else may need somewhere down the road.
At the end of the day, love is a dangerous game. You may either meet the love of your life or have your heart broken by the wrong match. However, with the right community to support you on hand, you now have what it takes to keep playing until you have that perfect, winning hand.
Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is now available for purchase at both Barnes & Nobles and Amazon. Grab a copy if you or a loved one needs some extra help in moving on from an ex.