Addicted to love

Five years ago, I heard on the radio the chilling eyewitness accounts of a very public murder in a quiet, well-to-do neighbourhood of Pickering, Ontario. Neighbours heard Gillian Hadley's cries for help before they saw her naked on her front lawn, holding her 11-month-old baby boy in one arm, the other in the grip of her estranged husband, Ralph. Despite concerted attempts by two male onlookers to wrest her away from this man, in the end he managed to take her inside, shut the door, and shoot her in the head. This, from the husband she'd once, presumably, loved, and the father of her small son.

This scenario isn't exclusive to any single part of society. Similar incidents have occurred in big cities and small towns, poor neighbourhoods and affluent””the worst possible outcome of a relationship gone sour, leaving one partner with a bitter, gut-twisting taste of rejection so strong it's lethal.

Writers have been exploring the theme of unrequited or lost love for centuries. But only recently has heartbreak become a subject for scientific research. An intriguing 2005 study looked at the physiology of rejection using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Helen Fisher and her colleagues in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University in New York examined the brains of 10 women and five men who were still in love but had recently been dumped. Participants looked alternately at photographs of their former lover and of familiar individuals about whom they felt neutral. For comparison, researchers also scanned the brains of people who were happily in love.

When they looked at photos of the person who had jilted them, the rejected participants showed greater activity in the region of the brain associated with risk-taking, motivation to win, and a preoccupation with others. Brain activity could also be seen in the area associated with skin and muscle pain, and the region linked to controlling anger and obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Other parts of the brain, such as those used for smell or for rhyming words, showed no increased activity.

Based on her findings, Fisher published an article in the Medical Post this February advising doctors to treat breakups as potential medical emergencies. She said that some people can't deal with the changes happening in their brains and so become a serious liability to themselves or to others. In her story, Fisher likened rejection to cold-turkey withdrawal from drugs, with similar symptoms: withdrawal, obsession, personality change, irrational thoughts and behaviour, cravings, relapses, crying, and appetite loss.

An attachment primer

Attachment is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, it fulfills a basic requirement for survival, according to SFU research psychologist Antonia Henderson. “We have an innate need to seek proximity to others,”  Henderson told the Georgia Straight by phone. “Just think of the baby crawling about on his own exploring the world. He hears a loud bang and goes straight back to mom, his attachment figure. Our romantic partners become our adult attachment figures.”  Unfortunately, one's need for proximity to that figure doesn't always change even if one is abusive or the object of abuse.

It's no surprise that our early experiences with attachment will affect our adult relationships. If our attachment needs are frustrated when we are young, this could lead to trouble later on, Henderson pointed out. What is surprising is that inconsistent parenting is just as damaging as parenting characterized by consistent rejection, she said. “Kids who are sometimes rejected and sometimes accepted by their parents, for example, are more likely to hang on for dear life to their adult partners.”  Of course, kids who are consistently rejected will grow up with problems of their own. The answer is not for parents to be perfect, but for them to be aware of just how damaging rejection can be.

Not everyone reacts to rejection and its physiological changes by becoming abusive or violent. But those who do can be predicted, according to a study led by SFU research psychologist Antonia Henderson, in the August 2005 issue of the Journal of Family Violence. What's important is not the strength of the relationship but the type of attachment, Henderson told the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview.

According to an attachment model developed by SFU psychologist Kim Bartholomew, who authored the study with Henderson, there are four types of attachment: secure (comfortable with intimacy, self-confident); fearful (dependent on others, but uncomfortable with intimacy due to fear of rejection; low self-esteem); dismissing (compulsively self-reliant and emotionally distant); and preoccupied (overly invested and involved in close relationships, dependent on others for self-worth, demanding and needy).

The study, which involved interviews with 128 Vancouver men and women who had experienced psychological and physical abuse, suggested that a preoccupied attachment was more likely to lead to abuse. “People who are preoccupied are torn between a need for love and support from others and the fear of not having that need gratified,”  Henderson said. “As a result, they can become demanding and aggressive when attachment needs are not fulfilled.” 

What can be done with this new knowledge? Henderson sees applications in relationship counselling. As for a cure for broken hearts, it remains elusive for now, but the work of Fisher and Henderson has at least taken it out of the realm of pure fiction.