Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'm Unhappy, Why Can't I Leave?

Position of the nucleus accumbens and Ventral ...Image via Wikipedia

Why is ending a relationship so difficult? Why do we agonize over the decision to leave a partner when we are unhappy? When the pain of staying in the relationship is overwhelming, why do we continue to hesitate over the decision to go?

These questions deserve an answer. When we enter into a relationship we enjoy the newly found pleasurable interactions. Our brain reacts to this exchange by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, when the nucleus accumbens or pleasure center is stimulated. Dopamine is a feel good chemical in the body. Therefore the more we experience good times with our new partner the more dopamine we produce, and the more pleasure we feel.

The prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, is concerned with rational decision making and long term consequences. The prefrontal cortex tracks every moment spent with our new partner. As our relationship continues over the years, we begin to notice more and more instances when our partner is irritating. This irritation causes the amount of dopamine produced by our now less stimulated pleasure center to drop. We don't feel as good as we did before. The thinking brain begins to weigh the decision to remain in the relationship against the amount of pleasure received. As dopamine levels drop further, the thinking brain begins to lean toward the decision of leaving the relationship.

However this part of the brain doesn't make all the decisions alone. The pleasure center has developed an attachment as a result of all the dopamine released over the years. Now whenever dopamine is released the pleasure center revels in its arrival with strong good feelings. We have become hooked on our addiction to dopamine and the resultant good feelings.

Another area of the brain which weighs in during decision making is the amygdala. The amygdala formulates decisions based on impulse and emotion. This may account for our tendency to feel the urge to run when the going gets tough, or to stay when the relationship is proceeding smoothly.

Over time as the relationship degrades we receive less and less dopamine forcing our pleasure center to starve. The amygdala weighs in on the decision impulsively, first one way then another. The thinking brain begins to make the decision that leaving the relationship is the logical course of action. Different parts of the brain begin working toward determining the best outcome. When these parts disagree, as in the thinking brain, amygdala and the pleasure center, we experience cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance exists when we hold two contradictory ideas in our mind at the same time. This may cause us to experience uncomfortable feelings such as: anxiety, shame, anger and stress. At this point we have two choices, we can reconcile our ideas and make a decision that we feel is in our best interest, or we can begin to rationalize. If we choose to rationalize - creating false reasons or justifications to support a decision we know is not in our best interest - this can lead to confirmation bias and defense mechanisms kicking it to support the ego.

Overall we discover that a seemingly simple decision, leaving a relationship that is causing unhappiness and pain, is not easy. The loss of the good feelings we initially experienced in the relationship coupled with attachment, causes unhappiness and pain. When the pain of staying in the relationship is outweighed by the pain of leaving the relationship, we continue to stay, waiting for the occasional burst of dopamine. As the relationship collapses and the pain of staying outweighs the pain of leaving, we eventually make the choice to move on.

Although we will experience pain and loss in either instance, the short term pain of severing the ties with our partner will decrease over time and we will once again begin the task of rebuilding our self esteem and using our tools to ensure our recovery.

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