Your Brain Is Wired To Move On After Heartbreak, Study Says

03/28/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Mar 31, 2015

We know that humans are wired to fall in love, but are we also built to break up?

Love is what evolutionary psychologists call a human universal -- a fundamental human experience that appears across all cultures. According to a new study, the experience of falling out of love and moving on to a new partner may be just as universal.

A recent review of evolutionary psychology literature, conducted by researchers at Saint Louis University, Florida State University and the University of Cincinnati, suggests that humans are built to experience the pain of a breakup and then move on to a new partner, and that our brains actually facilitate the severing of romantic ties.

The researchers explain that the ability to endure heartbreak and ultimately enter a new relationship may have offered an evolutionary advantage.

"In our evolutionary past, selection pressures may have been such that individuals who could successfully jettison a mate and find a new one, when the situation called for it, would have been better able to solve the evolutionary imperative of reproduction -- in other words, they sent more of their genes on to the next generation," Dr. Brian Boutwell, an epidemiologist at Saint Louis University and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post.

Boutwell and his colleagues looked at the process of falling out of love and ending a relationship (what they call "primary mate ejection") and the process of entering a new relationship ("secondary mate ejection"). Drawing on research showing that the brain circuitry involved in romantic love is also implicated in addictive behaviors, they hypothesized that falling out of love and moving on is a process akin to overcoming a drug addiction. And of course, those who are able to do so successfully have better survival and reproductive odds.

The findings also show that while both men and women fall out of love and move on to new romantic relationships, they are likely motivated to break up for different reasons.

"Males would be especially likely to jettison a mate when they expect that a partner has been sexually unfaithful," Boutwell said in an email. "Females, on the other hand, would be expected to jettison a mate when they have become unable (or unwilling) to provide resources and to ensure the survival and safety of the female and her offspring."

So what does this say about monogamy? The study suggests that humans are indeed wired to be with just one person -- but not necessarily for a lifetime.

"Humans are (generally speaking) serial monogamists," Boutwell said. "We virtually never mate for life with one partner, so mate ejection provides a mechanism for moving between partners when that becomes necessary."

The findings were published March 2 in the journal Review of General Psychology.

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