If you’ve ever been dumped, or if you’ve even been the one to call it quits, you know that the end of a relationship is no picnic. Whether you saw it coming or you had the rug pulled out from under you, the pain of a breakup can sometimes feel impossible to overcome. But most of the time, we do indeed overcome it.
In fact, according to a new study out of Saint Louis University and published in Science Daily, evolutionary psychology suggests that people are actually hardwired to fall out of love and move onto new romantic relationships with relative ease. So what does that mean for the heartsick? We spoke with Brian Boutwell, PhD, a lead researcher on the study, about why breaking up isn’t the end of the world, after all.
We Reject Cruelty and Dysfunction
According to evolutionary psychology, a man may be more likely to end a relationship because of sexual infidelity, while a woman is more likely to break up with her partner due to emotional reasons. However, both men and women are built to reject dysfunction and are made to be able to assess a relationship as not worth pursuing if it is damaging to one’s survival and well-being. According to Boutwell, “Neither gender tends to tolerate or value cruelty on the part of their partner." This is a survival instinct that has long been a part of our DNA: An unhealthy relationship places our safety—and our ability to raise healthy, reproductive children—at risk. So if a relationship has ended, trust that it’s probably for the best, even if you can’t see things clearly in the moment.
We Assess Gains and Losses
According to the study, it would appear that all humans have the “mental module” needed to end and also move on from relationships (the researchers term this “mate ejection”). Our brains can disengage the very same circuits that are otherwise abuzz with the woozy effects of love, and thus seek to end a relationship and move on from it. We are able to assess gains and losses and, if we let our biology take the wheel, make the decision that is ultimately best for our survival, growth, and success. Of course, some people may be better at this than others: Based on other personality traits, such as decisiveness, confidence, or conviction, some individuals can objectively assess and move on from a failing relationship more swiftly than others (who perhaps are more codependent).
We're Not Actually Built for Extended Monogamy
Lest we forget that the primary evolutionary purpose of sex is to propagate our species, it turns out that people are actually most equipped to be “serial monogamists.” What does this mean? Boutwell suggests that most do in fact wish to be involved intimately with one person, but that that relationship might end after a period of time, and that both parties involved will likely seek new love. Boutwell posed this question: “What would be a very effective way to propagate genetic material and ensure that the child lives long enough to continue to do the same?” The answer seemed to be a stable relationship that lasts between 10 and 20 years. And then, if all goes as planned, another similar relationship.
We Pursue Other Fish
According to the study, Boutwell found that “people will recover; the pain will go away with time… There will be a light at the end of the tunnel.” That light is a new prospect for love. Boutwell suggests that moving on is a “survival adaptation,” not only a function of our changing dating landscape (ahem, looking at you, Tinder). If we obsessed over a failed love for our entire lives, we might become depressed and reclusive and, thus, unable to seek out new partners and reproduce. After we have assessed a relationship and found it to be wanting, we will likely seek a new partner. Similarly, if we are broken up with unexpectedly, we are able to (after some time, of course) make the decision to try to find love again.
Surprised by these findings? Share your comments below, and then shop our notebooks to purge negative thoughts, and get over that breakup, stat.