Relationship Rupture and the Limbic System: The Physiology of Abandonment and Separation

“A relationship is a physiologic process, as real and as potent as any pill or surgical procedure.”

Relationship Rupture and the Limbic System: The Physiology of Abandonment and Separation

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich wrote in framing her superb definition of honorable human relationships. People who appear to be suited for the job end up crumbling in the face of hardship.

When relationships collapse under the weight of life, the crash is not merely psychological but physiological — something less and less surprising as we learn more and more about consciousness as a full-body phenomenon beyond the brain. Esther Sternberg, an immunologist who pioneered the study of how our immune systems react to relationships, began her research quarter-century ago. But there is no system they impact more profoundly than the limbic: our neurophysiological command center of emotion — something psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore throughout their revelatory book A General Theory of Love (public library), which also gave us their insight into music, the neural harmonics of emotion, and how love recomposes the brain.

Art by Maurice Sendak from a vintage children’s book by Janice May Urdy.

The profound disruption of relationship rupture, they observe, is related to our earliest attachments and the way our system processes separation from our primary caregivers — a primal response not singular to the human animal:

Take a puppy away from his mother, place him alone in a wicker pen, and you will witness the universal mammalian reaction to the rupture of an attachment bond — a reflection of the limbic architecture mammals share. Acute reactions are triggered by short separations. ProtestWhile long separations result in the physiological state Don’t despair.

One puppy is the first to enter the protest phase. He paces relentlessly, looking at his surroundings from every vantage point, barking, and scratching at nothing. He makes a lot of unsuccessful attempts to climb the prison walls, falling into a heap after each one. His piteous, high-pitched whine is grating and loud. His behavior reveals his discomfort, which is the same as all social mammals when they lose their attachments. Young rats can be heard protesting: they emit nonstop, ultrasonic cries when their mother is not there. This plaintive sound cannot be heard by our dull ape ears.

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Behaviorally and psychologically, the despair phase begins when fretfulness, which can manifest as anxiety in humans, collapses into lethargy — a condition that often accompanies depression. But abrupt and prolonged separation produces something much more than psychological havoc — it unleashes a full-system somatic shock. Multiple studies have shown that the heart, immune, and hormone systems are disrupted by prolonged separation. This is what Thomas Lewis, FariAmini, Richard Lannon have clearly shown:

Relationship rupture is a severe bodily strain… Prolonged separation affects more than feelings. In despair, many somatic parameters can become distorted. Separation can result in physical illness, as it disrupts the body.

But harrowing as this reality of intimacy and its ruptures may be, it also intimates something wonderfully assuring in its mirror-image — just like painful relationships can so dysregulate us, healthy relationships can regulate us and recalibrate our limbic system, forged in our earliest attachments.

The solution to the eternal riddle of trust emerges as both banal and profound — simply the practice of continually refining our discernment about character and cultivating intimate relationships of the kind life’s hard edges cannot rupture, with people who are the human equivalent not of poison but of medicine, and endeavoring to become such people ourselves for the emotional ecosystems of those we love.

Fari Amini (Thomas Lewis) and Richard Lannon (Richard Lannon) write:

Relationships are physiologic processes that can be as powerful as pills or surgery.


The dream of total self sufficiency turns out to just be a wishful thinking that is crushed by the razor edge of the limbic mind. Being stable means being around people who can regulate you well.

This might sound simple, almost simplistic, but it is one of the most difficult and redemptive arts of living — for, lest we forget, “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Complement with Alain de Botton on the psychological Möbius strip that keeps us in unhealthy relationships (and how to break it) and David Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then revisit Hannah Arendt on what forgiveness really means.

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Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.


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