Considering love and science at the Museum of Broken Relationships
Seven hours into the flight to Croatia I start worrying about the juggler’s balls in the luggage hold below. The balls were a gift from my ex-girlfriend Andrea, who made them out of socks stuffed with rice. They were exactly the right size for my hands and, more importantly, reminded me of the day I taught Andrea to juggle on the lawn outside my apartment.
I’d gotten her to the point where she could cycle through a few rounds with gritted teeth and wildly flailing limbs. I went inside while she practiced, catching her profile through the window: hair spiked, body tilted to 45 degrees, chasing her tosses across the window before disappearing. I laughed, but when she came back for another pass, I began to cry—overwhelmed by the knowledge that I was absolutely, incontrovertibly in love with this crazy person running through my yard. But nine months of elation dissolved into nine months of hell, until we broke our engagement over differing opinions on fidelity. From there it was five years of putting myself back together until, finally, there I was, 40,000 feet above Greenland, about to hand the juggler’s balls over to a couple I’d never met who ran a museum I half suspected was a brilliant gimmick.
The Museum of Broken Relationships was conceived late one night at a kitchen table in Zagreb. Late because Olinka Vistica worked long hours coordinating Croatia’s biggest film festival and late because Drazen Grubisic, her now ex-boyfriend, never put words together effectively until after noon. They sat across from each other in the house that seemed already cleaved down the middle, divvying up the physical remains of their four years together. Some objects were easily sorted by value—she gets the TV, he gets the computer—but then there were the incalculables, the objects with little monetary worth but pounds of emotional weight. Objects like the Little Wind-up Bunny.
The bunny is scruffy and about five inches tall. Sometimes, when Olinka came home, she’d find him marching in circles in the entryway. If one of them left on a trip, the bunny went in the suitcase, and the partner at home got photos. There’s one picture of the bunny in Iran and another of him on a podium addressing a crowd. Late at night with their possessions all around them, Olinka and Drazen asked the question “What about the Little Wind-up Bunny?” and hit on an answer that would snowball into a museum and send them both around the world.
Olinka and Drazen are artists, and they did what artists often do: They put their feelings on display. They became investigators into the plane wreck of love, bagging and tagging individual pieces of evidence. Their collection of breakup mementos was accepted into a local art festival. It was a smash hit. Soon they were putting up installations in Berlin, San Francisco, and Istanbul. Everywhere they went, people packed the halls and delivered their own relics of extinguished love: “The Silver Watch” with the pin pulled out at the moment he first said “I love you.” The “Ex Axe” that a woman used to chop up her cheating lover’s furniture. Trinkets that had meaning only to two souls found resonance with a worldwide audience.
A growing body of scientific research into the mysteries of the heart suggests that heartbreak’s grip is tighter than we thought. Love, says one theory, is a form of persistent craving akin to addiction. Stanton Peele, a social psychologist, calls love one of the most powerful addictions on earth. He wrote in Psychology Today that the seven hardest addictions to quit are cocaine, alcohol, Valium, heroin, cigarettes, fatty foods, and, in the top spot, love.
My relationship with Andrea, the juggler, was like an addiction. The relationship went like this: exhilaration, then jealousy, a rapid descent into despair, and a bewildering inability to leave until, finally, the breakup. In the process, I dropped out of school, lost 20 pounds, and started smoking. On the other hand, my prior relationship was relatively sane. Our breakup was less like driving off a cliff and more like cruising on a desert highway until we ran out of gas. We leaned against the kitchen counter one morning with our eyes aimed at the floor and sadly acknowledged that the relationship was over.
When I learned that Olinka and Drazen were in the process of refurbishing a palace—a palace—to house a permanent homage to love’s smoldering remains, I resolved to join them in Croatia at the museum’s grand opening.
In Zagreb’s old uptown, I walk through the palace’s large doors and into the white-walled museum. Paint rollers and towels litter a table in the reception area, and tarps, buckets, and ladders are spread across the rest of the room. Post-it notes identify the exhibition’s objects and country of origin. A hot pink vibrator simply reads “Toy. Ireland.”
Olinka, a former dancer, moves with a disarming mixture of grace and awkwardness, like a teenage girl who grew too fast. Drazen, whose face is a delta of laugh lines, shakes my hand and offers a tour.
The rooms, Drazen explains, are ordered by theme. Each room holds a couple dozen items. Some, like the “Ex Axe,” are simply nailed to the wall. Beside each object is its story in English and Croatian:
“A Car’s Side-View Mirror” (1983–1988). Zagreb, Croatia. One night his car was parked in front of the “wrong” house. He paid for that with his side-view mirror. I was sorry afterwards since the car was not to blame. The wipers also got their share, but they were made of more solid material and stayed on the car. The following day, when the “gentleman” came home, he told me a weird story about hooligans who tore off his side-view mirror and bent the wipers. It was so funny that I was tempted to confess. Still, he never told me where he’d been that evening and neither did I. It was the beginning of the end of our relationship.
Other rooms are more sorrowful. Some of the exhibits in the War Room allude to recent bloody history. “A Child’s War-Time Love Letter,” an ode to a three-day love affair, was written by a 13-year-old boy in an escape convoy fleeing Sarajevo under fire. He wrote it to the cute girl in the car behind him. One item per shelf, lit individually, highlights a single love in a single life against the backdrop of war, immigration, and economic depression. On the wall, a quote from Emerson reads, “There is properly no history. Only biography.”
At a table in the museum’s café, a laminated roll of placards bears the individual histories that will be posted alongside each piece:
“Intimate Shampoo” (1995–1996). Split, Croatia. After the Relationship ended, my mother used it for glass polishing. She claims it works absolutely great.
“Pen” (April 2004–August 2006). Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’m just really sorry I didn’t smash this pen the moment I got it, because then I wouldn’t have written all that romantic crap he didn’t deserve.
“Man, breaking up really does suck,” Olinka says.
Research into why breaking up sucks is a relatively recent phenomenon. When Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at SUNY Stony Brook, fell in love as a PhD student in 1969, he tried to read up on love’s chemical and physiological effects but found almost no rigorous scientific research. Undaunted, Aron proceeded to spend the lion’s share of the next 40 years studying the psychology of love.
In 2005 Aron teamed up with some neurologists and Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist who devised the questionnaire used to match people on Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com. Their first experiment placed happily-in-love people in an fMRI scanner. They found neural activation in areas of the brain linked with reward, excitement, and euphoria. Aron says this is probably indicative of early-stage love. Over time, activation in this reward area can diminish. The car runs out of gas.
The processes that keep people together take place elsewhere in the brain. It’s a trait we share with only a few other animals, like the prairie vole.
Prairie voles are monogamous. Ninety-seven percent of mammals are not, sleeping around indiscriminately. Prairie vole couples, however, nest up on the first date, avoid other potential sexual partners, and become doting parents. Understanding why prairie voles go all Ozzie and Harriet sheds light on the psychological substrate of human love.
Reproduction behavior in the faithful vole is driven by three neurochemicals released during sex: dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing chemical, linked to the reward section of the brain. It’s found in monogamous and nonmonogamous mammals alike—it’s the basic “sex is fun” chemical that fuels the sex drive. Oxytocin and vasopressin, on the other hand, are monogamy-inducing chemicals and are present only in faithful mammals like humans and prairie voles. They are active in a section of the brain involved with recognition, and scientists believe that the faithful vole links the pleasure of sex with the features of its partner. When researchers block the monogamy chemicals, the voles become promiscuous.
But while research seems to shed light on how people—and maybe voles—fall in love, the question remains: Why is heartbreak so devastating?
So Aron and Fisher took 17 heartbroken students and placed them in fMRI scanners. They showed the students pictures of the people who’d dumped them and studied how their brains responded.
“We saw activation in the part of the brain associated with craving for drugs,” Aron says.
Fisher and Aron call love a “goal state,” closely linked with addictions. Unlike emotions, which can flare, a goal state requires a stable yearning for something—for warmth when you’re cold or a hit if you’re an addict.
It’s likely, Aron says, that our brains evolved to crave love—or at least the pleasing oxytocin chemicals associated with it. The same reasons we yearn for love’s embrace, he says, are the reasons we’re susceptible to dangerous drug addiction. But it’s not just our brains that are wired for love.
We think of heartbreak as metaphoric, but the body actually does respond to emotional trauma, releasing a flood of stress chemicals like adrenaline that, in some cases, can overwhelm an otherwise healthy person and cause his or her heart to spasm. Broken heart syndrome, as it’s colloquially known, has been tracked at the nation’s leading heart clinics since 2005, but because its symptoms look so similar to those of a heart attack, it is often misdiagnosed, says Ilan Wittstein, an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Heart Institute.
“Even at the emergency room level, they’re going to treat you for a heart attack,” Wittstein says. “It’s not until you’ve checked into the hospital and they perform an echocardiogram or a heart catheterization that the difference becomes clear.”
People with broken heart syndrome have an enlarged left ventricle and a closing of the arteries due to overwhelming emotion. “You could easily end up in the intensive care unit,” Wittstein says, “and without care you could die.”
Understanding the science behind heartache is leading us ever closer to finding its cure. Fisher is already theorizing that a solid dose of serotonin might prevent a happily married wife from falling for her neighbor.
The day before the museum opens, the paint supplies are gone and Olinka and Drazen are side by side debating the proper placement of a garter belt that hangs limply from a single nail.
“Garter belts” (Spring–Autumn 2003). Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I never put them on. The relationship may have lasted longer if I had.
When the exhibition idea caught fire, thrusting Olinka and Drazen into a working relationship, they both willingly accepted it. It wasn’t what either of them envisioned doing, they say, but it hit a nerve, and, as artists, they found it hard to turn down exhibit offers and sold-out international tours. The permanent museum was the next logical step.
Drazen moves on to pondering the best placement of papier-mâché breasts. The whole bodice is painted peach. The nipples are bubble gum pink. A string hangs from each corner to allow the handmade prosthetic boobs to be tied on.
“Fake Breasts” (three years). Belgrade, Serbia. After three years together, my husband brought home fake, sculpted breasts which were, of course, larger than mine, and that was the time of our biggest relationship crisis. He made me wear them during sex because they turned him on. I was disappointed and, because of those fake breasts, I left him for good.
Drazen leaves on a short errand and comes back later holding a black plastic bag. “I have the frame for the sunshine penis,” he says.
“Photograph” (1993–1995). Bloomington, Indiana. This is the Florida lake where I skipped school with my boyfriend. The arrow indicates the spot where I first saw a penis in the sunshine.
The town mayor offered to do a ribbon cutting at the grand opening, but Olinka and Drazen instead opted for a pair of high-profile Croatian actors—a man and a woman who had been together but famously split up. If the mayor wanted to open the museum, he was told, first he’d have to leave his wife.
A purple-and-white banner reading “The Museum of Broken Relationships” is unfurled in front of the building. Then the guests arrive.
As the famous ex-couple sings in the square outside the museum, the drinks flow, the rain starts, and the space blossoms with bright, festive umbrellas. The actors delight everyone with their rendition of “Ciao, Amore!” Guests wander through the museum, drinks and food in hand. It is like many gallery openings—with one noticeable exception: No one stands back, head cocked, hand on chin, to hold forth on a piece’s true meaning. It’s hard to wax philosophical about a pair of pink fuzzy handcuffs in the Sex Room. Instead, the night feels like the christening of a ship: buoyant and champagne-filled.
Later, after I return home, I think about the hatchet the woman used to chop her cheating lover’s furniture into smithereens, the fake breasts and their ridiculous attempt at the erotic. The pieces mirror my own rage, awkwardness, and despair. They remind me of my flailings in the face of love.
But instead of feeling shame, I am relieved. Faced with such overwhelming evidence of human lunacy, I let go of the notion that there is, somewhere, a proper, measured response to losing love. A broken heart makes us human, and sometimes being human is a ridiculous, painful, desperate thing. The museum is a uniting reminder that sometimes it’s OK to get a little crazy.
A couple of months after I returned from Zagreb, my girlfriend Maggie and I split. I hadn’t felt heartbreak in years, and the force of it was surprising. You don’t realize how many times a day you think of your partner: “I can’t wait to tell Maggie this” or “I wonder what Maggie wants for dinner.” One day I counted. I thought of Maggie 73 times in 24 hours. I’d say “we” instead of “I” or forget that she wouldn’t be there every morning when I woke up. Sometimes I’d feel nauseous and disoriented.
Larry Young, a psychiatrist at Emory University, made waves recently when he speculated that within this century, we will have a pill to fall in or out of love. Something about that prospect is unsettling. Do we want to tamper with the nerve roots of Shakespearean sonnets, the Taj Mahal, and the blues? There’s no question that at times I wanted a drug to fall out of love faster—to ease that piercing pain. I would have done almost anything to sleep, to regain enthusiasm. But wouldn’t I also miss surfacing from the depths, the part where I get to see how the world can be even more beautiful with a bruised and fragile heart?
Down the path of medically managed love lies yet another way to numb us to the world. Another “addiction” to control, another wild human adventure tamed. But in our increasingly manicured lives, isn’t it good to have something that hits us like a tanker in the night?
Shannon Service is a producer and journalist in Sausalito, California. Excerpted from Brink (2011–2012), the premiere issue of a news and feature magazine launched by the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. http://brinkmag.org