The TikTok influencer and podcaster Tinx is credited with coining the term “boyfriend sickness” to describe this particular phenomenon, although it affects people of all genders and sexual orientations. “Boyfriend sickness” comes for us all, she notes. “I’ve also been the girl who ditched her friends,” she says in her video.
Chanakya Ramdev, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Ontario, says he recalls falling victim to “boyfriend sickness” in his 20s, when he started dating his first serious girlfriend.
“I thought she was perfect and amazing and I wanted to spend all my time with her,” he said. Which, he said, he did — until one day, while scrolling through Instagram, he came to the realization that he’d abandoned the rest of his social group.
“When you are in the heat of the moment, you don’t realize it,” he said. “But looking back, you’re like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
While “boyfriend sickness” is certainly annoying if you’re the pal losing your buddy, it’s actually a normal, even healthy early relationship stage, experts say. And the good news is, it’s mostly temporary.
Why we neglect old attachments for new ones
When you start a new romantic relationship, you activate the brain’s attachment system, said Amir Levine, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Our attachment styles — secure, avoidant or anxious — are formed in childhood. While our friendships are important, when you’re in a romantic relationship, your brain works overtime to bond with your new partner.
“Humans are nuanced, but most of the time there’s one person at the top of hierarchy,” said Levine, co-author of “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love.”
“If something bad happens to you, there’s one person you’re going to call. It’s your safety mechanism.”
This means that when you meet a prospective partner, Levine says, you have to take a stranger and bond with them securely enough that they shoot to the top of your attachment system and become your safe haven. “It takes a lot of scrambling and neuro-circuitry rewiring to make this complete stranger someone important,” Levine said.
This process, Levine says, requires two people to spend a lot of alone time together, like going on dates, gazing into each other’s eyes and just generally being around each other. This activates your brain’s reward system, making it incredibly rewarding to be in your new partner’s presence and distressing to be apart.
This process can take a few months. But once you’ve had enough time to bond, securely attach and know your partner isn’t going to disappear if you get drinks with the girls one night, you’ll be able to comfortably explore your other relationships again.
Levine noted that couples tend to want to share their social circles with one another once they’ve attached. “The next stage of bonding is, ‘I want you to meet my friends and my family,” he said.
Oxytocin, a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and sent out through the bloodstream via the pituitary gland, has been dubbed the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone,” thanks to its role in social bonding.
Oxytocin, which is released during labor and nursing, plays a role in facilitating the connection between a mother and her offspring. Robert Froemke, a genetics professor at the NYU Neuroscience Institute and NYU Grossman School of Medicine Department of Otolaryngology says oxytocin and other related neurochemicals help a new parent hyperfocus on their infant, facilitating the difficult job of keeping a helpless baby alive.
The link between oxytocin and romantic love is less clear, but experts believe the hormone is also involved with pair-bonding between two new romantic partners. Once your brain has deemed a new romantic interest important, oxytocin may sharpen certain stimuli related to that person and relegate others to a back seat.
“We’ve all had the experience of going into a room or looking through a crowd and seeing certain faces pop out, people we know, or people we’re interested in,” said Froemke said. “It probably is the case that other sorts of neurons, at least oxytocin, are responsible for forming intense bonds when we start spending time with someone.”
Of course, the consequence of your brain focusing more on a new partner and less on everything else in your life is that you may spend less time with your friends, studies, work and other obligations, at least until your hormones settle.
“Brains are really good at attending to certain people or features of things that are important in the moment,” Froemke said.
Those left behind can struggle
Many people in new relationships fall into what’s known as a “limerence phase,” which is a deep infatuation and “complete preoccupation” with the other person, said Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist and the author of “Tell Me What You Want: A Therapist and Her Clients Explore Our 12 Deepest Desires.”
“It can pervade a lot of life, especially if you’re an obsessional type and have a mind-set where you think that love conquers all.”
Weber stresses that the experience can be painful for the friends left behind.
“I think it can feel threatening, and it can feel like a loss,” she said. “There can be a lot of social pressure to say how happy you are for the person. Part of you is happy but part of you feels ditched.”
Weber says that though romantic love is wonderful, it’s essential to remember that your friendships are important, too, and to make sure to nurture them even when you’re in the throes of new love. “Friendships are such a huge part of mental health, well-being, identity and purpose,” she said.
It’s also noteworthy that while a certain amount of solo couple-bonding is healthy and normal, if you truly haven’t seen or heard from your newly coupled friend in months, that could be a problem.
If you feel that your friend’s partner is trying to isolate them from family and friends, “it can mean they’re starting to get into insecure, unhealthy or even abusive relationship,” Levine said.
For some, the all-encompassing nature of a new relationship can make them realize they were previously leaning on unhealthy social patterns. Danny Groner, a 40-year-old New York City resident who works in marketing, says that meeting his now-wife in his 20s helped him gain maturity, even though it changed his friendships.
“I was 27 when I met my wife, who was a fully functional adult,” he said. Meeting his wife made him more aware that some of his antics, like wanting to be the center of attention to get laughs from friends, lacked maturity. “I realized I needed to achieve my potential and become an adult faster,” he said.
He dropped the comedy act and focused on the relationship. When he returned to his old friend group, things had changed. “Some of my friends liked the entertainer and missed that version,” he said. “But I don’t.”
That said, plenty of people are able to rejoin their friend groups after recovering from boyfriend sickness.
When Ramdev finally made his way back to his friend group after his Instagram eureka moment, “I did get some snarky comments,” he said. “But I feel they were well-deserved, because my friends were like, ‘Where have you been all this time?’”