How to help a friend with a broken heart

Friends play a critical role in the getting-over-your-ex process. But once you show up, it can be tricky to know what your hurting friend needs. Should you play therapist? Social coordinator? Speaker of heretofore unspoken truths?

Experts say a delicate smattering of all three — emphasis on delicate.

"Romantic love is an addiction," says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, a leading expert in the science of human attraction who uses magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain in love. "When you are rejected in love, you don't stop loving the person; in fact, you can love them more. Any kind of barrier to getting something you want makes you want it even more."

Which is good to know, before you set off trying to help your lovesick pal.

"The whole point of knowing this is an addiction is to treat it as an addiction," says Fisher. "People assume we've got enough control of ourselves to snap out of it, but in an addiction you can't assume that any longer. You've got someone who's deeply in love, deeply attached, experiencing intense craving and physical and emotional pain. That's not a good combination for happiness."

It's also why you should help your friend toss the old love letters, take down the photos and un-Facebook-friend the ex.

"If you want to give up drinking, you don't keep a bottle of bourbon on your desk," says Fisher. "Get rid of all the stimuli that's likely to trigger the intense craving."

Even if your friend is the one who called off the relationship, he or she is still experiencing withdrawal and loss, and might need your permission to mourn.

"I had this incredibly amicable divorce where we went, 'Oh, my God. This isn't working. Let's get divorced,' " says Sascha Rothchild, author of "How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage." "I started dating immediately and pretended like I was having the most fun ever for a year, until I actually had a meltdown at someone else's wedding."

In hindsight, Rothchild wishes a friend had stepped in earlier.

"If my friends had said, 'It's OK to cry and be pathetic,' it might have given me license to get to those feelings sooner," she says. "I wish someone had said to me, 'You need to cry,' and shaken me out of my, 'Oh my God, I'm having the best time drinking and wearing clothes a 17-year-old would wear.' "

Help your friend find his or her better self, in other words.

And ideally, says Rothchild, the togetherness and advice-giving take place outside of the house.

"Bring them coffee and slowly ease them out the door," she says. "It's really important to not let your world get small."

All the better if you can ease them toward a new experience. "Take them to a place they would never go in a million years," she says. "A monster truck rally. A museum. Not necessarily to meet someone, but just to look around and see, 'There are so many people in the world and I owe it to myself to not spend too long pining over someone I'm no longer with.' "

If they protest, try swaying them with science.

"Novelty drives up dopamine levels in the brain," Fisher says. "Try to go out and do novel things with new people in new places."

And try to stay at your friend's side as long as you're needed.

Some friendly advice to ease your heartache

Sascha Rothchild, author of "How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage" (Plume), has played counseled and counselor through various heartbreaks. She offers the following wisdom.

* Get a hobby.

"I decided to stop being the kind of person who hated things I never tried. I started doing yoga. I tried snowboarding. I tried doing trapeze. Some of the things I liked and some I didn't, but by becoming a more interesting person I ended up attracting more positive people around me, and dating quality guys became much easier."

* Stop comparing.

"You need a clean slate. After a breakup you either find someone just like the person you just broke up with, or you know that person was wrong for you so you find the polar opposite. Either way, if you're basing your next relationship on the previous one, the next one will fail."

* Get some exercise.

"It releases endorphins and makes you feel better and more powerful and makes you look better, which makes you feel more confident."

* Don't be a victim.

"Once you're a victim, you're just pathetic. You get in this spiral where you're not taking any responsibility and you feel like you can't take control of anything in your life. You need to feel powerful to become a better person for next time."