Illustration by Vivian Shih

Why Does Love Hurt So Much?

In poetry & literature, love has long been associated with pain, agony & torment, but is it possible to love someone so much it hurts? We asked a social psychologist.

|
Feb 14 2017, 3:10pm

Illustration by Vivian Shih

Have you ever paused to consider how painful it sounds when we describe relationships? You have a crush on someone. He makes you weak in the knees. You love her to death. And when the relationship is over, you break up; you're left heart-broken, heartsick, and shattered over the loss.

The reason why love sounds so unpleasant is because it is. In fact, love and the loss of love can quite literally hurt.

Why Is Love So Painful?

Love is painful because of the strong connection between social and physical pain.

When it comes to the science of love and pain, researchers are primarily preoccupied with understanding how people react to rejection. In 2003, for example, psychologists discovered that the parts of the brain that process physical pain are also involved in social pain, thus offering an explanation as to why it "hurts" when we break up with someone we love.

The team from UCLA monitored the brain activity of 13 undergraduate students playing a computer ball-tossing game against two virtual players. About a third of the way into the game, the computer figures stopped passing the ball to the human subject, who later reported feeling excluded. At the same time, functional MRI scans showed activity in the subject's anterior cingulate cortex—a region of the brain long known for playing a role in physical pain.

Read more: Am I Going to Die Alone? I Asked a Bunch of Psychics to Find Out

"I don't think anyone is going to confuse a stubbed toe with going through a breakup," Naomi Eisenberger, a co-author on the study, told The Atlantic. "But emotional pain has been a kind of second-class citizen. I think we take physical pain a bit more seriously. Our work suggests that we should think seriously about the impact of emotional pain, too."

Love Can Hurt Just As Much As Physical Pain

But is it possible to love someone so much it physically hurts? Geoff MacDonald, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, thinks so. But, he tells Broadly, that pain is usually an indication that something is missing. "When you're actually getting everything you want, that's just joy at that point. I think the pain comes in when there's some degree to which you love them but you're not getting everything from that relationship you wanted. And then you can see how the pain mechanism becomes functional—it's going to draw your attention to that."

Emotions are not some mysterious ghost-like thing. Emotions are a physical phenomenon.

From an evolutionary perspective, he explains, it makes sense that relationships might provoke reactions from the same areas involved with physical pain. "If an animal has a new survival challenge, the most efficient way to adapt that is to use some kind of physiological system that's already there in that animal." Eventually, when it became important for humans to be connected to others, these pain systems were co-opted to make us feel bad when things aren't going well socially. "Imagine trying to survive by yourself on the African savanna," he says. "That's literally a life or death situation." That's why social inclusion became so important, he says. "Some mechanism needed to kick in and say, 'Look, I'm going to make you hurt. You need to do something about this.'"

Is It Emotionally Normal To Love Someone So Much It Hurts?

And, MacDonald argues, that pain is probably a healthy response, especially early on in a relationship when people are susceptible to becoming obsessive about their partners. Feeling some physical agony—such as chest pains or queasiness—may help a person adjust their expectations of their relationship, motivate them to talk to their partner about their needs or make them reassess how valuable the relationship is, he says.

The question is, how concerned should we be when we experience physical discomfort we think is related to love? "In severe cases, it's certainly something to be mindful of," MacDonald says, especially when you "recognize your body is reacting as if a threat to a relationship is a threat to your life."

"Emotions are not some mysterious ghost-like thing. Emotions are a physical phenomenon," he says. "[They] are just your body taking in information about what's going on in the world and preparing you to react appropriately."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

One of the bigger takeaways, MacDonald continues, is that these love-induced pains are functional. "We do ourselves a disservice when we try to ignore them or make them go away rather than sitting and listening to them. These negative emotions are part of an adaptive response and healing process," he says. "If you love someone so much it hurts, take time to sit with that. Try to understand why the need is so great. There's something going on here that's bigger than this particular relationship."

In honor of Valentine's Day, we're spending the week debunking myths and lies about romance. Read the rest of our "Love is a Hoax" coverage here.