Understanding The Reasons Behind, “Why Does Love Hurt So Much?”

Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Throughout history, love has been the subject of countless poems, stories, and art pieces. While some of these celebrate the joy and bliss that come with love, many focus instead on the pain that it can also bring. So why does love hurt so much sometimes? While this type of pain can be indicative of problems in a relationship, it can also be a normal occurrence due to chemical changes in the brain. Let’s take a look at some of these changes to gain a bit of insight into potential reasons why love hurts sometimes, and then we’ll offer a few tips on what to do if love is causing you pain.

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Is love supposed to hurt this much?

A brief cultural and scientific history of love

Throughout history, people have had various interpretations of what causes complex feelings like love and why they affect us the way that they do. Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that love between people resided in the heart. Therefore, the heart became the symbol of romantic love for years to come, and terms like “broken heart” became commonplace.

It was only in the 20th century that researchers began considering the idea that part of loving feelings could be attributed to chemical processes in the body. First, pheromones were believed to play a role in attracting people and pair bonding them. This theory became more popular when it was discovered that this was how insects and animals attract one another for breeding purposes.

However, by the 1970s, the endorphin theory of love had overtaken the pheromone theory of love. It posits that neurotransmitters like endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine are released in the brain during the early stages of love, creating an attachment to another person over time.

Today, the more widely accepted view of feelings of love is that they result from a combination of factors. These may include the chemical reactions caused by a love neurotransmitter along with unconscious psychological and emotional desires or triggers. Together, these factors can create a state of euphoria that people may experience when they are in love.

The role the brain plays in the pain of love

A couple are sitting close together on a couch and are embracing each other; they both have happy expressions.
Ilona Titova/EyeEm

Why does love hurt? To better understand this concept, it might help to consider what happens in the brain when a person falls in love. There’s a flurry of chemical releases that can cause different effects. According to an article on the Harvard Medical School blog, these include:

  • A flood of chemicals in the area of the brain that's associated with rewards, which can produce both physical and emotional responses: a racing heart, flushed cheeks, sweaty palms, feelings of passion, feelings of anxiety

  • Lower levels of serotonin, which may be responsible for the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love”

  • An increase in dopamine, which makes love “a pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria associated with the use of cocaine or alcohol”

  • A deactivation of the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions like fear and social judgment

Knowing this, it becomes easier to see how the experience of love can set a person up for a ride on an emotional roller coaster. The pleasure and reward center of our brain is flooded with feel-good chemicals while other areas experience a depletion of different chemicals, potentially leading to a push-and-pull of positive and negative emotions. Plus, the deactivation of the pathway responsible for negative emotions can lead us to ignore red flags in a new relationship, resulting in a crash later on when conflict arises or things don’t work out.

Even if the emotions you feel when in love are largely positive and exciting, it can be painful when these wear off, aren’t reciprocated, or lead to a relationship that isn’t healthy or a good fit. Research shows that the pain a person feels when they’re rejected activates the same part of the brain associated with physical pain, which explains why this type of emotional distress can feel so real and so acute.

For example, neuroimaging studies have examined regions of the brain associated with those who are hurt by love and found an overlap with brain regions involved in processing physical injury. This may be one reason why people report feeling physical pain when they feel emotionally hurt. 

What to do when love hurts

When you find that love starts causing you pain, it may be time to take a step back and analyze your situation. No romantic relationship is perfect, and pain is an inevitable part of virtually all of them. However, there may be times when the pain your relationship is causing is enough to prompt you to take action. Only you can decide what your limit is in this regard: whether to work on the relationship or wait for things to change, or to end it.

 Note that if your relationship is causing you pain due to abuse of any kind, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You are not alone, and they are available 24/7. Otherwise, read on for tips on what to do when love hurts.

Lean on your social support network

Research shows that emotional support from friends is consistently linked to lower levels of psychological distress. These people can provide love, advice, and a listening ear when you need it most.

In some cases, it may be your own underlying beliefs or issues that are causing you to feel pain in regards to your romantic relationship. Try reflecting on your situation to get to the root of what’s making you unhappy. Could low self-esteem be leading to conflict? Is it possible that undiagnosed depression or anxiety are impacting your ability to relate to your partner in a healthy way? Is relationship insecurity causing tension? Being honest with yourself about where the problems are coming from can help you decide how to move forward. Journaling and therapy are two common ways to uncover these.

Communicate with your partner

If your current romantic relationship is causing you pain, communicating with your partner can help. By being honest and open about your feelings, the two of you may be able to gain insight into how to move forward. There may be a way to resolve your key pain points together. For instance, research suggests that couples who express affection in their partner’s primary love language have higher relationship satisfaction. That means learning each other’s most valued forms of receiving love could help solve the problem of feeling neglected or disconnected. Whatever the problem may be, communication is often the first step towards a possible resolution.

Seek help

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Is love supposed to hurt this much?

Dealing with the complicated emotions that can come with being in love may feel overwhelming or frustrating at times. Meeting with a licensed therapist can help you work through these feelings and find healthy ways to manage them. A trained counselor can also provide a valuable third-party perspective on your dynamic with your partner, and they can help you build stronger communication and conflict-resolution skills. If an undiagnosed mental health condition like depression or anxiety is contributing to the pain you’re feeling, they can help you address this as well.

Research suggests that online therapy can be an effective treatment for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. It can also be a cost-effective option for those who are seeking the advice of a counselor for other reasons, such as wanting help coping with difficult emotions. Virtual therapy platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone, video call, and/or chat. Read on for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from individuals who have sought their help.

Counselor reviews

"When I started my counseling with Mike, I was going through a lot of changes all at once - readjusting to being back in Canada after 2 months abroad, going through a breakup, starting a new job, and changing my living arrangements. I was beyond overwhelmed. Mike had a fantastic approach with me. He was always straightforward with me, but quick to notice small improvements and acknowledge them. He helped me work through my complicated family relationships, adjust to my new very stressful job, and change the way I approach not only my romantic relationships but also relationships with my friends by reminding myself sometimes "it's not about the nail." After 7 months, I feel incredibly emotionally strong and well equipped with new tools to face future challenges. I am a huge advocate for BetterHelp, knowing that it has helped improve my life significantly and wear my t-shirt with pride. Thank you, Mike :)"

"Working with Jen was absolutely vital to my mental health maintenance this year. As a grad student and husband, I had a lot on my plate, and being able to vent to her at the touch of a button was so helpful when I didn't have a traditional support system available. If you're in a tight spot and need someone to listen to you, judgment-free, Jen is the best."

Takeaway

Love may hurt sometimes, but there’s help available. A healthy, fulfilling relationship is possible with the right tools and resources, from social support to the help of a therapist.

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