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Why Does Love Hurt? A complicated phenomenon took into pieces

by eharmony Editorial Team - September 22, 2023

It might be a well-worn cliché in movies, songs, and books, but that doesn’t stop the question from being asked:  Why does love hurt? Because there can be no denying that it does. No matter how long you’ve been in a relationship, or the reasons for it ending, feeling hurt can be hard and painful, not just emotionally but physically – they call it a broken heart for a reason, after all. But, is love supposed to hurt always? Read on to find an answer on this big question.

Why does love hurt? Science has some answers

If you’ve ever wondered, ‘Is love supposed to hurt?’ the answer, at least according to science, is yes. Heartbreak isn’t just devastating emotionally; it can also do a number on you physically, for various reasons. Even if you’re in a relationship, it doesn’t mean you’re immune; love can be painful even when you’re partnered.

What goes up, must come down

This maxim is as true in biology as it is in physics. In the initial stages of a romantic relationship, the brain often produces more dopamine (aka the chemical that produces feelings of happiness and joy) than usual. Once that initial stage is over, dopamine and other happiness-inducing chemicals are no longer being produced in the same quantities, meaning your moods and emotions take a sharp turn for the worse. This is often why people break up after the initial ‘honeymoon’ period is over, and why love does hurt sometimes.

Love actually does hurt… and science can prove it

In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Michigan1 found that love really can cause physical pain, or close enough. The scientists showed participants photos of former partners and asked them to think about being rejected, then compared the MRI scans to scans taken when participants were made to feel pain in their arms. The two scans showed activity in similar areas of the brain no matter which type of pain was felt.

A broken heart could actually kill you

Broken heart syndrome – which goes by the medical name stress cardiomyopathy – is a real thing that does actually exist! It’s a rare type of heart disease where sudden emotional or physical stress can severely weaken the heart. Most people recover, but in rare cases, it can lead to permanent damage or even death. In fact, a 2018 study2 showed that people who had lost their spouses were 41% likelier to die in the six months after. Which goes to show that you really CAN die of a broken heart!

Reasons why it feels like love really does hurt

So, the answer to ‘Is love supposed to hurt?’ is yes, but there are other reasons why it feels like your emotions take a beating when it comes to relationships. It’s why love hurts so much; both your brain and your heart are involved!

1. Uncertainty

Sometimes, even if you’re with someone, you’re never sure if you’re both on the same page. Especially if your relationship doesn’t involve frequent communication and sharing of feelings, it can lead to emotions like fear, loneliness, or even jealousy. This kind of emotional rollercoaster in a relationship can often lead to physical symptoms like headaches or even depression.

2. The body keeps the score

As mentioned in the previous section, love can hurt, physically. Just like you might feel a caffeine withdrawal headache if you decide to cut down on coffee, the initial rush of a relationship ending means you’ll suddenly have withdrawal from all the dopamine, serotonin, and other endorphins your brain was releasing. This is even more true when your relationship ends and your endorphin production drops even further.

3. Unmet expectations

It’s natural to have an idea what being in a relationship will look like, but when the reality doesn’t match? It can be demoralizing and upsetting, and another reason why love does hurt. Human beings also have an unfortunate tendency to focus on what the future might bring rather than focus on the present moment, leading to endless ruminating over what might happen in the future and disappointment when those expectations aren’t met.

4. The rejection of being dumped

Who hasn’t been told “it isn’t you, it’s me,” without being absolutely sure that no, it really, really is you? Even when a breakup is – in the long or even short term – a good thing, a partner’s rejection is a painful hit to the ego. It’s even harder when it’s unexpected, or cheating of some kind is involved. Dating rejections can also wreak havoc on your self-esteem, leading you to question your self-worth and who you are as a person. All of which to say, it’s no surprise why love does hurt.

5. Baggage from previous relationships

While we’d like to believe each relationship is a fresh start. The truth is, we all carry the baggage of our previous experiences with us, romantic and otherwise. While sometimes this can be a good thing – a past bad experience might help us see red flags in our current relationships – untreated trauma like this can also mean we wind up sabotaging our own happiness.

How to stop being hurt by love

While there’s no magic formula to completely prevent heartbreak, there are a few things you can do to lessen the impact of love on your physical and emotional health.

  • Work on yourself: Therapy is a commonly offered solution, but that’s because it works for the vast majority of people. The smaller the amount of baggage you carry into a relationship, the smaller the chances are that it can hurt you.
  • Exercise: As mentioned previously, endorphin production is heightened in the initial stages of a relationship. You can work around the inevitable drop-off by doing other things that release dopamine… exercise being a big one. In addition to the chemical benefits, studies show that regular exercise in our 20s and 30s on can also stave off Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, and other age-related complications.
  • Distract yourself: The saying ‘an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop’ exists for a reason. Keeping yourself busy means your brain has less time to ruminate on things, whether that’s thinking about the future or wondering why your last relationship came to an end.
  • Get off social media: While social media has many advantages – connecting with long-lost friends, keeping in touch with distant family members – it also aggravates our worst impulses, especially when it comes to a relationship that’s not going well or has ended. It’s easier to stop feeling unlucky in love when you’re no longer seeing your ex’s feed and inhaling every detail of their happy life without you on social media.
  • Make the decision to let it go: One of the best ways to stop being hurt by love is to simply let it go. Whether that’s by cutting all ties to your former partner, walking away from a fight, or deciding what your boundaries are and sticking to them. Choosing to lessen a relationship’s power over you is the first step to being able to move on from it.

Love does hurt… but for good reason

As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The only way to keep from being hurt by love is to avoid it (and even that doesn’t always work!) Being in love means letting yourself be vulnerable and being vulnerable does bring with it the chance that you’ll be hurt… and a chance that the experience will make you stronger. When you’re ready to take a chance on love, eharmony is a great place to start and find real love.

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