Love on the Brain

By:  Beth Maddaleni ’20

Love doesn’t hurt.

Plenty has been written and sung about pain associated with love. The classic “Love Hurts,” written by Boudleaux Bryant and popularized in the 1970s by the band Nazareth, suggests love not only hurts, it scars, wounds, and marks. “Achy Breaky Heart,” sung most memorably by Billy Ray Cyrus, was written by Don Von Tress in response to a breakup. But although lost love might hurt, love doesn’t; in fact, research shows love might actually alleviate pain. research shows love is obsessive in the beginning and compassionate later on.

What Studies Say About Love

Using brain-imaging technology, or “neuroimaging,” researchers discovered romantic love initially causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to flood the reward centers of the brain, resulting in feelings of energy and elation and improved mentalizing, or determining another’s mental state, possibly due to “implicit memories” sparked by pictures of subjects’ romantic partners. Improved mentalizing might aid in the survival of a couple’s pair-bonding. Jarred Younger et al researched fifteen people in their first nine month’s of a relationship.“Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems” reveals what its title suggests. Though Younger’s research couldn’t correlate the degree of love-associated pain relief, which varied from subject to subject, it correlated pain relief with subjects “primed” with a picture of their love interest.

Did You know?

Dopamine’s not the only player in the Love Game. According to Harvard’s Neuroscience Institute, hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are in on the action. “Oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment,” and vasopressin helps keep couples together long after love’s initial passion goes from a rolling boil to a gentle simmer.

In his Psychology Today article “Are You Too Dependent on Your Partner,” Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. explains that normal dependency on a partner comes in the form of emotional support, not emotional dependency. When we depend on a partner for our emotional security, we’re expecting them to be our therapist, and here’s where the relationship derails and enters the Dysfunctional Zone (my words, not Dr. Seltzer’s).

As Dr. Seltzer suggests, those who depend on others too much are incapable of self-soothing, which could be due to insecurities spawned from childhood experiences. An important takeaway from his article is the longer our self worth relies on a partner, “the more we’ll remain dependent on them. And eventually this can lead to the relationship’s degradation.”

Good Love

You and your partner are in a mutually supportive relationship & accept each other as you are.

Bad Love

Your self esteem depends on your partner, and/or your relationship “hurts.”

Other Advice

Tackle past traumas and self esteem issues with a psychologist.Be yourself in a relationship—don’t act how you think your partner wants you to act.

Healthy: Partners should reassure each other and accept what they can’t change; communicate; be honest, and respect each other.

Unhealthy: One (or both) of you constantly seek reassurance—without it, you’re not happy.

Common Sense and Love

Common sense says love shouldn’t hurt. Yes, the loss of love can hurt, such as when our expectations of love let us down. But we don’t need scientific studies to tell us that a relationship shouldn’t cause pain.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes different types of abuse. For those not sure of whether their relationship is healthy or not, the site offers a relationship spectrum as a guide. If you think you’re emotionally or physically abused, seek help. Abuse comes in many forms, but a good indicator is love, or your perception of it, hurts. Be honest with your healthcare provider when asked if you feel safe at home. National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1−800−799−7233