Love feels good because it’s a physical letting down of your guard. So why does this lead to pain so often? Because your brain is touchy when your guard is down. The slightest hint of threat triggers cortisol, the chemical messenger of pain and potential pain. Blaming your partner for your cortisol can send things from bad to worse. You are better off understanding it instead.
Cortisol is easy to understand in animals. Imagine you’re a gazelle munching grass with your herd. You trust them to alert you if predators come near, and that frees you to relax and enjoy. The sense of being safe and protected is caused by a chemical called oxytocin. It would be nice to just enjoy oxytocin all the time, but the mammal brain isn’t designed for that. Soon, the other gazelles wander a bit, leaving you dangerously exposed. Your brain goes on alert. A gazelle doesn’t waste energy blaming its buddies for the bad feeling. It simply raises its guard until the next opportunity to lower its guard.
Your oxytocin is flowing as you give and receive trust. Now imagine you’re a monkey enjoying a grooming with one of your troop mates. Suddenly, the bully of your troop comes over and threatens you. You hope your grooming buddy will protect you, but that doesn’t happen. So you do what it takes to protect yourself, and then find another monkey to groom with. Grooming is a huge act of trust. Many chimpanzees are missing fingers and toes because they lowered their guard around the wrong guy. Sometimes your grooming buddies are there for you, and sometimes they aren’t. Your brain responds to the social data of each moment.
While you’re enjoying the nice oxytocin feeling, you want to feel that way forever. But all too soon, you are hit by the reality that your partner is a separate person with needs of their own. Your oxytocin drops, and your cortisol is triggered.
How do you react to this cortisol? Most people react in the way they learned when they were young, because that’s when the brain myelinates its pathways. The behaviors you observed when you were young activated your mirror neurons, preparing you to react that way yourself. You may accuse your loved one of throwing you to the wolves. They may accuse you back. Love hurts.
You may not like the idea of managing your cortisol. It’s more comfortable to expect your partner to make you feel good all the time. But such expectations are often disappointed. Then, it’s nice to know that the urge to merge is just a neurochemical impulse, not an accomplishment you’ve somehow failed at.
You can enjoy the safety of companionship while remaining responsible for your own internal threat-detector. In fact, it’s what your brain is designed to do!
Adapted from When Love Brings Pain, Psychology Today, Dr. Loretta Breuning