Why Does Love Hurt? Here Are the Facts

Updated on July 12, 2019
Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr. Billy Kidd researched romantic relationships for 15 years. He held focus groups in various cities across the nation.

People wonder why love can hurt so much. But the pain of a breakup is not that hard to understand when you look at human beings from a historical perspective.

Prehistoric Emotions

Our emotional makeup is designed for a different time and place. Two hundred-thousand years ago when our current emotional systems came fully into play, life was quite different. We needed ties that bound us closely together simply to survive.

In prehistoric times, you could not completely disconnect from someone forever just because you quit making love to each other. It was a jungle out there. Nobody said goodbye and moved out of town after a lover’s quarrel. There were not any towns to move to.

The creatures that jumped out of the bushes had claws and teeth and could kill you. Someone had to cover your back. It would have taken you a couple months to find the next tribe. They were wandering somewhere in the bush, just like your tribe, in an area you shared about the size of the state of Delaware, USA.

In these circumstances, people’s relationships were at a high enough level of civility that they did not suddenly try to disconnect and move on like we do today. They might have moved on to another sexual partner within the tribe. But it would have been without making a wild, dramatic scene, where you dissed the person forever. After all, in a small tribe most people knew everyone as friends.

In the Past, All Relationships were Serious

In those prehistoric times, all relationships—social or sexual—were serious. People lived in the NOW with about 50 to 250 other people. They stuck together and were never alone. The average lifespan was about 30 years. So you did not wait until age 26 to 30 for starting a serious long-term relationship, like what is customary today.

You also had to be tight with your lover because love was not a game. There was no birth control and one out of every ten live births resulted in the mother dying from complications--mostly from infections. So the whole tribe watched out for the kids because mothers often passed on, leaving their young ones behind.

Because everyone depended on everyone else, those who had strongest emotional ties to each other were the most likely to survive. In this environment, when you lost someone, it was not because your in-love, go-crazy relationship faded away. Rather it was often because your partner or friend had died. And when a person died, the tribe grieved together.

A Modern Lifestyle With an Ancient Emotional Makeup

Today, we have inherited that same emotional makeup that causes us to want to try bind together and look out for each other. But our lifetime is three to four times longer than our ancestors' lives. So we go through many more life transitions. Individuals are also capable of supporting themselves alone--without a tribe.

That is why In modern society our ancestors' ability to bond tightly together is not always called for. Yet, you cannot escape the pain of going through modern life transitions because there is no “off” switch for our ancient emotional makeup. So when there is a breakup, it can feel like the person actually died. That is the price humans still pay for having the potential to create strong emotional ties that bind.

Breakups Can Feel Like Someone Died

This explains why a lover’s breakup can leave you experiencing the symptoms of grief. Those symptoms include an initial fight-or-flight response. And a heart that feels real pain. This is followed by a run down feeling, along with mental numbness, a sense of meaninglessness, and a denial of reality. These are the feelings that our ancestors felt when someone died. And they are the price humans still pay for having the potential to create strong emotional ties that bind.

What this means to you now is that you are designed to grieve and then move forward when you lose somebody during a breakup. And the reason that you might dwell so long on a breakup is because you do not have that tribal support which everyone had in the days of old. In all reality, sometimes you feel totally alone. Feeling alone is a modern feeling. Our ancient ancestors were never alone. Some did not even have word for "I." Thus, today there is not a communal grief ceremony after the feelings of a heartache sets in.

Romance as a Learning Experience

But if you do not want to risk feeling all alone, think of a healthy love relationship as a learning experience. That is where each person gradually matures emotionally. And if you go your separate ways, it’s just OK. A least you learned something.

This perspective raises satisfaction in relationships by lowering expectations. People live and let live without forcing the relationship to move forward before its time. When relationships do move forward, they are on steady ground. That is because partners have taken the time to understand the emotional dynamics of their partnership. Most importantly they have become friends. Friendship is something which is lacking so often in the rush of things today. This is why people need to build a strong social support system. It help us cope with our ancient emotions and the modern feeling of aloneness.


Bulcroft, R., Bulcroft, K., Gradley, K., & Simpson, C. (2000). The management and production of risk in romantic relationships: A postmodern paradox. Journal of Family History, 25, 63-92.

Bleske, A. L., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Can men and women be just friends? Personal Relationships, 7, 131-151.

Coontz, S. (2004). The world historical transformation of marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66 974-979.

Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships. New York: W. W. Norton.

Emery. R & Coan, J. (2010) What causes chest pain when feelings are hurt? Scientific American Mind 21, 1, pp. 72-73. Downloaded on 6-25-2019 from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-causes-chest-pains/?redirect=1

Jones, D. (2007). Modern Love. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Kidd, B. (2009) Low Stress Romance. Romantic Relationship Institute: Portland, OR.

Milne, G. (2017). Uncivilized Genes: Human Evolution and the Urban Paradox. London England: The Independent Thinking Press.

Taylor, S. E. (2006). Tend and befriend: Biobehavioral bases of affiliation under stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 273-276.

Wile, I. S. (1942). Review of married life in an African tribe. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 12(3), 550-551. Downloaded on 1-1-19 from https://psycnet.apa.org/search/results?id=92896424-b0ab-aaea-7eb5-d96a9c396d15.


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    • Dr Billy Kidd profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Billy Kidd 

      8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      cloudy cool, you really did get it. The availability thing going up against primal bonding. Thanks for making that distinction the way you did.

    • cloudy_cool profile image


      8 years ago from London, UK

      Now I understand the meaning behind the pain when you lose someone, its true, a certain somebody 'dies' within you and depletes you of reason, leaving you grieved. What I find interesting that in the new age when we find ourselves drifting in and out of relationships, its often because of the fact that 'there are too many fishes in the sea' idea in our heads, we dont take our relationships as seriously as the primal, and often take undue advantage of the fact that we can hop on to another partner during the course of life, due to the availability.

      So basically, this can be considered as an inherited or instinctive behaviour...

      Great writeup explaining clearly. Thank for sharing!

      Voted up and more! Cheers!


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