Is falling in love bad for you?

What does it mean to fall in love with someone? Some say love makes the world go round so surely it can’t be bad. But falling in love can feel both painful and wonderful at the same time! This is NOT straightforward...

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How love affects the body and mind

Love can be amazing – and amazingly painful. But can a broken heart actually cause you real physical harm? Dr Anna Machin, an expert from the department of psychology at the University of Oxford, looks at the facts.


Hands forming a heart

It’s inspired the world’s greatest works of art and literature, gives pop stars plenty to sing about, and manages to give the rest of us plenty to think about too – falling in love is a big deal.

Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist, explains her interest – something which has brought her to national attention in the Channel 4 programme ‘Married at First Sight’. “I look at a lot of things to do with genetics and neuroscience, what happens in the brain when we form relationships,” she says. “The great thing about being an anthropologist is that we study humans, that’s our job, and we use a lot of different disciplines to do that.”

And looking at the effects of love is particularly fascinating.“Human love is there because it evolved as a mechanism to make us pairbond,” she says. “It’s there because humans cannot function without cooperating. We are group-living animals and we couldn’t survive on our own. Human love, whether it’s love directed towards a sexual partner or a child or your best friend, has evolved to make sure you stick with other people.”

It’s a heartache

It all sounds well and good – but surely falling in romantic love can also be a very painful experience?

“Even though love is very painful when you split up with someone or someone treats you badly or mucks you about, ultimately from an evolutionary point of view, that’s all just part of the journey,” she says.

It’s all down to chemistry. The chemicals your body produces when you fall in love are addictive – meaning that if you’re separated from your loved one, it’s almost like a withdrawal from a drug.

“If you laugh with people, if you touch people, if you have sex with someone, you get a release of betaendorphin, and it’s addicitive, so what happens is you become addicted to that person,” she explains. “If you leave that person for whatever reason, let’s say they go away for a week, you will get cold turkey. You will get a withdrawal. That’s why in the early stages of love [when] someone leaves, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s physically painful that this person is not in my life.’”

If you’re stressed, having someone in your life that you can have a hug from, counteracts that stress. Having poor social relationships is as bad for you as a 40-a-day cigarette habit - it has that much of an impact on your health.”

The hormone she mentions, betaendorphin, is part of your body’s natural painkilling system. That’s why you can feel physical pain at the end of a relationship, however it happens. “Breaking up with someone is physically painful because you no longer get that endorphin hit, there’s nothing there to take away either emotional or physical pain” she says. “You’ve got used to having it and suddenly it’s not there anymore…”

Feeling the fear

It all sounds a bit dark and depressing, this talk of chemicals and addiction – but falling in love can also be really exciting.

“You might find yourself doing things when you fall in love that you never ever would have had the guts to do before,” she says. “It can make you a little bit fearless, it can make you take risks that you wouldn’t normally take.”

Even if you haven’t found your soul mate, there’s plenty of good things about having family and friends close by too. “Any sort of social contact is good for you,” she says. “We know that people who have strong social networks absolutely do have better physical and mental health. Their recovery from operations is quicker, their likelihood of being ill is less, their risk of being addicted is less, the possibility they will have poor mental health is less. If you’re stressed, having someone in your life that you can have a hug from, counteracts that stress. Having poor social relationships is as bad for you as a 40-a-day cigarette habit - it has that much of an impact on your health.”

Hugging a stranger doesn't count! 

One important point – you can’t get all these benefits by simply hugging a random passer-by in the street. “Don’t just latch on to anyone!” she warns. “These feelings only come and these chemicals only come with the right person. You can’t just grab a stranger and get these sensations. If you grab a stranger something different happens and you’ll get the disgust area of your brain, so it doesn’t work. It has to be grounded in something - real attraction.”

There are lots of brilliant things about falling in love – and some scary ones too. The evidence suggests very strongly that being surrounded by people who love you is very good for your health – but it’s also clear that this can lead to physical and emotional pain if those relationships end for any reason. Is that a risk worth taking? You decide.

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The mathematics of love

Dr. Hannah Fry is a mathematician from University College London. She's interested in patterns of human behaviour and applying a mathematical perspective to tackle a wide range of problems across our society. So what does Maths have to say about how to meet the perfect partner? 

It sounds great but only if they love you back…

It sounds great but only if they love you back…

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When love hurts...

ROSES are red, violets are blue, when you reject me, what can I do? –


Unrequited love is basically your nightmare-situation where the person you love doesn’t love you back- ouch! If you’ve been unlucky to experience this already, you probably know that it can be pretty painful. This kind of heart break can have negative effects on both your mental and physical health. Musicians, poets, authors and film writers across the world have written and sung about unrequited love for generations. 

For example, Adele- in her song, Rolling Deep- describes the pain as a “fire” in your heart and talks about the pain as “scars”, a permanent reminder or mark which fades over time.

‘The scars of your love remind me of us
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all’

For Bruno Mars (in his song, Grenade), rejection is feeling like you’ve been “tossed in the trash”. And Coldplay- in their tune Fix you- describe some of the frustrating physical symptoms such as feeling really tired but unable to sleep and sing…

‘When the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?’

Red robot

But celebs aside, what are the biggest challenges of heart break? 

The physical effects 

Unrequited love can have some serious effects on our bodies. A bad case of heartbreak can cause chest pain and stomach ache- it can feel like you’ve been punched in the chest or the stomach! We may also cry very readily, sometimes for days and weeks. It can affect our eating habits- leading to loss of appetite or binge eating. In films, characters are often shown eating chocolate and fast food, sobbing in front of the TV following a break-up. Unrequited love can also cause sleepless nights, as well as a lack of energy and generally feeling meh! 

A lot of these symptoms are caused our body’s stress system going into overdrive, which can also weaken our immune system- increasing our risk of developing colds. Plus if you're run down and lacking in basic nutrients (like vitamins or zinc), spots can also make an unwelcome appearance.


The psychological effects 

Unrequited love can be emotionally painful. It can make us feel deep sadness and it can lead to depression in some people. Emotions can be all over the place and difficult to control, with people describing feeling angry, jealous, ashamed and anxious. It can impact on our self-esteem making us feel less confident about ourselves. Psychologists refer to uncontrollable intrusive thoughts as “rumination”: rumination is really common following heartbreak. Negative thoughts can go round and round in your head, making it difficult to sleep or concentrate at school or work. 

In light of all this, is it really worth trying to find love? Is that warm fuzzy feeling for that special someone worth the risk or for our sanity, should we leave the search for love, well alone? What do you think? 

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The dangers of love in literature

There are so many ways love can go wrong. Literature can be both helpful and interesting as readers can explore different forms of love. But can reading about love's dark and dangerous side really be healthy? One thing's for sure: there’s been a lot of authors who wanted to tell the stories of love turned sour.  Here’s a few…

  1. Could you become a slave to love? 
    1. English poet, Mary Wroth (1621) famously wrote a series of sonnets, which built upon her fascination with Classical ideas of love. In Classical myths, love often appears as a blind boy, Cupid, who shoots arrows at random, causing chaos and pain. For Wroth, the sonnet was the perfect type of poetry to express how love can happen against all odds. Sonnet 22 tells how the speaker came to be 'bought' by love, and in the sonnet tradition, shows how people in love can feel torn by their emotions and situation they’re in. Love has made the speaker(s) in this sonnet feel like slaves who don't want to be free. Plus, Wroth lived at a time when women weren't given much freedom to decide what they wanted to do with their lives. And so the speaker’s pain and powerlessness due to love may have felt worse since she never had power to begin with. This considered, it may not be surprising that Wroth ends the poem saying ‘Indeed I loved but, wanton boy, not he’, meaning she’s not in love with love itself. What do you think- it is really possible to become a slave to love?

  2. When your in-laws don’t approve…
    1. Pope was an eighteenth-century poet famous for his skill with rhyme.  Pope's Eloisa to Abelard is a poem that's written as if it were actually a letter, sent from Eloisa to Abelard.  This couple's story had been around since the medieval period, but Pope's poem made their tragic story even more famous.  Eloisa and Abelard met when Abelard was employed by Eloisa's father to teach her Philosophy.  She fell in love with the subject, and with him.  Her father was so angry he had Abelard castrated, and sent off to a monastery, while Eloisa had to live in a convent (home for nuns and monks).  Forced into a life meant to be dedicated to God,  a letter written by Abelard falls into her hands.  This brings up a lot of painful memories.  She switches between wishing she could forget Abelard – have a 'spotless mind' – and be back with him.  The violence of what was done to him stays with her, though.  She feels so guilty that she wishes she could share Abelard's pain (‘The crime was common, common be the pain’). 
  3. Love as a 'frenzical disorder'?
    1. Samuel Richardson's novel, Clarissa (1747) is one of the longest and darkest in the English language.  It's written in the form of letters, and was published in several parts.  This might sound a bit dull, but the fate of its heroine had the novel's first readers begging the author not to let her die. It starts when Clarissa's family want to marry her off against her will.  She's tricked into running away with the charming and dangerous Lovelace.  He has a grudge against Clarissa's family and a growing obsession with her.  He keeps her hostage, torments, drugs, and rapes her.  She escapes Lovelace, but gradually starves to death.  The story doesn't sound like it should fill one of the longest novels ever written, but it's the length which gives Clarissa its psychological power.  Clarissa prides herself on knowing what's morally right, so- on paper - it seems unlikely that she would end up in the company of someone like Lovelace.  Even when she's left her family home with him, she can't seem to get away.  But what the novel makes so real is the effect of Lovelace's obsession with Clarissa (he calls it 'a frenzical disorder').  Slowly, very slowly, Clarissa's options are cut off, and her sense of free will destroyed.  Lovelace thinks he owns Clarissa, partly because he thinks he's going to hell because of her (‘Living or dying, she is mine – and only mine.  Have I not earned her dearly?’) Things get even weirder after Clarissa dies.  Lovelace wants to have her heart pickled ('in spirits') and kept in a golden jar! Creepy, hey?!

  4. Heart-broken and sleepless nights
    1. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘Insomnia’ (1951) expresses what it's like to be abandoned by someone you love. Bishop describes this feeling through images of reflection, like the moon in the mirror and in water. The poem's message is partly expressed in the way that Bishop orders the words. In the third verse, 'that world inverted', would in day-to-day language probably be written 'that inverted world'.  But because she's showing us a dark, lonely version of the world (perhaps created and distorted in the speaker’s mind), Bishop switches the order for dramatic effect and to go against our natural expectations.  

      ‘into that world inverted
      where left is always right,
      where the shadows are really the body,
      where we stay awake all night,
      where the heavens are shallow as the sea
      is now deep, and you love me’.

  5. When everything reminds you of an Ex... 
    1. Prussian poet, Joseph von Eichendorff' shows us through his poem 'Beneath a Linden Tree' (1826) how seeing an object (a tree, in this case) can remind you of lost love. What's worse, sometimes the 'wound' caused by love's pain doesn't seem to have healed.  Notice how the speaker in Eichendorff's poem talks to the tree, rather than to his 'first love'.  Maybe it's just easier to talk about difficult emotions if you focus on a related image or object? What do you think…can poetry help us invent ways to understand our problems? 

      ‘Do I see you again, you beloved tree,
      In whose young stem,
      Once in spring, in that beautiful dream,
      I cut the name of my first love? 

      How changed since then is that much loved mark
      Now overgrown and sunk from sight
      In the trunk grown harder, crowned with branches
      Like her love and the heartfelt hours! 

      (Translated by David Paley)

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So despite all this, why do we love?

If romantic love has a purpose, neither science nor psychology have agreed on it yet – but over the course of history, some of our most respected philosophers have put forward some interesting theories. American Philosopher, Skye C. Cleary outlines five of these.