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Why does love hurt?

Linda Blair in The Guardian

When we think about love, most of us imagine candlelit dinners, wine and roses. Why, then, did the poet Kahlil Gibran describe love like this?

“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.” 

At first glance, it feels as if he must have got it wrong. After all, we’re far more accustomed to thinking of love as an overwhelmingly positive experience, something that happens to us rather than something we have to make happen.

The reason is that Gibran understood the difference between love and lust. Lust is what romantic stories and fairytale endings describe: an intense, overwhelming, all-consuming desire, an inability to think about anything other than how to capture the heart (and more to the point, the body) of the object of our desire. That’s lust. That is not love.

Lust is a purely sexual response. It’s all (and only) about the need to procreate, and although it’s most often described in terms of visual attributes, in fact when we’re “in lust”, we’re responding more to scent than to sight. We lust after a person if our senses inform us (generally without our conscious awareness) that this individual possesses an immune system that is maximally different from our own. If we conceive a child with this person, our scent is telling us, we’ll produce the healthiest, most disease-resistant child possible.

Lust idealises and projects. It makes it possible for us to see only what we want to see and what we hope to see in the other person. At the same time, it allows us to overlook any of their faults or defects. When we’re in lust, we see the other person as perfect, as someone who is utterly desirable. 

Lust is more or less an instantaneous response. “Their eyes met, and the feeling was electric” – this describes lust, not love. It is a primitive bodily response, the aim of which is to ensure the survival of our DNA. It hits our senses and stimulates the production of the same neurochemicals – dopamine in particular – that are awakened when we become addicted to narcotics. Sadly, however, this overwhelmingly pleasurable experience is only temporary. Within weeks – months if we’re lucky – we fall out of lust.

Love, real love for another person, is best defined by the psychiatrist and writer M Scott Peck. He describes it as the will to extend yourself – at whatever personal cost – to nurture the growth of another person. Love, in other words, is about overlooking your own needs and pleasures in the service of allowing the person you love to seek their potential, to be the best they can possibly be.

Love isn’t about our own need to procreate, or about any other need of our own for that matter. When we truly love someone, our primary focus is on their self-expression, not on our own. Of course, as Peck cautions, the other person won’t experience this in a positive way if we don’t also first love ourselves.

Those who purport to “love” someone because they’re hoping to fill the void of emptiness within themselves will only cause that person to feel smothered and resentful. Nor is love about evening up a “score”. It doesn’t expect anything in return. Love simply flows outwards. As Gibran says, “Love possesses not nor would it be possessed. For love is sufficient unto love.”

When we really love someone, we’re willing to accept that person as they truly are. There will be no attempt to idealise them or to make them over in any way. We’ll try as hard as we can to understand how the other person hopes to reach their potential, to become everything they can be. This requires patience, vast amounts of time, and lots of hard work – not least because quite often, the other person isn’t even clear themselves about what will fulfil them most.

Love also hurts when we discover something about the other person that will result in a loss to us. All parents must experience this when their adorable, dependent little baby becomes an adolescent, then a young adult. To allow them to fulfil their potential, parents must show their love by giving up the delicious sense of being needed, and encourage their child to do for themselves, because only that way can the child become fully independent. Love hurts because there are times when we have to let go of what we’ve loved most.

Finally, love hurts because when we truly love, we must do so honestly. No secrets, no avoidance, no kidding ourselves, no ulterior motives. When we truly love, what we discover about the other person inevitably demands that we confront our own beliefs and desires. Loving another person means, therefore, that both individuals will grow and change – and change, even when it’s for the best, is a painful process.

Is it worth all this pain to love, really to love?

It is. To love is to live fully, to have a purpose that makes life worth living. Once again, it is Gibran who explains most eloquently what happens when you truly love another person:

“All these things shall love do unto you
that you may know the secrets of your heart,
and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.”

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