breaking up or breaking down

The belief that love is a force beyond our control—that it can be as capricious and devastating as the weather—is so common that it’s built into our language. Love sick. Love struck. We can’t speak about romantic love without using the vocabulary of illness and aggression. Sure, it’s occasionally like a summer’s day, but more often love burns or conquers; it sweeps us off our feet. Lovers collide or are torn apart. Hearts ache and then break. Even smitten comes from smite, a blow from an angry god. And Cupid may be chubby and rosy but he still assaults us with arrows.

“Love is smoke raised with the fume of sighs,” says Romeo, the archetypal Western lover. It is “a madness most discreet/ A choking gall and a preserving sweet.” Whether we are seized, crushed, or captured, falling or afflicted, love happens to us. We are practically powerless, weak-kneed and nauseous, drooling at love’s mercy—or this is what the metaphors we’ve created for love imply.

But before we blame metaphors, it’s worth noting that recent research shows that love causes real pain. Ethan Kross’s fMRI scans showed that the same parts of the brain were activated during social rejection (thinking about a recent break up) and during physical pain. In other words, a broken heart feels a lot like a broken arm. Kross argues that we ought to be a little more sensitive to the pains of those suffering from heartache. (Ahem, college dorm-mates: my “Sarah McLachlan phase” now has scientific backing.)

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