Love and pain

They say you always hurt the one you love, but as usual “they” are talking cobblers. Yes, of course you can hurt those close to you by being a bit of a nob on occasion, but your idiocy can also impact strangers and is not exclusively directed at loved ones. In fact, most often you will do good things for the ones you love even to the extent that doctors will sometimes ask a romantic partner to be present for a painful procedure in order to ease the pain. There is something to that theory although according to a new study the nature of your relationship has big bearing on how the presence of your partner influences your pain.

The starting point of the new study was to use a questionnaire to assess whether female subjects either sought or avoided emotional closeness and intimacy in their relationships. The researchers wanted to see whether this aspect of personality termed “attachment style” would influence whether the presence of their partner reduces or heightens pain.

So that you can get an idea of where you may sit in the “attachment style” continuum the questionnaire asked subjects how much they agreed with statements like, “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down” or “I get uncomfortable when a romantic partner wants to be very close”.

The women were then given a moderately painful laser pulse on their own or in the presence of their romantic partner. As well as being asked to assess the intensity of the pain they experienced the researchers also measured electrical activity in the women’s brains.

The results showed that women who were more avoidant of closeness in their relationships showed increased pain levels when their partner was present. This heightened experience of pain in the presence if their partner was expressed in self-reports of pain and in brain activity.

However, the women who most liked closeness in relationships did not report increase in pain relief compared to normal. In fact, the presence of partners for these women had virtually no effect on the level of pain experienced.

The effect here might be mediated by oxytocin, a natural pain reliever, and a bonding chemical secreted by close partners. However, you would expect there to be less pain experienced in women who were close to their partners if this was the case. It might also be that dopamine is playing a role here. Whatever the cause though, if you and your partner aren’t particularly close then you might not need them there for your tooth extraction (and you might also want to start rethinking the whole partner scenario).

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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