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Relationship Feeling Like a Hurt Locker? Try Tylenol

Let’s face it, relationships aren’t all “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Sometimes, love stinks. R.E.M. had it right, romance can be downright painful and “everybody hurts sometimes.” What if I told you that you could lesson some of life’s heartache with a (totally legal and over the counter) pill? Well, it’s true, and the remedy is probably already in your medicine cabinet. It’s Tylenol!

It goes without saying that I’m fascinated by relationship research, but every now and again I come across a finding that really excites me. The brilliance and simplicity of this research makes me not only eager, but utterly compelled to share it. As it turns out, acetaminophen (Tylenol) has been found to reduce the experience of hurt feelings.1

If you’ve been in a relationship, you’ve probably had your feelings hurt. The cause can range from accidental and seemingly innocuous to outright betrayal, but the common thread in feeling hurt is that each offense implies relational devaluation. Psychologists define the experience of hurt feelings as the emotional reaction to the belief that another person values their relationship with us less than they did at a previous time.2  Why is this so painful? Mainly, because it is a form of rejection that signifies you may be losing status or importance in your partner’s eyes.

Interestingly, if you think back to a time that you were hurt by a loved one, the psychological pain probably felt a lot like physical pain. In fact, when people describe being hurt in a relationship, they often talk about how their partner’s words “cut” them or how their actions felt like “a kick in the stomach.”3 There’s a good reason for this.  As it turns out, several body systems respond to emotional and physical pain in the same way.4

Capitalizing on the knowledge that similar mechanisms regulated both experiences of pain, researchers examined whether similar treatments could be used to alleviate them. In an ingenious study, participants taking a daily regimen of acetaminophen responded to social rejection with significantly lower levels of hurt feelings as compared to those not taking Tylenol.1

Although fascinating, I’m hesitant to urge you to dose up on Tylenol, as this is an actual drug and if taken incorrectly can have harmful side-effects. Obviously, you’d want to speak to your physician before self-medicating, but the potential consequences of such work are astounding. Who knows, maybe in a few years love will only “hurt so good!”

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1DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Master, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., & Eisenberger, N. I., (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931-937.

2Leary, M. R., Springer, C., Negel, L., Ansell, E., & Evans, K., (1998). The causes, phenomenology, and consequences of hurt feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1225-1237. 

3Feeney, J. A., (2005). Hurt feelings in couple relationships: Exploring the role of attachment and perceptions of personal injury. Personal Relationships, 12, 587-608.

4DeWall, C. N. (2009). The pain of exclusion: Using insights from neuroscience to understand emotional and behavioral responses to social exclusion. In M. J. Harris (Ed.), Bullying, rejection, and peer victimization: A social cognitive neuroscience perspective (pp.201-224). New York:  Springer.

Dr. Sadie Leder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.

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