The Psychology of Hurt/Comfort Romances

When most people think about romance novels they focus on stories that work toward a HEA or even HFN ending. But recently, Hurt/Comfort (H/C) stories are becoming more and more popular, where the journey to that HEA is painful, torturous, and downright gut-wrenching. These are the epic love stories that make you hurt so bad that you keep on reading in the hopes that the characters will find that HEA, because, Damn it! They deserve it. But what makes this antithesis journey to romance so desirable?

Defining Hurt/Comfort

Hurt/Comfort stories are defined as stories that have one character who has physical/emotional/psychological trauma and another character who heals/nurtures/comforts them through it.

H/C stories go beyond your average alpha male/spunky female couples (or whatever tickles your fancy), in that in there is an intensity and an openness with which the hurt protagonist’s pain and struggle through that pain is explored. It gives the reader an all-access pass in to the character’s world of pain, and their struggle to overcome or deal with that pain.

They showcase how pain is seldom experienced alone. That the ones around us, the ones who care, have a deep-seated desire to comfort and nurture us through the pain. How the nurturing protagonist learns about themselves in comforting the hurt protagonist.

H/C stories are about the reciprocal nature of hurt and comfort, neglect and nurture, and weakness and strength.

Why do Readers Enjoy it?

H/C stories appeal to readers in different ways. The reader identifies with either the hurt protagonist or the nurturer in the story. Or they desire to find a love that is as balanced and vital as the one reflected in the book. Each reader gets something out of the experience that they take away from reading the book, and it changes how they see themselves and how they view their interactions with their own loved ones. Here are a few reasons why H/C stories are becoming more popular:

  1. H/C stories enable the reader to deal with negative emotions in a controlled environmentDealing with negative emotions such as loss of a loved one, misfortune, and pain, is a very difficult process. Grief and bereavement can take a toll on us, made all the worse by the unexpectedness of the situation that brings about these emotions. However, when reading about characters going through similar experiences, the reader is slightly removed from the situation, given that they have the option and control to limit or stop the stimuli that is causing these emotions. This gives the reader the control and space to process these negative emotions and makes them feel more empowered by doing so.
  2. The hurt component of the story calls to the part of us that doesn’t want to be the only one experiencing that particular type of painHurt is an undeniable part of the human condition. No person can say that they have never experienced a negative emotion in their lives. However, when we go through these painful situations, we often feel like we are alone. Like no one has ever experienced this type of pain before. It is a dramatic thought and feeling, but true nonetheless.
  3. In reading H/C stories and seeing the different emotional/physical/psychological challenges the hurting protagonists experience, we connect with that pain on an intellectual and emotional level that helps us understand the characters and ourselves better. We take our own comfort in that we are not alone in experiencing this brand of trauma, but we a simultaneously assuaged that this isn’t happening to some “real” person out there (because you don’t want to share this misery). We become hopeful that if this character, the same character who is going through something similar or the exact same thing we are going through, can survive, thrive, overcome the situation/challenge, then we can too. Thus in reading H/C stories we begin to feel better about ourselves.
  4. Reading about another hurt person’s relapses gives the reader permission to not feel bad about their own failuresSometimes we get comfort from seeing others stumble and fail. As sadistic as that sounds, humans (all humans, don’t think you are above it) take comfort in seeing the struggles of others, because it makes our struggles seem normal. This ties in with the whole, I’m not alone thing, but in this case it gives us permission to not be perfect. In a world where we are expected to be perfect, to not let things hold you down, sometimes you just need someone to tell you or show you that it is okay to struggle. Seeing the failings of hurt characters, especially characters who then go on to conquer their challenges, shows the reader that failure is just a small setback in the greater journey to overcoming their weaknesses, trials, and challenges.
  5. The comfort component of the story calls to the egotistical part of us that wants to be neededThe reader can identify with the nurturer; their desires to help, their frustrations when it doesn’t go well, and their sense of fulfilment when it does go well. It is satisfying to read about the comforting protagonist’s journey because it gives us the hope that we too might find that person who needs us and us alone to function, to strive to heal, to be better, and to be whole.
  6. H/C stories cater to the basic desire to be in balanced, two-sided relationships where both parties gain strength from each otherWe all want to be comforted when we hurt, and we all want to be needed to give comfort when a loved one is hurt. Is it really any wonder that in H/C stories, where the reader gets to be the hurter, the comforter, and the tormenter attracts us? As the hurter, we allow ourselves to accept our pain and allow ourselves to deal with it in a safe environment. As the comforter, we allow ourselves to acknowledge what we wish others would do for us, and allow ourselves the frustration of failing to give comfort to those who matter most to us. And as the tormenter, we allow ourselves to acknowledge that pain is an inevitable part of life, and that without it, life ceases to have the same value and meaning as it does now.
  7. H/C stories call to all these sides of us, that wants to find a partner who also accepts that, at any given time, we can take on these roles and they will supplement the other two. But at the end of the day what matters most is that we both complete each other, and gain strength from each other. To read about characters committing themselves to such relationships, and finding strength from them, is both cathartic and enlivening.

Recommended Reading

If you want to read some excellent H/C stories, I recommend reading Talker by Amy Lane, Ethan, Who Loved Carter by Ryan Loveless, When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James, and Fragile by Shiloh Walker. These stories will make your heart bleed, and the tears fall. They are cathartic in a way that makes you take a deep breath and move on with these characters forever close to your heart and never far from your mind.