What is love? Words seem trivial when the soul swells with powerful emotions. Words cannot express the complexity of feelings. As grand as the word love is, and as much as the word inspires, the simple word fails to convey the complexity required to describe the connection necessary for intimacy—the simplicity of a word lacks the specific guidance necessary for success. If intimacy is a mystery, beyond our experiences to clearly understand, the work of connecting becomes frightening. We don’t know what to expect. The fear of love, in these cases, becomes the most threatening obstacle.
A friend once told me—after another failed relationship—”I am only guilty of loving too much”. Another acquaintance moaned, “If he just loved me then it would be alright!” These common expressions conflict. One declares love is not enough and the other suggest love would be the saving grace. Quick summations of relationship success and failure miss the mark. Our individual definitions form from our experience.
Context and definitions significantly impact the meaning of an emotional declaration of the cause for our relationship failure. It’s loves fault. We are left to question when standing in the ashes of a painful heartbreak, can love save a relationship? And if love can, what exactly is love? Is love a feeling, or a pattern of behavior? What happens to love when we are angry, disappointed or sorrowful? Does love allow for occasional deviations from loving behavior?
Love and Vulnerability
Close relationships are complex, demanding vulnerability, respect and skill. Our emotional lives are at stake. With so much resting on the success of a connection, we fearfully stumble through interactions lacking sufficient experience to comfortably connect. Until we have an appropriate guide, we may never achieve the intimacy we seek, continuously relying on unproductive patterns from the past. If we believe that love is the only ingredient necessary for success but are unsure or confused on what love actually is, we may blame lack of love for the failure and continue to make the same relationship blunders.
Psychologist Aaron Beck wrote in his best-selling book, Love is Never Enough:
“Love does not in itself create the substance of the relationship—the personal qualities and skills that are crucial for a happy relationship: commitment, sensitivity, generosity, consideration, loyalty, responsibility, trustworthiness. Mates need to compromise, cooperate and follow through with their join decisions. They have to be resilient, accepting and forgiving. They need to be tolerant of each other’s flaws, mistakes, and peculiarities. As these “virtues” are cultivated over time, the marriage develops and matures” (1989).
Fear of Loss
The fear of losing a lover frightens the courageous but devastates the needy. When signs of deteriorating commitment emerge, the fear challenges self-confidence and destroys security. The belief that a partner’s commitment is wavering is the driving force of the fear, not whether in reality their commitment has changed or not. We can be loved but believe we’re not and still suffer.
There often is a correlation between the belief and reality. When someone is loving and kind, we are more likely to believe we are loved. But sometimes intense fears obscure the facts and spook our souls. Either love is expressed in ways we don’t understand, or insecurities disrupt our ability to receive expression of love. The belief—not love—feeds the fear.
Ward Andrews wrote in an article on fear and love that “love moves you toward something you want. Fear moves you away from something you don’t want” (2019). This definition explains love as a verb, understood through the actions it motivates.
Love can’t be learned from a book; words lack power to convert the hardened soul. Research, however may assist in learning to love. Love is felt and experienced, much deeper than cognitive mulling of words. By being loved—and recognizing it, we begin to grasp the blurry concept of love.
A Childhood Without Love
When love is not experienced in childhood, the adult struggles to understand, not fully comprehending what is sought. An impoverished childhood constricts concepts of love to abstract messages posted in social media or presented in a romantic novel.
Without an early foundation, we try to integrate these abstract symbols with our own intense feelings. Our confusion on how to act, without a realistic measure, intensifies feelings. Objectively knowing whether we are loved may remain unanswered, leaving us with feelings to answer the insecurities. Our insecurities, however, are faulty guides, constantly searching for evidence to confirm the nagging doubt.
Some parents interfere with a child’s autonomous development. These parents suffering from their own attachment injuries convey a subtle message to their child, “it’s not okay to separate and become an autonomous being.” The child absorbs the message and relationships outside of the family bring guilt.
Jean Knox explains, “parents whose own failures to individuate, or in attachment theory terms, to secure autobiographical self, means they depend on others, including their own children, to maintain a sense of their own identity” (2007, p. 544).
The weight placed on a relationship from adverse childhood experiences can make the possibility of new bonds frightening. Even the possibility of future failure devastates. The intensity of these feelings may arouse emotions enough to make even the thought of love bitter.
Love and Fears of Abandonment
Abandonment fears, resurrected from childhood, are magnified in romance. We may feel confident and successful in a professional setting but when a new relationship begins, inner chaos is unleashed. Pangs of loneliness push the war-torn heart towards relationships; but the relationships repeatedly disrupt otherwise productive lives. Biologically driven to belong while simultaneously emotionally incapable of connecting, the fearful face a painful paradox.
Relationships and Wellness
Healthy relationships are the foundation of well-being, combining emotional and financial resources, providing security with joint plans for the future—but these benefits go unrecognized when fear dominates. Instead of drawing emotional strength from a partner, the insecurity incites our fears, disrupting peace and the calm enjoyment of the warmth of trust. Because of an ever-present fear, thoughts and behaviors morph to protect. The relationship sparks fear of an inevitable abandonment. Joys are dulled by anxiety of a pain luring in the shadows of the future.
Instead of enjoying the warmth of being loved the insecure lover’s mind is constantly prowling for evidence of the upcoming pain, as if knowing will prevent the inevitable. Personal shame of being unlovable haunts the mind, preventing recognition of loving behaviors. Under the influence of shame, we can’t grasp the concept of being loved; love is, instead, believed to be evasive and fleeting, only captured through deception and manipulations.
Some fears are normal. A modest amount of jealousy motivates relation building behaviors, we do things for our spouse to show our worth. We act loving while carefully observing the emotional reactions of our lover. These are normal behaviors. But intense fears transform normal drives into something sinister and destructive. When behaviors manipulate and restrict a partner, they are motivated by fear; not love. If we cannot recognize the difference between fear and love, we will never skillfully navigate the complexity of connection.
Love is trust; not doubt.
Not All Fear is Bad
We must accept that fear has a purpose. It is bad for love, certainly, but it also has a protective quality. Sometimes lovers and caregivers threaten our wellbeing. Often unintentionally, but occasionally some people are abusive and meanspirited. They intend to hurt. Their words weaken our self-confidence. Their manipulations are emotionally abusive.
We intuitively know that they pose a threat. Our soul squirms when we predict the coming of abusive words and behaviors. Our fear is wisely cautioning us to protect. Nancy Coller wrote, “when we feel emotionally attacked, blamed, or criticized in some way, we experience fear, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Our ego is threatened” (2018).
We must respond to our fears with wisdom. Some reactions drive the possibility of love away. Other reactions may ignore threats, allowing boundary violations, and inviting further abusive words and behaviors. In wisdom, we may utilize the fear to repair or escape unhealthy relationships.
Love and Growth
Love encourages growth. It encourages autonomy. Love does not manipulate, control, or discourage. When two people love each other, they aren’t afraid to ask for what they want or skillfully share how they feel; but they also understand a partner is not a servant to placate every difficult feeling. Some burdens we must bear, settling for gentle encouragements from our lover.
As mutual trust and respect grow between partners, the relationship provides some of the desired security, comfort, and companionship. No relationship will solve all personal struggles or relieve all discomfort. Our emotional maps will continue functioning partially independent of the relationship.
If we previously experienced unpredictable emotions, we will still be challenged—most relationships magnify emotions not relieve them. Even when in a relationship, we still must manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. If we don’t, the emotions will damage the relationship, inviting the abandonment we dreadfully fear.
Love and fear do not exist in the same person at the same time. We all experience both love and fear; but at different times. Certain events trigger fear. We fear circumstances that have power to hurt. Sensitivity to pasts magnifies attentiveness to similar pains in the future.
We should not ignore fear or chastise ourselves when feeling fear. But should examine the cause and evaluate the trigger, determining if our actions are destructive to the bonds of connection. Sometimes loving too much is not love at all—it is intrusive, insecure demands for a partner to heal the wounds from the past by abandoning themselves, their wants and their rights to enjoy their own well-being.
Compassionately Embracing Our Fears to Love
Compassionately embracing fears accomplishes more than cruelly banishing them. Childhood fears etch into our souls; we can’t banish them through forced mind control, ignoring their presence. We need more acceptance of self, not further fragmenting of our psyche by denying elements we don’t prefer to acknowledge. However, we can slow down, calmly step back, and identify fearful reactions and mindfully work to replace them with love.
Most importantly, We must remember that fear interferes with assessments. By simply recognizing the fear, we create some space to examine alternate theories for our feelings. “My partner doesn’t hate me, she was just distracted,” may be much more accurate than “If he cared about me, he would have heard everything that I said.” When we recognize personal sensitivities, we can explore deeper causes. By considering the complexity of causes behind emotions, we can more appropriately address present issues, reducing fears and creating the intimacy we desire.
Andrews, W. (2019). Love vs. Fear. Design.org. Published 10-2-2019. Accessed 1-22-2022
Beck, A. (1989) Love is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy. Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
Coller, N. (2018). Choosing Love, Not Fear. Psychology Today. Published 2-22-2018. Accessed 1-22-2022.
Knox, J. (2007). The fear of love: the denial of self in relationship. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 52(5)