Why does relationship anxiety often go hand in hand with love?
“Love rests on no foundation,
It is an endless ocean,
with no beginning and no end.
Imagine, a suspended ocean,
riding on a cushion of ancient secrets.
All souls have drowned in it,
and now dwell there.
One drop of that ocean is hope,
and the rest is fear.”
One drop of that ocean is hope, and the rest is fear. My practice is full of people who are struggling with relationship anxiety: women and men with loving, attentive, honest partners who are stuck in an anxious loop and trying desperately to dissolve the block of fear so that they don’t sabotage the best thing that ever walked into their life. But if the relationship is so good, why, as Rumi wrote in this poem, is it so scary?
I used to think that love was only scary for people who had come from abusive childhoods. I knew that the trauma didn’t have to be overt emotional, physical, or sexual abuse to qualify as abuse – in fact, it’s often the covert abuse that creates more challenges in terms of accepting real love later in life – but the correlation between the first relationship and later relationships was blatantly obvious. An emotionally invasive mother creates a blueprint belief that says, “Love means no self.” An absent father creates a love script that says, “Love means abandonment.” A combination of these parental deficits naturally creates a dangerous cocktail where love and fear meet in a terrifying collision.
However, after years of doing this work, it’s clear that even people who grew up with loving parents stumble upon trouble with love relationships as adults. The psychological world likes to assign all root causes of emotional challenges to the parents, but this is a limited and short-sighted approach to understanding the factors that contribute to the evolution of the wounded self (ego). The following factors have a profound affect on a person’s ability to love freely:
- Prenatal, birth, and early bonding experiences
- Relationships with peers and siblings (teasing, bullying, social hierarchies)
- Beliefs instilled by schooling and religion (right and wrong; good and bad)
- What you witnessed in your parents’ marriage
- What you witnessed in terms of your parents’ ability to attend to their own emotional needs responsibly
- Inherited anxiety
- Previous love relationships (painful experiences with exes, break-ups)
And then there’s the undeniable fact that we’re all born with a scared part of ourselves. We can call it wounded self, ego, small self or whatever name you prefer, but we are wired as humans to have a fear-based self. This fear-based self likes to be in control. It likes guarantees and shirks risky endeavors. It hates to be vulnerable, and considers emotional vulnerability the most distasteful risk you could ever take. It likes definites and abhors ambiguity. It likes to be certain. It likes to be right. It equates self-worth with success and achievement. The word maybe is anathema.
And guess what? When you commit to loving someone, you’ve entered the realm of the ambiguous. There are no guarantees that your marriage will work out. The fear-based self would like a 100% money-back guarantee at the onset of marriage that all will be well for the rest of your life, but that’s an impossible desire to fulfill. The fear-based self looks for signs that you’re making the “right” choice (as if there is a right choice). And it recoils at the thought that, in committing to marriage, you’re exposing your heart to the risk of hurt and loss. It could be said that there is no act more vulnerable than loving another human being. And it is for this reason that the fear-based self tries to convince you to run for the hills as quickly as you can.
The antidote? Gathering your courage and taking the leap into the unknown. When you admit that fear is in the driver’s seat in the form of sending the familiar thoughts down the well-worn groove of your mind, you find the willingness to break the anxious loop and ask, “What are these thoughts protecting me from feeling?” The first layer will be something like, “I’m scared that if I look inside I’ll discover that my truth is that I have to leave the relationship.” But that’s just the first layer. If you gather another handful of courage and dive back into the watery underworld of psyche, the answer that lives in your soft, exposed heart will be something along the lines of, “I’m scared of being vulnerable. I’m scared of getting hurt. I’m scared that I can’t handle the pain.”
A daily practice is immensely helpful: Inner Bonding®, mindfulness, yoga or martial arts are all ways to address the fear and grow the love. It’s also essential to keep in mind that the heart is tender and vulnerable, and when we remember that loving another is risk, we automatically pull back the projection that says, “If I was with a different partner who was more _______, I would be happier, more alive, more certain.” Hold your heart with compassion, remind yourself that it will open and close like the petals of a rose, and know that when it closes, the work is to see it with gentleness, without judgement, knowing that it’s just what the heart does. As Pema Chodron writes in her weekly quotes:
Bodhichitta is our heart—our wounded, softened heart. Now, if you look for that soft heart that we guard so carefully—if you decide that you’re going to do a scientific exploration under the microscope and try to find that heart—you won’t find it. You can look, but all you’ll find is some kind of tenderness. There isn’t anything that you can cut out and put under the microscope. There isn’t anything that you can dissect or grasp. The more you look, the more you find just a feeling of tenderness tinged with some kind of sadness. This sadness is not about somebody mistreating us.
This is inherent sadness, unconditioned sadness. It is part of our birthright, a family heirloom. It’s been called the genuine heart of sadness.
Past the defenses/mental addictions (I’m with the wrong person, I’m not in love enough) and projections (everything he/she does irritates me), lives the wounded, softened heart. When you can crack open the hard shell of your learned protections, you will rest in this vulnerable place, and you will probably cry. They will be tears of beauty and tears of pain. They’ll be tears of recognizing your tenderness and the immense risk you take when you choose to love. It’s the grief of being human, of knowing how little control you have over outcomes and people, and when you allow yourself to touch down into this exquisitely raw place, you let go of trying to control and open the doorway for joy and love to enter.