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Love and Fear in Relationships

Updated: May 11, 2022

It is through loving, both giving and receiving it, that we become our desired selves. Love is innate and inherently good. In contrast, because we are human, our behaviors—our loving—will always be flawed. Psychiatrist Richard Sutherland stated that choosing love is worth the effort: “It is one choice among all those hovering possibilities, a choice made in the midst of circumstances and always at a risk. When it is made, the experience that follows on the choice has something in it we might, in a moment of boldness, call the purpose of living.” I concur! But, it’s not easy, and let me explain why.

We evolved to both love and fear—and, so, love and fear will be a part of every relationship. And, the evolutionary forces for love and fear still hold: to commit to others and to recognize when others might harm us. This has led to our amazing, complex brains—parts of which that work faster than our conscious awareness—to seek connections with desirable others and protect us from those who might hurt us.

Critical scholar and feminist bell hooks wrote, “Understanding all the ways fear stands in the way of our knowing love challenges us. Fearful that believing in love’s truths and letting them guide our lives will lead to further betrayal, we hold back from love when our hearts are full of longing. Being loving does not mean we will not be betrayed. Love helps us face betrayal without losing heart. And it renews our spirit so that we can love again.” We might have wished for a happier ending—one where embracing and expressing love would lead to a pain-free existence of material, psychological, and spiritual abundance. Sorry!

So far, I have found that seeing my fears and how they cloud my ability to actualize love has been a gift that I would never wish to have not received. But has it made everything rainbows and unicorns? Definitely not. It’s way more intense and nuanced; I am more alive. I am often joyful, just as often sorrowful, and frequently impatient and unsettled as I get to know myself and those around me with growing awareness. There have been flashes of insight, where I have wondered how I couldn’t have seen this reality previously. But mostly, I experience steadily increasing clarity. It’s like climbing a mountain. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Then, at some point, you stop to rest and when you look back, you see how far you have come. We continue to show up, placing one foot in front of the other; with time, we scale mountains.

I am a whitewater kayaker. Through kayaking, I realized that I wasn’t giving my maximum effort. I hold back a certain amount ‘just in case’—saving some energy for an undefined emergency. There are moments that really benefit from giving it your all—such as when you are upside-down in a nasty rapid. My mantra to help myself do this is ‘Everything!’ When I flip over and want to make sure that I give full effort, I tell myself ‘Everything!’ as I snap my hips, roll my boat back underneath myself, and bring my torso up out of the water. Similarly, in relationships, there are times when we want to draw on ‘Everything!’ to grow our love to embrace our fear—for ourselves, for those with whom we are intimate, for those with whom we are connected, and universally. Sometimes it’s easy to find enough love to match our fears—we can save some energy for an undefined emergency—the waters don’t look terribly scary and we perceive that our skills are adequate for the challenges. At other times, the waters look menacing, we wonder if our skills are adequate, and we perceive possible injurious consequences. In both whitewater and relationships, we can go from placid waters to a maelstrom rapidly. The common response to fear is to tighten up, shut down, and withdraw; another option is that we can relax and lean into our fears. But, it takes concerted practice to lean into and apply ‘Everything!’ to those critical moments in our relationships. My future blogs will guide us in this practice.

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