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Why Falling in Love Can Be So Scary

Longing and wanting aren't easy to feel, but they come with the territory.

By Melissa Ritter, Ph.D.

In Western culture, falling in love is considered "The Happy Thing"—two people find each other and the story ends, the curtain drops, the credits roll. The problems of loneliness, desire, and attachment have been solved. This is a deeply satisfying narrative, but as many of us experience in our actual lives, it is often less straightforward. To fall in love requires us to recognize powerful feelings of longing, which can render us emotionally exposed and scared.

Valery Sidelnykov/Shutterstock
Source: Valery Sidelnykov/Shutterstock

Longing and Wanting

The word "longing" conveys the feeling of intense desire for the other's presence, attention, body—every bit of them. The venerable and subversive Maurice Sendak precisely articulated this lusty combination of enthusiastic, driven wanting: "I’ll eat you up, I love you so!"

When we meet someone to whom we respond intensely—and to whom we are drawn physically, emotionally, intellectually, or (jackpot!) all three—our protective shell is punctured. "Cupid’s arrow" represents love’s abrupt, unanticipated, somewhat painful penetration of one’s self, a self carefully prepared "to meet the faces that you meet," as T. S. Eliot described our veneered presentations, crafted to facilitate smooth interpersonal engagement and minimize vulnerability to others.

Longing and wanting erode our psychic skin by submitting us to uncertain outcomes, and possibly agonizing pain. For example, our loving, longing, and wanting may not be reciprocated. Impediments might present themselves, such as distance, religion, and marital status, as well as more internal complications within a couple, like ambivalence, insecurity, and worries about intimacy.

There are no guarantees romantic love will “work out.”

What’s at Stake

Heartbreak is a formidable threat. It is not uncommon for people to go to great lengths to avoid the torment of a broken heart. For example, some avoid engaging too deeply with any romantic partner or remain in deadened relationships. Others consider romantic love to be silly, irrational, fleeting, a waste of energy, or only for the young. This is understandable; heartbreak can be utterly devastating. Still, we are wired for love and it’s not easy to escape, as it appears ubiquitously in movies, songs, books, theater (and online posts).

Despite our self-protective measures, though, we still often end up desperately longing for that irresistible someone. It is absolutely terrifying, but also exhilarating, vivid, and, from my perspective, the point of it all.

Love Isn't Always Easy to Feel

A female patient in her thirties with whom I have worked for some years recently acknowledged that she is dating a man with whom she is in love. Her declaration, however, was muted, pained, and not without regret, given that she has had some catastrophically painful previous relationships. I met it similarly. Yet, with this angst is consciously acknowledged pleasure. We could withstand the inevitable uncertainty and potential for suffering alongside the recognition that something extraordinary and singular had arrived in her life, and for that, we both felt joy.

A male patient debating a split from his current boyfriend after having met a man by whom he was "thunderstruck" (this being the most accurate metaphor for the irrefutable force with which his feelings of wanting saturated his being) found himself sobbing uncontrollably as the new relationship unfolded. He confided to me that he had never wanted another person so fiercely. He worried this man would not want him, it would end badly, and his life was unraveling. The unruly potency of the feelings left him breathless, confused, and overcome.

We spoke at length about the ways in which his earlier history had not permitted such expansive expression. It was frightening, but he also felt more awake and more open to possibility than ever before. His suffering was not an indication that anything was psychologically amiss: He was in love and he was scared.

Reason Is Not the Solution

None of us wants to lose our (imagined) authority over our emotions. Falling in love reminds us that "reason"—the misguided foundation of self-help book advice aimed at restraining romantic love—is largely irrelevant to many aspects of our emotional lives. Falling in love is scary, and must be reckoned with, not rejected, denied, or parsed into tidy lists in which we find relief from uncertainty. Fear, risk, and pain are part of the territory—as are joy, wonder, and transcendence.

We must feel our way into it the best we can, understanding that being scared is part of being alive. The fullest range of emotions offers the fullest life.

Melissa Ritter, Ph.D., is a psychologist-psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. She is a Supervisor and Faculty at The William Alanson White Institute, as well as Co-Editor of this blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action.

Oliver Gill/Used with permission
Source: Oliver Gill/Used with permission
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