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Why Some People Run From Love

... and how it keeps them from working through old hurts.

Key points

  • Intense closeness may result in unexpected effects.
  • Temporary distancing—a need for space—can maintain the equilibrium of one or both partners.
  • Vulnerabilities may emerge in a relationship that lead people to sense of being emotionally endangered in loving.
  • Trust in a current partner, and the ability to communicate without judgment, are essential to working through past experiences.

Passion is blissful. Sharing emotional and subjective experiences, including the echoing of intellectual and personal interests, can create a sense of deep intimacy. Yet intense closeness may also result in unexpected effects. The intensity between people may be followed by temporary distancing—a need for space—that maintains the equilibrium of one or both partners and later enables them to resume intimacy. There are also situations where vulnerabilities may emerge that lead one partner or both to sense being emotionally endangered in loving. At other times, regardless of their longing for intimacy, people choose “safe” partners where intense closeness is absent and the risk of vulnerability is minimized.

All of us are vulnerable in relationships to some degree, but more so if traumatic disappointments were present in our lives. Passion links us to our past. Aspects of early relationships and later ones remain stored in memory. Memories inform and silently guide our cognitive, emotional, and social judgments. They prime us to respond to a present situation based on the accumulation of past memories (Schacter et al., 1993). Thus, memory serves to guide us to know what to expect. If we have a past riddled with disappointment, loss, abuse, neglect, or abandonment our brain attempts to prepare us not to let it happen again.

Implicit memories occur without our conscious processing or recognizing how past experiences influence present reality. The far-reaching influence of implicit memories involves our attraction to, or infatuations with, certain people, and also affects our flight from intimacy (Lewis et al., 2000). When activated, an implicit memory registers as a feeling, image, or flashback within us, seemingly from nowhere.

Implicit memories create meanings that we feel in our bodies but for which we do not have words. As a result, when an implicit memory emerges, we may have intrusive feelings, behavioral reactions, perceptions, and bodily sensations, though we may be unaware that something from the past is being recalled (Siegel, 2010). Where emotion motivates an action, cognition (thought) gives our actions words and meaning. Thus, motivated by shame, we may experience a need for temporary distance and use thought to provide a reason for the retreat. When intense intimacy is threatening or overwhelming, we are motivated by fear or distress. In this case, thought and imagery can create states of jealousy, mistrust, uncertainty, and insecurity that are destructive to a relationship.

When someone expresses vulnerability around love, even to the extreme of feeling emotionally endangered, they often focus on past events rather than the paradise they once experienced that was lost. The potential to lose “idyllic” love haunts their relationships. Traumatic disappointments prime memory with reminders of our vulnerabilities. Yet traumatic disappointment can also create a later dependency on others in what seems to be an intense form of object hunger (Kohut, 1968). Thus, a person may find themselves repeatedly in situations where they both want to move forward and are compelled to retreat.

In some situations, each partner may have a history of childhood trauma. Such histories can result in a relationship that begins with mutual idealization and is highly eroticized. Eventually, however, the idealization becomes tarnished by self-protective maneuvers that erode the connection between the two people.

A fervent infatuation—one that recreates the blissful pleasure of very early childhood—can result in traumatic disappointment that parallels the feelings involved in an actual past trauma or an injurious loss of idealized love experienced by the person in childhood or beyond. Idealized love that is projected upon a current partner hides the inevitable repetition of a past disappointment and loss—an intense injury to one’s ego—that lurks in the shadows. Undeniably, memory attempts to protect us when we displace onto others in the present the feelings, attitudes, fantasies, adaptations, and defenses that are repetitions of reactions originating with significant persons in our distant past.

Fleeing from a sense of emotional endangerment in one relationship to another where intimacy is muted may indeed provide safety. However, the opportunity to look inside oneself and work through both present and past hurt and disappointment is lost. Trust in the other and the ability to communicate without judgment is essential to working through past experiences that our memory transports into our present relationships. Sadly, this opportunity for insight is often not realized when people run from love.

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Kohut, H. (1968). The psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders: Outline of a systematic approach. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 23, 86–113.

Lewis, T. L., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. Random House.

Schacter, D. L., Chiu, C.-Y. P., & Ochsner, K. N. (1993). Implicit memory: A selective review. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 16, 159–182.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. Random House.

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