Why Relationships Scare Us

The roots of our ambivalence about love.

Posted Jan 23, 2017

      “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know that we cannot live within.” — James Arthur Baldwin

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The pursuit of love is a great motivator of mankind. Love is universal: it’s something most of us strive for and it’s part of what gives our lives meaning. Yet we all grow up with different ideas about how relationships work, and different attitudes and beliefs about the possibilities of love. No matter where one falls on the spectrum, from self-proclaimed island to hopeless romantic, we all possess a certain level of fear surrounding the subject.

Many people are ambivalent toward relationships. As my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, wrote, “Most people have a fear of intimacy and at the same time are terrified of being alone.” This fear causes some people to resist closeness. A lot of people want someone up until the moment that someone wants them back, or they only start wanting a person when that person stops wanting them. For other people, fear makes them cling to their relationships. They worry incessantly about losing someone or about how their partner feels toward them, and they are hypervigilant for signs that they’re being rejected. 

Most people can relate to being on one side or the other of these feelings, desperately worrying about being either in or out of a relationship. Our struggles with intimacy often result from where we fall between these two states. Because of these often subconscious fears, that sweet spot of feeling our love for someone and their love for us can be very challenging to find—and even more difficult to maintain. Whether we’re scared that a partner will leave and abandon us or that they’ll cling and limit our independence, worries about intimacy can cause us to behave in ways that can result in destructive outcomes for our relationships.

To understand our fears around relationships, it helps to explore our early attachment patterns and how they shape us. How willing we are to get close to another person has a lot to do with our past relationships. Our earliest interactions with our parents or primary caretakers become a model for what we expect or, often without awareness, what we seek in our future relationships. This is because we learn from our experiences how relationships work—we develop expectations for how people will behave based on these as well. For example, if our emotional needs weren't met as children, we may be afraid to trust again. We may have fears about depending on someone and having someone depend on us.

If, as child, a person felt emotionally neglected by his or her parents, that person may have developed an avoidant attachment pattern. This means he or she found that the best strategy for getting his or her needs met was to act like he or she didn’t have any. As children, people with an avoidant attachment pattern may have become disconnected from themselves and their needs, because it was too painful to experience them and the resulting frustration. As adults, such people are often dismissive. They don’t experience their wants and often think others are “too needy." Their adaptation is to feel pseudo-independent, like they can take care of themselves, and that they don’t need anything from others. They tend to avoid real closeness and connection, so they often live “separate but together” with their partner. They may be indifferent to both their partner’s wants and their own and tend to come off as self-contained. Yet their anxiety is aroused when people leave them.

Another group grew up with an anxious attachment pattern. As children, their needs were sometimes met, but at other times their parents were either misattuned or intrusive. Their parents may have exhibited emotional hunger instead of love, which leaves a child feeling drained rather than nurtured. In these instances, a parent’s affection is driven by a desire to seek comfort from their child rather than to offer comfort to them. This inconsistent treatment can leave children feeling anxious. They grow up to be preoccupied with getting their needs met by their partners. They may feel that they have to make things happen and get people to love them. They often seek more reassurance and feel insecure, and possessive toward their partner.

Even though the attachment patterns we develop early on create a mold for the attachments we form throughout our lives, this mold can be broken. Becoming aware of our attachment patterns gives us clarity about our fears of love and closeness, and allows us to approach relationships in a new way. Whatever our fears and ideas about love may be, it’s important to recognize that we come by them honestly. When we start to understand why we feel the way we do, and recognize what scares us about relationships, we can start to discern our own point of view about love and decide how we will pursue it in our lives.

In my upcoming webinar, “Understanding and Overcoming Relationship Anxiety,” I’ll explore the psychological roots of our fears about relationships in more depth, and introduce methods to help you overcome this anxiety and be more open and vulnerable to real love. I’ll discuss how we can all work to separate from the negative overlays of our past and approach our relationships with fresh eyes and on our own terms.