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On Being Afraid of Love

There's no avoiding the link between love and fear.

If your pursuit of romantic love arouses fear, then you are simply being human. The part of your brain that processes emotions and is linked to pleasure and fear responses, the amygdala, is responsible for the fact that we do not experience romantic attraction that involves sexual arousal independent of consciously or unconsciously experiencing fear—whether it is a fear of shame, loss, abandonment, disruptive mood, or emotional pain. Allan Schore, a leading researcher in the field of neuropsychology, explained to me that in the amygdala—more precisely, in the right amygdala—rising sexual arousal is seen as a cue of danger since both sexual arousal and fear are processed by this same region of the brain (A. Schore, personal communication, January 25, 2013).

Since the slope of passionate arousal is accompanied by increasing threat, humans have found many different ways of dealing with their romantic attraction to another. Rather than pursue what you need, for example, you may retreat from love or choose a “safe” partner who does not meet your needs for intimacy but who will provide you with contentment. Less passion constitutes less fear, yet such relationships are easily discernable as loving. If you fear loss or abandonment, a safe partner is one whose behavior does not repeatedly trigger emotions involved with disconnection, such as shame. A partner with whom affective resonance—a “soulful” connection— is minimal may reduce the risk to your sense of self. Although this may seem to some people like a dreadful way to live, such relational choices are commonplace. However, even when the connection is not intense, fear, shame, and the fear of being shamed still lurk in the shadows. There’s no avoiding the link between love and threat.

Conversely, you may seek high levels of stimulation and pursue relationships that are fraught with risk and the experience of a sense of internal danger. Higher excitement can activate greater fear. In stark contrast to safe options, both male and female patients have told me about their choices in love relationships that involve high risk—seeking love that sexualizes the tension between excitement and fear. The stimulating experience of love in the lives of these people involves intense sexual intimacy and intermittent experiences of painful affective arousal having to do with disconnection and shame.

Consider the balance between excitement and fear that you’ve developed in your own life, and imagine all the possibilities and variations that exist. The complexities involved in being human are amazing when we consider that the quest for romantic attachment may lead you to fear relationships that are captivating or seek romantic experiences that are based on the stimulating activation of fear. In either case you will rationalize the choice you’ve made, but the driving force has to do with your responses to the link between excitement and fear.

For information about my current book, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website: