Blog: Why Falling In Love Can Be So Scary

Why Falling In Love Can Be So Scary
Powerful feelings of longing are unexpectedly stirred
In Western culture, falling in love is billed as The Happy Thing: two people find one another, and the story ends, the curtain drops, the credits roll. The problems of loneliness, desire and attachment have been solved. As a narrative, this is deeply satisfying. But as many of us experience it in our actual lives, it is often less straightforward. Because to fall in love requires us to recognize powerful feelings of longing, and this can render us emotionally exposed and scared.
Longing and Wanting
I use the word longing to convey the feeling of intense wanting of the other—wanting their presence, their attention, their body…every bit of them. The venerable and subversive Maurice Sendak, with his inimitable pith, precisely articulated this lusty mix of enthusiastic and driven wanting of the other: I’ll eat you up I love you so!
When we meet someone to whom we respond intensely—drawn physically, emotionally, intellectually, or (jackpot!) all three—our protective shell is punctured. Think of Cupid’s arrow: this image is the consummate representation of love’s abrupt, unanticipated, somewhat painful penetration of one’s self; a self carefully crafted to meet the faces that you meet, as TS Eliot so eloquently described our veneered presentations, those designed to facilitate smooth interpersonal engagement and minimize our vulnerability to others.
Longing and wanting erode our psychic skin--that which Cupid delightedly punctures--by submitting us to uncertain outcome, quite possibly one of agonizing pain. Our loving/longing/wanting might not be reciprocated. And even if our feelings are requited, there are a multitude of impediments that might present themselves: circumstances like distance, religion, and marital status, as well as more internal complications within the couple, like ambivalence, insecurity, and worries about intimacy. There are absolutely no guarantees romantic love will “work out.”
What’s At Stake
Heartbreak is the danger. And it is a formidable threat. Trying to dodge the onslaught of heartbreak’s torment is not uncommon. We all know folks who avoid engaging too deeply with romantic partners, or remain in deadened relationships. And we’re familiar with descriptions of romantic love as “silly,” “irrational,” “fleeting,” “a waste of energy,” “only for the young.” This all makes sense because heartbreak can be utterly devastating. But the thing is, we are wired for love and it’s not so easy to escape. The expression of our preoccupation is pervasive: movies, music, books, theater, on-line…it’s everywhere.
So, often enough, despite our self-protective measures, we find ourselves defenseless against the colonization of our feelings: we end up desperately longing for that irresistible someone. How, on earth, can this be other than scary? My goodness, it is absolutely terrifying. And also exhilarating and vivid and, really, from my perspective, the point of it all, if, indeed, one subscribes to the idea that there is a “point.”
Love Isn’t Easy To Feel
A heterosexual female patient with whom I have been working for some years, a woman who has had some catastrophically painful romantic relationships, has recently, and with much distressed hesitation, acknowledged she in dating a man with whom she is in love. Her declaration in a recent session was muted and pained and not without regret. I met it similarly. And yet, simultaneous with this angst-drenched aspect was an acknowledged pleasure shared quite consciously between us. That is, we could hold both the inevitable uncertainty and thus potential for almost unbearable suffering, alongside the recognition that something extraordinary and singular had arrived in her life and, for that, we both felt startled joy. We exchanged a rueful smile—life is messy.
A gay 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 and with such abandon. He worried this man would not want him, that it would not “work out,” that his life was unraveling--the sheer unruly potency of the feelings left him breathless, confused and often overcome.
We spoke at length about this, and the ways in which his earlier history had not permitted such expansive expression. Yes, It was harrowing, 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. He was scared.
Reason Is Not The Solution
We do not want to lose our (imagined) authority over our emotions. Falling in love is an unsparing reminder that reason—the misguided foundation of self-help book advice aimed at restraint of romantic love’s recalcitrant disruption--is largely irrelevant to many aspects of our emotional lives. Falling in love IS scary and to be reckoned with, not rejected or denied or parsed into tidy lists to which we refer for relief from the uncertainty. Fear and risk and pain are part of the territory. As is joy and wonder and transcendence. We must feel our way into it all as best we can, understanding that being scared is part of being alive—the fullest range of emotion 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 (link is external), as well as Co-Editor of this blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, to which she is also a contributor.