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Why Do So Many People Respond Negatively to Being Loved?

negative reaction to loveLove — kindness, affection, sensitive attunement, respect, companionship — is not only difficult to find, but is even more challenging for many people to accept and tolerate.  In my work with individuals and couples, I have observed countless examples of people reacting angrily when loving responses were directed toward them.

  • One man felt a flash of anger at his wife when she said she was worried about him riding his bike in an unsafe neighborhood. Even though he knew she was not being controlling or judgmental, and despite being aware that her apprehension was based on the fact that she really loved and valued him, he felt rage.
  • A woman became outright nasty when her boyfriend told her that he loved her so much he wished that they could have children together. She had never expressed hostility toward him before and the man involved was not pressuring her or even suggesting a course of action. He said it was just a sweet feeling.
  • In a therapy session, a usually calm and quiet man revealed that he felt fury when people praised him.

Unlike these individuals, many people are unaware that being loved or especially valued makes them feel angry and withholding. Indeed, this paradoxical reaction is largely an unconscious process. Even a simple compliment, although initially accepted at face value and enjoyed, can later arouse feelings of disbelief or anger toward the person giving the compliment, or can trigger negative attitudes and critical feelings towards oneself.

But why do love, positive acknowledgment and compliments arouse such animosity?  There are a number of primary causes of this phenomenon discussed in this blog.

1. Being loved arouses anxiety because it threatens long-standing psychological defenses formed early in life in relation to emotional pain and rejection, therefore leaving a person feeling more vulnerable.

Although the experience of being chosen and especially valued is exciting and can bring happiness and fulfillment, at the same time, it can be frightening and the fear often translates into anger and hostility. Basically, love is scary when it contrasts with childhood trauma. In that situation, the beloved feels compelled to act in ways that hurt the lover: behaving in a punitive manner, distancing themselves and pushing love away.  In essence, people maintain the defensive posture that they formed early in life. Because the negative reaction to positive events occurs without conscious awareness, individuals respond without understanding what caused them to react. They rationalize the situation by finding fault with or blaming others, particularly those closest to them.

2. Being loved arouses sadness and painful feelings from the past.

Being treated with love and tenderness arouses a kind of poignant sadness that many people struggle to block out. Ironically, close moments with a partner can activate memories of painful childhood experiences, fears of abandonment and feelings of loneliness from the past. People are afraid of being hurt in the same ways they were hurt as children.

3. Being loved provokes a painful identity crisis

When people have been hurt, they feel that if they accepted love into their life, the whole world as they have experienced it would be shattered and they would not know who they were. Being valued or seen in a positive light is confusing because it conflicts with the negative self-concept that many people form within their family.

In the developmental process, children idealize their parents at their own expense as part of a psychological survival mechanism. This idealization process is inextricably tied to maintaining an image of oneself as bad or deficient. However painful it may be, people are somehow willing to accept failure or rejection because these are harmonious with the incorporated negative view of themselves, whereas the intrusion of being loved or having positive responses directed toward them is disruptive of their psychological equilibrium.

4.  Accepting being loved in reality disconnects people from a fantasy bond with their parents.

Early in life, children develop fantasies of being fused with a parent or primary caregiver to compensate for what is emotionally missing in their environment. The imagined connection offers a sense of safety, partially gratifies the child’s needs and relieves painful feelings of emotional deprivation and rejection. This fantasy persists into adult life, although it may be largely unconscious. As a result, the hurt individual maintains a sense of pseudo-independence, an attitude that they can take care of themselves without a need for others. As a result of merging with their parents in their imagination, people continue to both nurture and punish themselves in the same way they were treated by their parents. In addition, as love relationships become more meaningful, deep and threatening, people tend to revert to utilizing the same defense mechanisms that their parents used to avoid pain. Reacting in a manner similar to their parents offers a sense of safety, regardless of any negative consequences. Once the fantasy bond takes hold, people are extremely reluctant to take a chance again on real love and gratification from a romantic partner.

5. Positive acknowledgment arouses guilt in relation to surpassing the parent of the same sex.

Achieving success in one’s love life or career can make a person aware of their parents’ weaknesses, limitations and failures to find gratification in their lives, in particular the parent of the same sex. Being chosen or preferred by a loved one in a relationship, or being acknowledged for a success for which others are striving in the workplace, tends to precipitate guilt reactions and self-recriminations. When the guilt of surpassing one’s parent or associate is operant, people fear retaliation and tend to limit or go against their own development.

Furthermore, people often feel angry at being acknowledged and because the feeling appears to be irrational, it is suppressed. They distort the very people who made them feel loved, or who supported or acknowledged their success or achievement, and act out passive aggression towards them. Many mistakenly perceive positive acclaim as an expectation or a demand to continue the behavior that earned them the appreciation and praise.  All of these painful emotions are relieved to some extent as people withhold their positive or lovable qualities, adjust their performance downward and unconsciously attempt to diminish or sabotage their success. It is extremely difficult to get out of that kind of withholding pattern.

6. Accepting being loved stirs up painful existential issues.

In a previous work, Fear of Intimacy, I wrote, “Being close to another in a loving relationship makes one aware that life is precious, but must eventually be surrendered. If we embrace life and love, we must also face death’s inevitability.” In particular, the experience of being loved makes one place more value on one’s life, and the anticipation of its ending becomes tortuous. For this reason, people attempt to modify those loving exchanges rather than go through the painful feelings. Often close moments in a relationship are followed by attempts on the part of one or both partners to take the edge off the experience or to withdraw to a “safer” distance.  Many people have spoken of heightened feelings of death anxiety after feeling especially close emotionally and sexually, and of later reacting with anger and withholding behaviors that lead to deterioration in the relationship.

For the most part, people create the emotional world in which they live. In actuality, they attempt to recreate the world they lived in as children to maintain psychological equilibrium. Positive events and circumstances, particularly the experience of being loved, seriously interrupt this process. In order to maintain a false sense of safety and security, people utilize the defense mechanisms of selection, distortion and provocation in their relationships. They tend to select partners who are like people in their early lives because they are more comfortable with people who fit their defenses. Secondly, they distort their partners and see them as more like the people in their past than they really are. Thirdly, they try to provoke responses in their partners that duplicate interactions from their past.  The end result is antithetical to maintaining happy and satisfying relationships.

Lastly, most people are not aware of their negative reactions to being loved or the dynamics described above, nor do they recognize their own withholding behavior and its effect on themselves and their loved ones. The hope is that becoming aware of these core defenses and challenging them can help people to be liberated from these detrimental effects.

Author’s Note

I have not done full justice to the subject matter in this blog.  It is highly condensed and therefore lacks supportive data and more elaborate case histories. These matters will be addressed in a book on the subject in the near future.

25 comments

  1. I found this article so helpful- thank you so much! I do have a question though- what are the best ways to move forward and be supportive of a person who has deep issues with accepting love and affection?

  2. You’re missing an important one: fear that “love” is actually an attempt to control. Parents and adult lovers routinely use the “look at what I’ve done for you – now you must do as I say”/”look at how much I love you – if you don’t do what I want (stay with me at any cost to you, ultimately) just think how much it will hurt me!” scripts.

    Of course, that may not be the lover’s intention. But, the resentment arises from the assumption that it is, grounded in previous experience with the lover or in childhood. And, in fairness, too often that is exactly what is going on.

    • of course that’s what’s going on, because we are unconsciously choosing people who will manipulate and control us with “love”-it’s not at all comfortable, but certainly familiar. reading your comment, i had a flashback to myself age 7 or 8, feeling rage and resentment at adults i was expected to be affectionate/polite towards, (and the adults who expected a reciprocal “i love you” when i didn’t, and i really don’t think they did either. ugh) having to smile through clenched teeth and fight an almost primal instinct to recoil from the requisite hug-and-kiss greetings…even recently, i found i was being told “i love you” at odd/inappropriate times, which sent my ‘something is rotten in denmark’ meter into the red. (tried to pass off as spontaneous or romantic? right) on to discover that they were times the person had just done or was about to do something they knew would not make me happy. my response to “i love you” became, “what have you done this time?” love feels like, “here, have an imaginary pillow that we’ll hope cushions the blow of the really crappy thing i’ve done to you, but i love you, so it’s ok, right?”

    • This is impossibly true Thomas! I am currently battling intense feelings of pure raw anger, and I have traced most of it down to exactly what you mentioned here. Growing up as a step child, I was told, still to the day that while my well being matters, my feelings / emotions / thoughts didn’t. I was emotionally neglected as a child in an affection-less angry fearsome house. Whatever I felt or thought about my life was and still is irrelevant, the only thing I should ‘feel’ and ‘think’ about is gratitude for what I have and otherwise would not have had if my step dad had not taken my older sister and I in. Both my parents dish this out to us, to the day. So I could somewhat understand my fear of intimacy, however my hostile response to kindness and real well being blows my mind! It is as if if anyone close to me tries to help me or express genuine and spontaneous thoughtfulness to me they are saying I cant do it on my own, they are suggesting that I am inferior in some way. And sadly for me since my feelings were held down so long my spouts are more implosive than explosive, means I play them over in my head rather than express them to the people involved, or they come out in the most inopportune, irrelevant times and ways. As if that isn’t enough, I fail to get angry and express myself adequately in the exact situations that I should feel normal anger and offended. In those situations, I shrink into my shell and think about what I have done to create the situation, what I have done wrong or how I am unable to defend myself in that moment and others. It is the most painful existence, and I can only thing that it is because my base needs were hung over me and used to guilt me, in a time that I had not power over my situation. Now I battle perpetual feelings of inferiority and powerlessness alike; and I’m severely passive aggressive. Relationships are non existent, or are a fiery battle of power, even though I initially portray kindness, fun, laid back-ness, friendliness and understanding to people. I’m a ticking time bomb in relationships! That is why your writing here has touched me, after years or research and some therapy I have pegged it as one of the fundamental root causes that I am having the worst time trying to move past. I am currently trying to decide if I should seek treatment again, and if so which one!

      • You aren’t alone. My upbringing was the same. It’s hard to accept the fact that you have been emotionally neglected your entire life… By parents, friends, lovers but the worst is realizing that you are neglecting your own needs. YOU. Other people trained you to act that way but YOU are perpetuating it. It makes me so fucking angry thinking about how all of this damage was done to me and how I’ve become my own worst enemy because of it. Be kind to yourself. You didn’t deserve what they did to you. You are your friend, lover, and family first and foremost. You deserve to live yourself and put your needs first. Let no one tell you otherwise.

      • If i could be your best friend….
        We have the same upbringing, my parents are exactly like that but my life turn worst when I’m entering an arranged marriage to the man I never loved before. I have no idea about my fear of love since I thought I can handle this marriage but I’m in the middle of severe depression because this relationship traumatized me more than ever. I remember the first horror came when my husband whispering to me that this will be his first and last marriage and I’m scared at that prospect. I hate it even more when he called me with sweet names. I want to address the problem with my husband so I asked him to get things slowly but he can’t accept that. I asked him I need to learn first but he won’t accept since we already married so it’s already late for me not to love him. He always angry and complaining if I’m never initiated the loving act or if I’m not showing enough gratitude if he showered me with love and gifts. What I feel is only raged and fury. He even including my parents in our marriage if I’m not as much as happy, accepting and proactive as he is to make them scold me because I’m not grateful enough having such a ‘kind’, ‘patient’, and handsome husband. I feel more and more angry because of feeling trapped into this relationship I’m never volunteered into. Whenever he buy me things I feel insulted like he is trying to buy me with money. It is hard. Now I’m traumatized so badly I can’t even meet the person anymore but my parent’s won’t let me divorce him since it’ll tarnish their image and turned me into ungrateful daughter that always making them hurts.

  3. I have a scenario I would like some guidance on. My wife and I have been together for 14 yrs. it has been better than average. In July she kicked me out of the house because of a trivial act on my part. I’ve been gone now for 7months. She says she doesn’t want to be intimate with me, not even to kiss. We had a better than average sexlife and I know she agrees(it’s a long story) she instigated sex before the breakup quite often. I’ve accused her of cheating but have not found any evidence of it. What is going on?

  4. These concepts are simply fascinating and very thought provoking. I would love to buy a book with a more in depth analysis of these theories. Most search results on CAUSES of negative people are simply trite lists titled “X ways to avoid negative people”.

    • PsychAlive

      Glad to hear you found these concepts so interesting! We have a list of books here that offer a more in-depth analysis to some of these theories, and, as a matter of fact, Drs. Robert and Lisa Firestone are currently working on a new book on this very topic.

  5. Being loved is far different than being manipulated and controlled. Sometimes the person that claims they love the other is really not showing them love. Period. Thus good intentions or in some cases a morbid and dishonest “concern for appearances” is NOT LOVE and this omission – (that this happens in real life) – is unforgivable for an article like this.

    This article is in fact typical of the grossly misleading and manipulative false narrative that many people apply to actual human interactions in order to paint themselves as without fault in their dealings with the person who allegedly “reacts negatively to being loved”. Its shameful, actually.

    What’s worse is it can become part of an ongoing con-game and an oversimplification by people who are not being honest with THEMSELVES or the person they “LOVE” and need to camouflage the fact that they are duplicitous, controlling, needy and duplicitous and thus need to offload responsibility for their own considerable failings on someone else.

    Its for this reason that these ostensibly “helpful” self-help articles often reinforce the most unjust and dishonest tyrannical behavior in people who use this kind of self-help thinking as a kind of fig-leaf for absolutely abhorrent behavior, betrayal and character assassination.

  6. I just find this fascinating. So much about modern psychological, pseudo-science is unacceptable because it is inexplicable and unrepeatable. What you have said here makes common sense, even though it may be less than satisfying to some of those who would wish it to be otherwise.

    I find you to be a teller of truth, and I value that.

  7. I feel I’ve I have finally found key pieces to what I’ve been searching. I am beyond amazed with how much is personally pinpointed .I noticed you said more would come after more research was done for your book. Would you be interested in an interview where I could provide me proud to this? Thank you again

  8. PsychAlive

    Robert,

    I’m so very much looking forward to the publication of your book then! This subject fascinates me. Write fast – publish quick! – and keep us informed re release dates!

    My best wishes from Switzerland
    Alison

  9. Reading this brings a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand, it is so validating and makes perfect sense to me when I think of the struggles i have/had in my love relationships. It also brings up fear and despair, because most men are not working w their issues at this level, nor do they want to. This is not a judgement, (i cant blame them really) but more of an observation. It is something i encounter as a divorced single woman looking to have a deep relationship. Lately i have been seriously questioning if any of this knowledge and learning is even helpful to me and my life. It seems only a psychologist would want to relate at this level! That narrows my options quite significantly. I am considering giving up and choosing to be w a partner who is good and kind, likes sex, and wants to travel. I would appreciate any feedback on this. Thanks.

  10. Relationship, love, affection blah blah needs more scientific fields like nasal

  11. Hi this was very informational and I appreciated it but what can I do to prevent this from happening I just started seeing someone and the amount of negative feelings coming up of fear sadness and loneliness ironically are flooding in you think it would be the complete opposite. Please help

  12. Huh, this is interesting. I had a boyfriend many years ago now who became absolutely furious when I suggested to him we could move in together (we were both leaving the accommodation we had at around the same time). A simple: “I don’t feel ready for that” would have been fine with me and I was baffled by how enraged he seemed as I really didn’t feel I’d said anything hurtful. I just sort of shrugged it off at the time as some kind of “quirk” he had.

    I’m not sure I actually get angry at people for wanting to be around me. I know plenty of people who do. Although I would say I agree with the commenters above that sometimes someone wanting to be around you is more for their sake than yours. I guess the reason I don’t get angry with this is because I don’t really see it as their fault that they feel so bad about themselves or need so much. I just feel terrible for them. They must be in such pain.

    My personal problem seems to be similar but a bit different in that I find it difficult to be close to people because I believe they cannot really “see” me. I tend to believe that people will see in me whatever serves them, so a relationship is never really a relationship to me. It’s all about them anyway.

  13. This article is eye opening; exactly what I’ve been hoping to find. I’m going to save this for future reference. It’s a tough road to walk when countless attempts become just years of practice. Still trying to figure out my minds next move.

  14. Robert,

    Enjoyed the article and its a good start towards a more in depth look in a book. Couple of thoughts.

    I think there is a case to be made that sometimes the anger may be the result of feeling undervalued. Taking your first example of the man who felt anger at his wife worrying about him when he went out. I’ve felt that and I can tell you exactly why. I hold two black belts, I’m a spelunker, rock climber, and a fair shot with a rifle. I’ve also never weighed more than 124 lbs in my life (and I’m a guy so…). Typically people take one look at me and assume that I need to be protected, that’s tolerable from strangers who don’t know me. But its even worse among those who know and care about me. For my perspective it often engenders feelings of resentment and irritation that eventually boil over into anger over time. At its base is that feeling that they never really “see” me for who I actually am, what I’m actually capable of or the things I’ve achieved (or at least survived, don’t ask LOL) in my life. Compound that with the desire on my part that those individuals especially be the ones to actually “get me” and feeling disappointed that they still don’t and you can see how that would lead to some irritation. While my case might be atypical in some regards, I think there are likely many cases where someone doesn’t perceive the expression as love but rather its taken more as being undervalued, mistrusted, or their capabilities under-appreciated. Or simply put, not being seen and valued for who they really are.

    Another point, again drawing on personal experience. I once dated a young woman whom I’d been very fond of almost from the instant we met. Just one of those cases where you meet someone and immediately connect with them. For several months she’d grown increasingly uncomfortable with it or with my expressions of affection. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel the same, she did. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy the affection, she loved it. So after a long and eventually very open discussion she finally realized her discomfort came from not knowing why I loved her. It wasn’t that she didn’t think she was deserving of being loved, she just had never really known why I specifically loved her. After spending some time telling her various reasons why, things I liked about her, things about her that made me happy, she felt better. I think here again it had its roots in the need to feel one is being “seen” for who they are, that I really loved her for who she was. Once she realized I did, she was happy with it.

    Best of luck with the research and book.

  15. Well if many of us had been born at a much Earlier time which many of us would’ve been all settled down by now with our own family which came very Easy for our family members that were very Blessed to meet one another back then since the times were so much different than today, and for many of us Good Single men it is very hard finding love these days.

  16. This has really helped me understand my ex partner. I also feel extremely sad. I remember the first time he asked if I had fallen in love with him, as though he was checking how intimate we were getting. Whenever talks of love or intimacy came up, he would run right away and not return for as long as two weeks. He ended it with me 4 times, each time I hoped it would be the last. The last time he slept with me and it was beautiful, but then when we woke up the next day, I told him I was so happy to have him back and he told me he didn’t need anyone and that he was going to run again. He said himself he didn’t even know why. I’m really scared it has rubbed off on me and I too will be scared of intimacy, like him. It’s been really hard understanding why he ran away from my love and support. This helps explain. Please if you could, can you talk about the effect it has on the partner? Will I have his issues too now from also being emotionally and physically neglected?

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