Why Relationships Scare Us

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

The pursuit of love is a great motivator of mankind. Love is universal in that it’s something most of us strive for; it’s part of what gives our lives meaning. Yet, we all grow up with different ideas about how relationships work, 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 of love.

Many people are ambivalent toward relationships. As my father, psychologist and author 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, 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 particular 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 over time. Whether we’re scared that our partner will leave and abandon us or that they’ll cling and limit us in our independence, these worries about intimacy can cause us to behave in ways that can lead to destructive outcomes for our relationships.

To understand our fears around relationships, it’s valuable to explore our early attachment patterns and how they’ve come to 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, seek in our future relationships. This is because we learn how relationships work from our experiences and develop expectations for how people will behave. For example, if we didn’t have our emotional needs 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 in which 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 kids, 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, these 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. In a sense, they live “separate but together” with their partner. They’re often 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 of people grow up with an anxious attachment pattern. As children, their needs were sometimes met, but 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 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 relationship partners and feel 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 developed early on create a mold for the attachments we form throughout our lives, this mold isn’t set in stone. Becoming aware of them offers 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 be going into more depth about the psychological roots of our fears about relationships and introducing methods to overcome this anxiety and allow ourselves to 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.

Join Lisa Firestone for the Webinar, “Understanding and Overcoming Relationship Anxiety.” 

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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