Lovephobia

This post was originally featured by the Culture Project here.

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Love is scary.

Sitting in a coffeehouse in downtown Pittsburgh, I overheard a young woman Skyping her female friend. Naturally, their conversation revolved around a boy.

She spoke about the last time the guy and she had talked. Apparently, this guy wanted nothing to do with love and relationships. In fact, he didn’t even want to talk about them. It seemed that he had an aversion to love and, even though they were friends, she didn’t understand. While I don’t know the details in that man’s life, it is a familiar story: many people are afraid of love.

Everyone wants to love and be loved. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t want that somewhere deep down inside them. But I’ve met a lot of people who are afraid of it. And I’m one of them.

Fear usually has a root. I come from a broken and divorced family. At a young age, my parents’ marriage fell apart. Since I was close with my father, my trust in him was shattered when my parents separated. It hurt. Before, I felt safe in his presence. After, I felt betrayed. And so, I couldn’t help but think and internalize that love was not safe.

After that, I withdrew into myself. I felt alone. Nobody was trustworthy. Because I was hurting, I tried to numb the pain with pleasure. And so, destructive behaviors followed. I became selfish, angry, negative… During my family’s collapse, a friend introduced me to pornography. While that obsession was short-lived, it led to a distortion of love and regretful mistakes.

Ten years later, I see that fear has held me back from love. Initially, I couldn’t put my finger on it. As time progressed, it did click. This fear has surfaced most clearly in my dating relationships. How did it? Fear encouraged me to love at a distance. You see, if nobody really knew me, they couldn’t hurt me. Loving at arm’s length is safe. But it will kill your relationship.

Authentic love requires vulnerability. C.S. Lewis once wrote that, “to love at all is to be vulnerable.” Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability allows one to be seen for who they really are, and thus the other is given an incredible opportunity to love them more fully. It means taking your mask off and committing to openness and honesty. In a healthy relationship, this vulnerability happens over time and requires prudence and patience. Don’t pour your heart out to just anyone, all at once. But, over time, the love becomes so much more real due to this vulnerability. The intimacy that we all crave thrives on this type of realness.

But vulnerability scares me. In my past, that openness and trust led to pain. And so, why would I love again? At the root of my fear was this insecurity: I’m a gift not worth giving. If I was, why did dad leave? Apparently, I wasn’t enough for him. Deep down, I didn’t want that to happen again.

My parents’ split taught me another lie that’s remained in my subconscious: No matter how good it is, love doesn’t last; eventually it will fall apart. Give yourself and eventually you’ll be hurt. It naturally follows then, that one would hold back. And that’s what I’ve done many times.

All these fears have disposed me to be a timid lover. I don’t want to be a timid lover. My desire is to be a courageous and virtuous man. And so, I’ve had to fight my fears. To do so, I’ve had to bring them into the light. Thinking that love was not safe, I realized the truth that, yes, love is risky. That is the nature of love in our broken world. Still, I’ve learned that love is worth the risk. As I quoted before, C.S. Lewis expresses it beautifully in The Four Loves. He shows the reality of what it is to love, and what it is to hold your love back:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Lie #1: I’m a gift not worth giving. Jesus has taught me the opposite. He thinks I am. Apparently, he thinks that I am worth dying for. And He is God, so He must be right. Actually believing that at my core has taken a while. Yet, little by little I am becoming more convinced. Spending time with Jesus in the Eucharist has helped. A lot. I mean, how do you fall in love with someone if you don’t spend time with them?

Lie #2: Love doesn’t last. God’s love lasts. In fact, it will never change. He’s eternal and so is his love. And human love can last too. I’ve seen it: beautiful married couples who genuinely love each other. It’s incredibly inspiring.

Honestly, my battle isn’t over. I’m still wrestling my fear. It is an interior struggle. Sometimes I win, other times I lose. In it all, there’s a truth that I’ve learned:

I’ve never regretted facing my fears. 

On the other hand, I have regretted being controlled by them. Fear is crippling. You feel stuck. And so to move beyond it, you must walk through it. There’s no easy way around it. But the truth is that when you move past fear, you feel free. In my case, free to love.