In the depths of our souls we all yearn for love and connection with others.
That yearning reflects a basic, even biological, human need. Infants thrive physically only when they feel deeply loved and cherished. As adults, we experience wrenching, soul-level loneliness when we don’t have love and meaningful connection in our lives, yet all too frequently we don’t have these things.
Not with our parents or siblings, not with a mate, not even with a best friend.
We all intuitively know that the highest experience in life is the sharing of love. However, we often confuse the idea of sharing love with the idea of getting love.
We try to get love when we feel empty inside and can share love only when we learn to first fill ourselves with love. We cannot share that which we do not have within. The wounded part of us seeks constantly to get love and avoid pain, resulting in an inability to share love.
The Fears that Underlie the Fears of Intimacy and Commitment
Why are love, connection and intimacy so elusive?
We sit enraptured at movies that depict two people experiencing the delight of falling in love. We thrill at their discovery of each other, their laughter, their uninhibited joy.
We love to read stories about deep friendship, about people committed to truly caring about each other over the long haul.
And we yearn for these experiences in our own lives.
Yet when we have a chance to have love, the story is a little different. I hear over and over from my clients, “I am deeply in love—and I am terrified!”
This is because, as much as we want love, we often want to avoid that which we fear even more. We don’t feel safe enough in ourselves to risk loving another.
Two major fears get in our way and undermine our wonderful new connection with someone, or even prevent that connection from ever occurring:
• Fear of rejection: the loss of another’s love through anger, emotional withdrawal, physical withdrawal or death.
• Fear of engulfment: the loss of self through being controlled, consumed, invaded, suffocated, dominated and swallowed up by another.
These fears stem from childhood experiences and from defining our worth externally through others’ approval, rather than internally through spiritual eyes of truth.
We will be unable to share our love to the fullest extent until we heal these fears of loss of others and of loss of self. We will be unable to create the safe relationship space in which to share love and a safe world in which to live until we learn how to create safety within.
Until these fears are healed, we will react defensively whenever they are triggered.
What do you do when your fears of rejection are activated? Do you withdraw, comply, get angry, mean or sarcastic? Do you defend, explain or teach?
Most of us have learned many controlling behaviors to protect ourselves from experiencing our fears. However when we react in our different defensive ways, the result will be the same—our reactive behavior will trigger our partner’s own fears of rejection or engulfment.
Now both of us are acting out of fear.
Together we have created an unsafe relationship space where love and intimacy will gradually erode.
The Unsafe Relationship Space
What do I mean by the term “relationship space”? How is a “relationship space” different from a “relationship”?
A relationship space is the environment in which the relationship is occurring. It is the energy created by the two people involved.
I think of this environment, this relationship space, as an actual entity that both people are responsible for creating.
It can be a safe relationship space, which is open, warm and inviting, or it can be an unsafe relationship space, which is hard, dark, unforgiving and full of fear.
The kind of environment in which our relationship takes place is crucial to its success—or failure.
Many of us have spent much time in unsafe relationship spaces. In fact, some of us have never experienced a safe relationship space because many, if not most of us, have not learned to stay open when our fears of being rejected or controlled are triggered.
If, when these fears are activated, we focus on who is at fault or who started it, we perpetuate an unsafe relationship space. Blaming another for our fears (and for our own reactive, unloving behavior) makes the relationship space more unsafe than ever.
Both people in the relationship end up feeling badly, each of us believing that our pain is the result of the other person’s behavior.
We feel victimized, helpless, stuck and disconnected from our partner. We desperately want the other person to see what they are doing that (we think) is causing our pain.
We think that if the other person only understands this, they will change—and we exhaust ourselves trying to figure out how to make them understand.
Over time, being in an unsafe relationship space creates distance between the people involved. When we have not created a safe space in which to speak our complete, heartfelt truth about ourselves, the joy between us gradually dies.
And the more we hold back our innermost feelings and experiences, the shallower our connection becomes.
Our intimacy crumbles.
In friendships, marriages and work relationships, our joy, aliveness and creativity get lost as we each give up parts of ourselves in an attempt to feel safe.
In romantic relationships, passion dries up. Superficiality, boredom, fighting and apathy take its place.
We try valiantly to figure out what went wrong. But too often we ask, “What am I doing wrong?” or “What are you doing wrong?” rather than inquiring into the health of the relationship space itself.
Only when we look at the relationship space will we see what we are each doing to create the unsafe space. The dual fears of losing the other through rejection and losing ourselves through being swallowed up by the other are the underlying cause of our unloving, reactive behavior.
These fears are deeply rooted. They cannot be healed or overcome by getting someone else’s love.
Unsafe Relationship Systems
When our fears of rejection and engulfment are activated, most of us react according to a deeply learned pattern—we attack, withdraw, give in or resist or a combination of these. Our typical “fight or flight” reactions with each other create a relationship system.
Every relationship has a system. Sometimes the system starts within minutes of meeting. Typical systems are:
• One person attacks with anger and blame and the other withdraws or resists.
• One person attacks and the other gives in.
• Both attack.
• Both withdraw.
Either person can start the cycle of the system and each person’s protection activates the other’s fears and protective behavior and they create a protective circle—the unsafe relationship system.
Creating a Safe Relationship Space
The way out of the unsafe relationship system is for each person to develop a strong loving adult self, capable of handling the fears of rejection and engulfment without protecting. This means learning to not take rejection personally and learning to set loving limits.
The key to doing this is learning how to create a safe inner space where we can work with and overcome our fears of rejection and engulfment. This is a process, not an event—a compassionate process of learning to love ourselves rather than abandon ourselves.
Only when you have achieved inner safety can you create a safe relationship space.
You can gradually learned to stop attacking or withdrawing and take loving care of yourself whenever your fears surface. You can learn to create inner safety when you feel threatened, rather than trying to get others to make you feel safe from your fears.
Any two people who are willing to learn to create their own inner sense of safety can also learn to create a safe relationship space where their intimacy and passion will flourish and their love will endure.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D., is a best-selling author of eight books, relationship expert and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® process, featured on Oprah, and recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette. Are you ready to heal your pain and discover your joy? Visit her website at www.innerbonding.com for more articles and help.
Editor: Jamie Morgan
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