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“I’m just not in love with you anymore,” he said.
And I dissociated.
No matter that he didn’t hold me emotionally, support my entrepreneurial endeavors, or co-parent my child, I was wracked with panic that he might leave me.
I believed that all I had to do was try harder, communicate more clearly, or feel different emotions—at which point he would choose me, love me, and propose to me. Maintaining this particular notion of “he is perfect and I am flawed” meant maintaining a fantasy version of our relationship, which required applying selective attention to reality.
The idea of our relationship brought me comfort, even when the realities delivered pain, preoccupation, and temporary satiation that often outweighed the benefits. Our arguments generally included the delivery of cruel comments—yet, I would return to him the moment he apologized, in order to manage the same emotional discomfort he had caused.
I believed that I “needed” his love: it was my soother from the anxiety, pain, panic, disasters, discomforts, and annoyances of my everyday life.
Ignoring his comment was a f*cked up coping strategy, but it was the only one I had.
I didn’t know how to soothe myself any other way.
When we don’t get held or heard as a child, we may grow up cyclically seeking the experiences of love, chemistry, attraction, and infatuation to compensate for our inner pain.
Finding matches on dating apps, feeling “chemistry” on first dates, falling in love, becoming “exclusive,” or getting engaged create a sense of euphoria, approval, arousal, or infatuation—and we temporarily feel “complete.”
We perceive that we are chosen when we win someone over, and hormonally crash into a heap of devastation when a date is canceled, or communication patterns change. We may become angry, panicked, devastated, or fall into despair.
When this emotional pain arises, no matter that it was relational in nature, we seek refuge in the very source of the pain: texting, calling, fawning, or fighting our way back to approval and validation with either the same person or a new partner.
And we look to soothe our pain from the outside because we have no capacity to do it from the inside.
Our mechanism of choice is the peaked-out body chemistry of infatuation and limerence. We are literally addicted to love.
I came by my coping mechanism honestly.
Tracing my lineage, I am the granddaughter of alcoholism. Our family’s multigenerational emotional patterning began in WWII, as with so many of our grandparents—returning from the war and unable to speak of the atrocities encountered, instead they found solace in a bottle of Scotch.
In my parentage, love was always present; however, emotional holding, comforting, and acknowledgment of my pain were a rarity.
It was not given to my parent, so it couldn’t be given to me.
Since I was not held and responded to in an attuned manner, as soon as pain arose, I was physically overwhelmed with sensations that felt endless and panic-inducing. And without the tools, skillsets, and hormones to soothe it from the inside, I looked outside myself.
In my adulthood, I cycled through solutions to alleviate my inner discomforts with myself. Nothing was as powerful as the drug of love.
I experienced the same desperate clawing to emotional solutions outside myself as my grandparents, just with a different brand name: theirs was Talisker and mine was Tinder.
We learn emotional regulation relationally.
No three-week-old baby can comprehend that our suffering will pass. No three-week-old baby can employ self-love, self-soothing, or self-care strategies to mitigate it. We have to learn to hold emotional pain and develop the capacities of allowing it, enduring it, and coping with it through our adult caregivers.
When we are held and mirrored in our pain, we are acknowledged without panic or tragedy by our parents. The more experience we have with someone who is emotionally engaged with us, the more our hormones and brain development will mature in ways that lead to an innate understanding of our emotional experiences.
Without this adult modeling and mirroring, we may not have the emotional processing capacities we need to have as adults, and we will try to soothe it externally.
In our culture, that tends to mean obliterating it, blasting it from existence with exercise, shopping, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, drugs, or beauty treatments.
Some of us try to love ourselves out of pain, for we are told this will bring us eternal joy with the “right” partner. However, this is compensation that often only manifests as more pain, when a partner cannot soothe our panic or heal our inner wounds.
We may stay too long with people who are not right for us, or cycle through endless partners, hoping each time that the next will make our inner feelings change. We may love the experience of falling in love and resent our partner once the period of limerence ends.
When love equals pain, we have to create for ourselves something we never got in the first place: a capacity to hold pain, experience the sensations, and not rush to soothe it externally when we feel it bloom.
When we experience pain, our body is signaling that we have an internal disconnect and inviting us to explore and heal it. This is not about avoiding or eliminating pain, but instead, about giving ourselves the relational holding we did not get in our development and experiencing the sensations that arise.
Sitting alone or with a regulated, attuned, and present person, we need to explore our relationship to our experiences. Note: our body sensations and chemistry are responsible for most of our actions, so bring it back to the sensations of the body at every step:
>> what body sensations are present? (e.g., a pit in my stomach and a burning in my spine)
>> what emotions are attached to those sensations? (e.g., fear and panic)
>> what beliefs do we have about ourselves in relation to those emotions or sensations? (e.g., I am flawed and unloveable)
With compassion toward ourselves:
>> what beliefs are based on experiences that created us? (e.g. my needs, expressions, and emotions are wrong, and only by obliterating them could I be loved in the way I want to be)
>> based on those experiences, how did we create this experience? (e.g. blaming myself and not assessing if this partner has the emotional capacity to be the partner I need)
As we sit with our body sensations (making eye contact with another person, when possible), we can hold compassion for the experience of a child who wanted a childhood we never got to experience.
We can learn how our beliefs are based on experiences that created us, yet we are also creating our experiences based on those beliefs.
Holding our pain relationally, acknowledging it without panic or tragedy, and understanding that this moment, too, shall pass, takes practice. The more we practice, the more comfort we will develop with experiencing pain, rather than attempting to avoid it through coping strategies.
We can learn to find healthy relational experiences, and kick the f*cked up coping strategies to the curb.
Along with that partner who isn’t in love with us anymore.