Love Rests On No Foundation

“Love rests on no foundation,

It is an endless ocean,

with no beginning and no end.

Imagine, a suspended ocean,

riding on a cushion of ancient secrets.

All souls have drowned in it,

and now dwell there.

One drop of that ocean is hope,

and the rest is fear.”

– Rumi

One drop of that ocean is hope, and the rest is fear. My practice is full of people who are struggling with relationship anxiety: women and men with loving, attentive, honest partners who are stuck in an anxious loop and trying desperately to dissolve the block of fear so that they don’t sabotage the best thing that ever walked into their life. But if the relationship is so good, why, as Rumi wrote in this poem, is it so scary?

I used to think that love was only scary for people who had come from abusive childhoods. I knew that the trauma didn’t have to be overt emotional, physical, or sexual abuse to qualify as abuse – in fact, it’s often the covert abuse that creates more challenges in terms of accepting real love later in life – but the correlation between the first relationship and later relationships was blatantly obvious. An emotionally invasive mother creates a blueprint belief that says, “Love means no self.” An absent father creates a love script that says, “Love means abandonment.” A combination of these parental deficits naturally creates a dangerous cocktail where love and fear meet in a terrifying collision.

However, after years of doing this work, it’s clear that even people who grew up with loving parents stumble upon trouble with love relationships as adults. The psychological world likes to assign all root causes of emotional challenges to the parents, but this is a limited and short-sighted approach to understanding the factors that contribute to the evolution of the wounded self (ego). The following factors have a profound affect on a person’s ability to love freely:

  • Prenatal, birth, and early bonding experiences
  • Relationships with peers and siblings (teasing, bullying, social hierarchies)
  • Beliefs instilled by schooling and religion (right and wrong; good and bad)
  • What you witnessed in your parents’ marriage
  • What you witnessed in terms of your parents’ ability to attend to their own emotional needs responsibly
  • Inherited anxiety
  • Previous love relationships (painful experiences with exes, break-ups)

And then there’s the undeniable fact that we’re all born with a scared part of ourselves. We can call it wounded self, ego, small self or whatever name you prefer, but we are wired as humans to have a fear-based self. This fear-based self likes to be in control. It likes guarantees and shirks risky endeavors. It hates to be vulnerable, and considers emotional vulnerability the most distasteful risk you could ever take. It likes definites and abhors ambiguity. It likes to be certain. It likes to be right. It equates self-worth with success and achievement. The word maybe is anathema.

And guess what? When you commit to loving someone, you’ve entered the realm of the ambiguous. There are no guarantees that your marriage will work out. The fear-based self would like a 100% money-back guarantee at the onset of marriage that all will be well for the rest of your life, but that’s an impossible desire to fulfill. The fear-based self looks for signs that you’re making the “right” choice (as if there is a right choice). And it recoils at the thought that, in committing to marriage, you’re exposing your heart to the risk of hurt and loss. It could be said that there is no act more vulnerable than loving another human being. And it is for this reason that the fear-based self tries to convince you to run for the hills as quickly as you can.

The antidote? Gathering your courage and taking the leap into the unknown. When you admit that fear is in the driver’s seat in the form of sending the familiar thoughts down the well-worn groove of your mind, you find the willingness to break the anxious loop and ask, “What are these thoughts protecting me from feeling?” The first layer will be something like, “I’m scared that if I look inside I’ll discover that my truth is that I have to leave the relationship.” But that’s just the first layer. If you gather another handful of courage and dive back into the watery underworld of psyche, the answer that lives in your soft, exposed heart will be something along the lines of, “I’m scared of being vulnerable. I’m scared of getting hurt. I’m scared that I can’t handle the pain.”

A daily practice is immensely helpful: journaling, mindfulness, yoga or martial arts are all ways to address the fear and grow the love. It’s also essential to keep in mind that the heart is tender and vulnerable, and when we remember that loving another is risk, we automatically pull back the projection that says, “If I was with a different partner who was more _______, I would be happier, more alive, more certain.” Hold your heart with compassion, remind yourself that it will open and close like the petals of a rose, and know that when it closes, the work is to see it with gentleness, without judgement, knowing that it’s just what the heart does. As Pema Chodron writes in her weekly quotes:

Bodhichitta is our heart—our wounded, softened heart. Now, if you look for that soft heart that we guard so carefully—if you decide that you’re going to do a scientific exploration under the microscope and try to find that heart—you won’t find it. You can look, but all you’ll find is some kind of tenderness. There isn’t anything that you can cut out and put under the microscope. There isn’t anything that you can dissect or grasp. The more you look, the more you find just a feeling of tenderness tinged with some kind of sadness. This sadness is not about somebody mistreating us.

This is inherent sadness, unconditioned sadness. It is part of our birthright, a family heirloom. It’s been called the genuine heart of sadness.

Past the defenses/mental addictions (I’m with the wrong person, I’m not in love enough) and projections (everything he/she does irritates me), lives the wounded, softened heart. When you can crack open the hard shell of your learned protections, you will rest in this vulnerable place, and you will probably cry. They will be tears of beauty and tears of pain. They’ll be tears of recognizing your tenderness and the immense risk you take when you choose to love. It’s the grief of being human, of knowing how little control you have over outcomes and people, and when you allow yourself to touch down into this exquisitely raw place, you let go of trying to control and open the doorway for joy and love to enter.

44 comments to Love Rests On No Foundation

  • Betsy (blm5126)

    This may be one of my all-time favorite posts. Absolutely beautiful!

  • Ali

    Dear Sheryl,

    Do you mind if I re-read this post 100 times ?! You have such a gentle way of putting together ideas to make us think. Excellent writing – excellently provocative in the best way (- in that, I cannot just read it, your provoke me to consider and ponder on my own life and others’.)

    Thank you for this. (Thank you also for responding to a comment I made on your previous post, which I had not seen until now.)

    And wishing you and your family deep peace and prolific, abundant, laughing joy in this new year,
    Alison

  • Thank you, Betsy and Ali : ). I’m glad it spoke to you.

  • antonella

    happy new year Sheryl and friends..thank you for reminding me that my every day imperfection is safe indeed and…full of love and joy..despite that ancient sadnessxxx

  • Jennifer

    Sheryl, thank you again for your writings, and in particular with this topic. Your timing couldn’t be better, and I am grateful to you, as well as the other women who share their thoughts and feelings and vulnerability honestly. Many blessings for 2013 for this wonderful and courageous community who choose to love despite their fears.

    with peace & love, Jennifer

  • Pamela Tomassetti

    What Jennifer said. . .thank you.

    Wishing you all the very best with the New Year…

    or more eloquently put

    ” Health, peace, and sweet content be yours.”
    Wm. Shakspeare

    pamela

  • Natalie

    Thank you Sheryl, you are such an ispiration to me, you make me continue choosing to love my now Husband, even though the thoughts keep creeping iner I am strong.

    Happy New Year to you and your family.

  • Bradie

    “..there is no act more vulnerable than loving a human being.” Wow, beautiful.

  • Melissa

    Thank you for putting this into words. I’m continued to be interested in how to touch down to that raw place and open those doors.

    • The key is in the willingness to feel your pain. Once the willingness is there, then you need to gather up courage in order to get to know the painful feelings that live in the heart.

  • Sarah

    HI Sheryl,

    I am so grateful for your teachings on dismantling and humanizing fear. I was wondering, though, if you could apply these techniques to jealousy?

    I often finding myself ruminating about or comparing myself to my partner’s past relationships, despite the fact that our relationship is both of our longest and most committed and loving. I recognize that there is no real threat here (they remain in his past and he does not keep up with them, nor does he engage in any behavior that would violate my trust), and yet once my mind takes a hold of these thoughts, I can get little peace from them. I notice that these thoughts prevent me from feeling close to him, and I assume they are fear-based projections that function to protect me from getting hurt.

    Do some of your clients deal with this issue? Can the techniques you described above help dissolve these critical and judgmental thoughts too?

    • Jealousy is such a painful emotion to sit with, and, yes the work is the same: to move toward it with compassion without indulging or distracting. When you see into the heart of the emotion with compassion, it will start to dissolve over time. I highly, highly recommend Pema Chodron’s books and audiobooks. Just pick one and dive right in; you can’t go wrong.

    • Andrea

      Hi Sarah,
      I, too, struggled with this jealousy/ criticizing myself-issue for a long time in the beginning of my relationship so I felt the need to share with you. I think one of the best aspects of this blog is our emotional/anxious connections to one another. In other words, I wanted to let you know that you are not alone with these thoughts that you are having.
      For the first few years of my relationship with my boyfriend, I would find myself being jealous at his past and critical of myself. We also were in a committed, loving relationship then (and now) but I was still fearful that maybe he loved his ex more or wished he was with her not me (also note, that there was nothing tangible to support these thoughts.) Looking back, I was going to say that these fears dissipated over time but what I am recognizing as I write is that these fear-based thoughts just shifted onto another topic, thus the reason I am on this site. 🙂
      Along with Sheryl’s great suggestions, I would like to perhaps add something that has helped me: Dr. Burn’s- The Feeling good Handbook. A psychiatrist recommended this book to me and it has really helped. In the book, there are different 10 classifications of how to identify these fear-based thoughts or as Dr. Burns calls them, twisted thinking. Some of these classifications that help to identify anxious thoughts include: overgeneralization (like saying always or never), discounting the positive (which I think many or us including myself on this site are guilty of) and most importantly emotional reasoning, (which means that we assume that our thoughts reflect the way things really are thus, we reason with ourselves that they must be true and that there is truth behind our fears.)
      I am afraid that I am rambling on so I will try to wrap it up 🙂 but the point I am trying to make is that recognizing these thoughts as fear-based thoughts is the first step to overcoming them. I think that understanding that experiencing fear and anxiety doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you or your relationship. I think that fear-based thoughts are common and shift into many different forms so I would say that what you are experiencing is similar to what we (all of us on this site) are experiencing too but in different forms. I hope that I made sense and that you find some peace in your journey. Be well 🙂

  • Kat

    Sheryl,

    I’ve been trying to find resources on mindfulness techniques. I really think it would be beneficial for me, especially since I suffer from ruminating and obsessive thoughts about my partner that I try to fight. I know that the problem is actually within me and not my partner, and that underneath it all I worry that I will lose him. I’m just curious if you have any ideas or resources that I could check out for mindfulness? I’ve heard many great things about it.

    Thanks and keep up the great work! Your blog gives me a lot of inspiration to heal myself and learn about real love.

  • Marissa

    Thank you for your beautiful and poignant words, Sheryl. I am recently married and working diligently through your book and workbook enabled me to work with – as opposed to through or against – the emergent fears and anxieties in response to getting married and accepting that less than perfect feelings towards my husband – then and now – are not a sign of impending doom. I am surprised, however, at the relentlessness of my mind to return to familiar patterns in times of fear, ones that you describe in your post, as in others. Your work is a guiding light and a reminder to myself – and others – that fear and anxiety based responses cannot be eradicated with will, they require tender love, patience, compassion and acceptance, the very virtues required for a healthy marriage. If I can’t bestow these things upon myself, there is no way that I can evoke the concordant feelings towards my wonderful husband. And so I learn, again and again, that this; life, love, path, etc.. is a process, and thankfully my anxiety and fear have indeed eased with time and work, the work that you guide me and others to engage in through your writings. Thank you for all that you give. Happy New Year.

  • A beautiful post and so timely!

    I had a conversation NYE with my new husband about wanting an iron clad guarantee that things will work out for us as a couple. He smiled knowingly and said there isn’t such a thing but that he has faith. I envy his faith sometimes as it seems to come so easy to him… we work well as he has faith where I do not and vice versa. I see a beautiful counter-balanc

    Thank you again for your wise words.

    Blessibgs to you throughout all of 2013!

    Xxoo

  • Kimberly

    This article was so wonderfully written. I stumbled across it at the most timely of moments, as I am working on healing my heart. I recently read two of Pema Chodron’s books and they were life changing. To see her quoted not only reinforced all that I have been reading, but it reminded my heart of what I needed to know – be kind to myself, be compassionate to myself. By the end of the article, I was in tears because each word hit home so powerfully. Thank you for your gift of writing to help those who are reading.

  • Amelia

    Sheryl,

    I stumbled across your work (and book) as I desperately scoured the internet looking for hope. I’ve been engaged for a few months and this feeling of anxiety and being overwhelmed has really taken over my life. Now that I have found this (and therapy) I have hope and faith that I will get through this. I love where you admit that doubt is doubt- simply that. I knew very early on that my husband was the one for me…. and just because these voices in my head question that doesn’t mean they have any idea what they are talking about. I look forward to reading more…

    Best,
    Amelia

  • Anne

    Sheryl,
    I have been working through your book, and reading your blog, for most of my engagement. My wedding is nine weeks away and the closer I get, the calmer I am beginning to feel. Reading and rereading your blog has definitely helped me. Your words of wisdom validated the anxiety and doubts I have felt from time to time, and let me know that it doesn’t mean I am with the wrong person. We are right for each other in so many ways, and my fears don’t mean that I should walk away but rather that I should delve into my feelings and confront my anxiety. I spent much of my engagement distanced from my feelings while his seemed to grow and deepen daily. I found myself feeling less attracted to him at times, and your posts helped me see how that was my own insecurity and projections, because, really, he hasn’t changed. I look forward to the next nine weeks as I spend time really focusing on letting my feelings come to the surface and preparing myself for this incredible transition in my life. Thank you!

  • Clara

    Sheryl, thank you for this beautiful post. It is an exquisite distillation of the main threads of your teaching. I gave it to my partner, who doesn’t normally follow your blog, and she loved it too. It was lovely for us both to share in the wisdom. Thank you.

  • lisa

    I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about discovering I am not alone in my anxiety. My boyfriend….uh…fiance and I have been dating 1 year this month. He proposed just before the new year, I accepted.

    Oddly, we discussed marriage early on in our relationship. We are older (not that old, but in our early 40’s) and both really want a happy long term sucessful relationship.

    My anxiety had been intermittent initially. It was manageable and I felt I could take time out to address it as needed. I did try therapy breifly, but that only made it worse. I felt like the therapist kept trying to “fix” the issue with more information by directing me to books. I grew so frustrated. My boyfriend/fiance, who is a very loving man, grew to feel helpless because he wanted to “fix” it too. Talk about reinforcing the cultural norm of “you’re supposed to be happy about all this committment/relationship/engagement stuff….and if you’re not something is wrong with you…” ugh, gag me with a spoon.

    So back in Oct, we picked out an engagement ring. I used my grandmothers diamond and we picked this gorgeous ring, ordered it and waited. From that moment on, through the engagement till now (11 days post engagement) my depression has grown, my tolerance lessened, and I feel like a lunitic. I am so moody, labile, not sure if I am coming or going. I don’t know if I love him, or love him enough, I am not sure I can survive the daily interactions, the doubt, fear and anxiety. I feel like I am disappearing. Today is the first day of light I’ve had in weeks.

    We talked the other night and while we didn’t specifically talk about fears we both acknowledged that we aren’t feeling ready for the next step just yet. I think this is a good start and we’re both committed to at least continuing to talk about it and “figure it out.”

    Thanks for listening. I guess in the end I am somewhat comforted to know that perhaps the fears I am feeling now are normal. It seems to me I need some time to adjust to all this engagement stuff for a while and definately not make any major decisions while under the influence of this fearfulness.

    Blessings,
    Lisa

  • Crystal

    what book am I suppose to be reading. We have been married almost 5 years and these pages perfectly describe me, I am seeking my own therapy and need all the help I can get.

  • Crystal

    @Sheryl-thank you so much for your timely response. Your website brings me hope that I am not crazy! Thank you

  • Nat

    Thank you for all of your amazing posts! I am still working through your site, although I have found some posts particularly soothing in regards to my, soon to be, 9 month relationship.
    I’m in a hard situation at the moment. I’m going away to study on the other side of the globe for one year, and I will not see my boyfriend for 4 months. I’ve been struggling ever since the start of our relationship with a distinct feeling of pressure in my throat, as if trying to swallow something. It has caused me so much sadness and grief to be feeling that way. My studies got a lot more demanding, and I couldn’t go to work as often, not to mention generally feeling down. I have seen a therapist since October, who says this is me trying to swallow my emotions. My issue is, this sensation comes with different topics, but particularly when I’m with or thinking about my boyfriend and/or related to my stay abroad. And I only experience them when I am in a relationship. In my past relationship I struggled with these kinds of feelings as well, but never felt as committed to staying together as I do with the current bf, which is why we decided to stay together even though we knew even from before getting involved romantically that I would be going away. My level of emotional stability varies on a daily basis, and I can still have that feeling and appear happy, and deeply wanting to be happy, while I’m with him. I know I am in the phase of connecting with my own emotions, and I interpret that feeling of “swallowing” my emotions as some kind of anxiety in regards to trying to love. It’s so frustrating to have found a partner whom I feel loved by, whom I most of the times am certain that I love, and who I want to be with once I get back because I feel like there are so many other things I want to experience with him, not to mention trying to live together. Then it doesn’t make sense to me that I am feeling this way. And I deeply fear that once I go away it will only get worse and we will end up breaking up. This is due to my interpretation of this feeling as “bad”, thus making me insecure about my love. I am generally insecure in my relations to other people, and don’t make new friends easily. I can’t help feeling that maybe I am guarding myself from heartbreak, but I want to love so badly, and maybe I’m just not ready before I’m more connected to myself.

    My bf has his own emotional problems, but luckily we understand each other, and we never doubt the love of the other one, even when we doubt our own love sometimes. When I don’t have that feeling in my throat, it’s the best ever.

    • Amy

      I don’t know if this will be of help to you at all, but we are in very similar situations, so I thought I’d let you know you’re not alone. My boyfriend and I also have been together just 9 months, and I am currently spending a year abroad for grad school. When I left in September, I didn’t see him for over 4 months–same as you. I can’t necessarily help you with your anxiety, but what I can tell you is that the 4 months went by pretty quickly, and while it is undeniably difficult, a long-distance relationship is absolutely possible. I think the distance can help you retain some of your independence and keep you focused on your own life and goals, while simultaneously allowing you to continue growing your relationship (although of course it takes effort).
      My boyfriend and I messaged daily and Skyped about twice a week. We definitely were able to grow closer and keep our relationship going strong, so I hope that can be a bit of encouragement to you. 🙂

  • H

    Hello Sheryl,

    I’m really glad I came across this website. It’s good to know that feelings of anxiety over ‘choosing the wrong man’ and little day to day irritants in a relationship are completely normal. This past year I’ve read a lot about anxiety and it was a real revelation that just because you think something doesn’t make it true. I’ve probably jumped out of relationships in the past due to feeling anxious and trapped. I almost did the same to my partner of 6 years twice in the last 18 months as I found I was worrying to the point of obsession over small niggles between us. Fortunately he’s understanding and stood by me through it and its made me more determined to work hard at our relationship and banish the ‘what ifs’.

    I’ll enjoy reading more of your articles and wish all the best to other readers who are taking control of their minds! 🙂 x

  • D

    Hi Sheryl, I’m in a relationship with this really great girl. I’m a girl too so yes. I have problems with depression and excessive analyzing and over thinking (not sure if the latter is anxiety ). Basically, I’ve been in a bunch of relationships that started well but ended horribly. Now I’m in this relationship (the longest one and most supportive at that) and I seem to have all these problems with my head. A few days ago I really started accepting responsibility for my emotions and all. But as soon as I did I somehow closed off. Now I keep thinking “what if I change for the better and can’t love her properly ? ” “what if I don’t know her?” “What if I don’t love her?” It’s so frustrating. I’m not sure what to do and I was hoping you’d respond. I’ve never really loved before. Even saying that I love pizza is kind of uncomfortable for me. I don’t really know how to get to know people or lve them. I was wondering if you could help.

    • The best help I can offer is to encourage you to read through the rest of my site, watch the videos, and sign up for the free e-course Sampler. If you really want to work through your anxiety so you don’t walk away from a good thing, you’ll have to work hard at it, but a loving relationship is well-worth the work, don’t you think?

  • L

    Hey Sheryl, thank you for this wonderful article that really speaks to me. This fear has really been eating me for the longest time but it never actually showed its’ ugly face until someone I do feel good to be with actively started courting me.

    I meet him only 2-3 months ago and we could connect well, with similar wavelength. He started actively courting me a few days ago and I’ve already kind of freaked out and tried to put a stop. I think my fears of being in a relationship has been building since my younger days, hearing of my friends and their terrible relationships, about men being unfaithful, about expectations, wanting sex, social norms etc… I’ve never actually been in a relationship and I’m in my early twenties now (also because I’ve never actually found someone I felt connected to).

    But now with this situation of ‘someone I think has a lot of potential to be someone special to me’ is courting me, the whole idea of ‘letting go’ is scary especially since I have this feeling of ‘not wanting to hurt’ the other party with my indecisiveness. I don’t know whether I’m ever going to be ready to plunge into a relationship full of unknowns, since I always love to plan out uncertainties in advance. The thoughts that run in my head are, “Do I really like him or is it just because we can talk and connect?”, “Am I being desperate and is that fair to him?”, “I don’t think I’ve fallen for him as deeply as he has for me, I don’t want to hurt him so maybe we shouldn’t get into a relationship”, “Am I thinking too much?”.

    I’m not very sure what I should be doing exactly…

  • chelsea

    Sheryl, How do you take the first step in finding out if it’s you an not your partner? We haven’t been dating long but we connected so fast, he is amazing, so sweet , loving, caring , just amazing I’ve never been treated so good by a guy before. I trust him with all I have an he’s my best friend. I admit my outlook on love had been kind of blinded I guess you could say from reality but I’m slowly learning it’s not about the “feelings” an ” just knowing”. I would be devastated to learn that this isn’t the right relationship for me.

  • chelsea

    Sheryl, do you have an article on the steps to take in helping get over relationship anxiety. After I took the first step an realized it’s me an not my bf I haven’t felt as anxious anymore is that normal?

  • Carmen

    Hi Sheryl,

    I have been reading your blogs and articles for the last 4 months while struggling with relationship anxiety and I would like to say thank you. You and those who follow you online have given me so much support. Knowing that I am not alone has helped me so much. Especially as I live in the UK and we have a traditionally more reserved attitude to mental struggle.

    I feel like I am coming out the other side. I have discovered mindfulness, been frank and honest with my incredibly strong partner and stopped having a nervous tummy that plagued me for months.

    I am trying to learn to show myself compassion and take a leap of faith but one thing still makes me feel terrible. Waking up. Every morning it feels like I remember that a loved one has died. I feel the weight of the last 4 months flood back into my mind.

    Have you any advice to help with this anxiety hangover?

    Thank you once again.
    Carmen

  • Katie

    Such a beautiful post. I quickly realized that a lot of the anxiety i endure is caused by my fear of being hurt again. Meeting my fiance has shown me that all of the other men I “loved” don’t even hold a candle to the love I have for him. It is such a deep, soulful love that words cannot even describe it. I now know my anxiety stems from the fear of losing him. Thanks for helping to guide all of us in our struggle to accept the uncertainty of love and life. Happy holidays to you and your adorable family! 🙂