It seems we have forgotten one essential truth about love.
We’re told that love should only feel like love, which means good and pristine and holy and alive and erotic – and, most of all, certain.
We’re raised to believe that romantic love is the answer to life’s suffering and messiness, that when we meet “the One” we will be swept off our feet into the horizon of eternal bliss.
So what happens when doubt and fear show up?
We think, “There is no place for fear at love’s table. This must mean there’s something wrong.”
And the normal, healthy fear – the fear that will show up any time we risk our hearts – has no choice but to morph into anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and obsessional thinking.
We have forgotten the most basic and essential truth about love: that there is no great love without great fear.
We have forgotten that fear is love’s consort.
We have forgotten that the people you love most activate the most fear.
We have forgotten that sharing love means bearing all, and bearing all is terrifying.
Poets know this truth.
For decades, this has been one of my favorite Rumi poems:
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.”
Writers know it.
As Kristin Hannah wisely writes in her novel Coming Home:
“Then she realized he was scared because he cared about her. He was afraid she’d think he’d done something bad. He was afraid of her. Another tiny piece of the puzzle fell into place – love meant always being a little afraid.”
Mystics know it.
One of the primary tenets of the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life is that love and fear are partners, and one of our holiest tasks is to unite them, to bring together the opposites. This does not mean banishing fear from the banquet table. Rather, it means learning how to walk through fear’s portal – which can be terrifying at times – so that we can widen our capacity to love.
When it comes to relationship anxiety, if we’re busy trying to solve the unanswerable questions of the anxious mind – “Do I love my partner enough? Is this the right relationship? Is there someone better out there for me?” – you’re missing the root and invitation of this work, which is to learn how to walk with fear.
For it’s through befriending fear, breathing into its dark wing like medicine, that we come to understand that it is not our enemy but an ally on our path to evolving our capacity to love.
One of the mind-and-heart-blowingly wise long-time members of my forum communities is currently the co-moderator for my Open Your Heart course, and one of her responses to a member sent chills through my body (my clue that I’m in the presence of deep truth). Here’s the exchange (shared with permission):
“I’m finding that the more that I acknowledge the gratitude I have for my husband, and focus on the wonderful things about what works well in our relationship and why I chose him, the more the anxiety pipes up to try to tear him down in my mind again. It’s almost like the fear walls want to get super loud to try to remind me of why I “shouldn’t” like him and get me back into the habitual and “safe” negative thought patterns that tried to keep him at a distance for so long. I’m on to you fear!”
And our co-moderator responded:
“I love your last sentence here! You are, indeed, onto fear’s tactics, both in this post and in your beautiful, wise responses to the fear lines above. You are exactly right—fear will try to keep us from our partner, because it feels safe. Real love is beautiful and so worth pursuing, and it makes us vulnerable; we open our hearts to the fullness of beauty and pain in this world. So, yes, when we start approaching real love, fear likes to rear up even more.
“One way to look at this is to realize that if the fear is getting louder, there must be something worthwhile you are seeking after.”
Fear attacks the things we love most – not to torture us (although it feels like that sometimes) but to try to keep us safe. Fear is the protector and messenger.
And it’s a gate into love. When we hold fear’s hands and breathe into its power, we understand that drawing fear into the cauldron of soul emboldens us to keep choosing love.
For those of you who have been on this path for a while, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve had a felt experience of recognizing that working with fear expands your capacity to love.
For those of you who are newer to this work: hang on. This is warrior work, and when you stay on the path, you will be rewarded in gold, for there is nothing more valuable than love on this earth.
This is hits home – however I feel so numb to everything. And the resistance is huge. I hope to really work though these emotions because I feel stuck in the past
I completely relate, I have been doing really great this year actually but just this week it has all turned around again (of course as soon as we are about to move in to our new home), & I am simply drained. Just want to be happy in my decision to stay but feeling as if something is wrong wont leave me alone. Heavy feeling in my chest from morning to night, I just feel horrible all the time. I don’t know how my life got like this when all was well just before this anxiety started. I keep doing the loving actions as well but seeing nothing shift in return breaks me down more. I know I have such a good man and I would hate to give that up based on a feeling. I too hope I can work through these emotions and feelings/thoughts because I deserve this love. Cheering both of us on.
Sheryl this was completely spot on for me and my life today. THANK YOU. 💖 I am resonating with your words! The idea of welcoming my fear makes me feel immediately like I have a lot more space for love. Thank you, and love to you and all readers. ❤️
I’m so glad it hit the spot, Jamie! ❤️💕
I needed to hear this today. Thank you Sheryl. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and despaired when fear began to raise its head again a few days ago. But the times when I can feel connected to myself and my partner happen more often and more frequently each time I remind myself what the fear is trying to protect me from. It’s been a very painful journey so far, but I am glad that I am where I am today. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be here in the first place without your wise words and support. So thank you, for giving us the opportunity to grow with fear instead of running from love.
I love this last line, and it’s indicative of your growth: “…the opportunity to grow with fear instead of running from love.”
Thank you, Sheryl! What about when we swing to the other side of the pendulum and the anxious thoughts of “is he the right one” switch into “omg what if he leaves me? Oh god, why didn’t he answer my text fast enough today? Is he losing interest?” etc. I notice that then all the voices inside say “See you’re anxiously attached – you’re too dependent on him – you’re making a man your source again – so this means that you don’t deserve to be loved by him – you don’t deserve to be in a relationship. You’re not strong or whole enough yet. You only feel calm because he treats you so well and is so consistent with you but this is dependency and if you were truly healthy you wouldn’t fear losing him and you’d feel secure in your own self knowing it’s ok if he leaves you.”
So then it makes me want to resist even accepting love because I’m “not healthy enough” and that I need to be alone for several more years and do more “self-healing” work to become “whole” before I’m allowed to be in a relationship. I know it’s true we don’t have to be fully “healed” to be in a relationship but what would you say to these voices that tell me that I’m too anxiously attached and therefore even when I’m feeling good and feeling all secure and happy and fuzzy inside because of the love or attention or interest coming from him that this is “dependency” and I should not rely on it and I should try to rely on myself instead?
You said it, “I know it’s true we don’t have to be fully healed…” Yes! In between the fear and anxiety, a wise part of you knows this to be the truth. Keep going! The truth is you DO deserve to be loved and love in return.
It’s the other side of the “enough” coin. I wrote about it here:
wonderful, as always.
I think I may have posted this poem of mine before (I can’t remember), but some of your readers might like it. I’m hoping to get it published some day
Really, really beautiful poem, Joshua. Thank you for sharing it here, and for being a valued member of this community.
thanks so much for having me as part of the community. I only dip in intermittently nowadays, but your work continues to speak to me deeply
Hi Sheryl – I have been doing this work for quite a while now, I have finally reached a place of ownership over my feelings. I catch myself quickly when in a projection and redirect the questions to myself. This is huge for me and I am grateful. However, I am still not sure where my internal pit comes from. It shows up when I work, when I step outside, sometimes when my husband comes home, when I think about going to give my husband a hug. I sit with it, sometimes I cry, sometimes it just fades. I am currently in a transition of breaking down unhealthy expectations, moving more towards compassion, giving my husband the benefit of the doubt. All of which is terrifying for someone like me. Overall, I just feel almost unsafe. Stepping into these new thought processes doesn’t make me feel safe, it makes me feel exposed and sometimes even weak. Like taking a minute to respond makes me look weak. Not addressing a behavior right away, but processing and regulating myself first, would make me look and make me feel weak. Over the course of our almost 8 year relationship, my husband has raised his voice at me twice, when he is grumpy or overwhelmed sometimes he has an attitude. All of which are things I have done as well. But it’s almost like I hold to those moments and tell myself stories. The biggest fear I can gather from all this information is that I don’t want to be taken advantage of. I don’t want to allow someone to treat me poorly. And I am struggling with knowing where the line is between giving grace when someone is a human being and addressing an issue. I remind myself that I am smart and I internally know when something has crossed a line. I remind myself that the best compass I have, is myself. That when I sit with these large feelings instead of reacting, clarity comes, even if I feel uncomfortable doing it. I am reminded in those moments that my husband is loving and kind and fair but that he is not perfect and that he sometimes doesn’t react perfectly, but me throwing a tantrum when that happens, doesn’t help him or me. This transition feels large but also beautiful I guess.
Do you have advice for people with relationship anxiety that goes, ‘Does he love me?’ instead of ‘Do I love him?’ or ‘I don’t love him!’ Because I am 100% certain I love him, but I don’t know if he loves me or if it’s just my childhood wounds. Thanks for the insight.