What We Learned About Love

Through working with clients who grew up in fairly healthy environments, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the blueprints of beliefs and experiences we absorb about love are not only connected to how we were directly treated by our parents, but also by how they treated each other and, perhaps even more importantly, how they treated themselves. For example, if we witnessed a mother who suffered from worry and anxiety and never addressed it directly, it’s quite likely that the worry and anxiety would have been passed down to one or more of her children. We often live the unlived lives of our parents, so if there’s shadow work to be done in another generation, you may find yourself the recipient of that work. And while it may not appear to be a gift, when you understand anxiety, worry, panic, or any other debilitating manifestation of fear as a portal into wholeness, the burden is transformed into a blessing.

A secondary and common cause of relationship anxiety is childhood bullying. I used to be surprised by the number of clients who would share stories about the ways in which grade school peers (including siblings) would taunt, tease, and torture them, but now it’s one of the first questions I ask when a client presents with the fear of intimacy. If your own peers, which will one day constitute the age group from which you will choose a marriage partner, tell you repeatedly that you’re ugly, stupid, worthless and any other number of ruthless cruelties, doesn’t it make sense that your self-esteem would plummet and you would develop a belief that says, “I’m not worthy of love”?

And then there are the ways in which we may never understand where the resistance to real love originates. I have clients who say, “I grew up a loving family and have had good relationships in my life. This just doesn’t make any sense,” to which I respond, “It doesn’t really matter where this came from. The fact is that it’s here now and either you move toward the resistance or you run and end up alone. No matter where this came from, it’s an opportunity to grow in your ability to love. Do you want to accept this challenge?”

In the end, fear is fear, and we either accept the task of working with it consciously and diligently or we walk away from loving, solid relationships with the erroneous belief that, “It just didn’t feel right. If it was right, I wouldn’t have to work so hard.” But if you have a love blueprint that says, “Love isn’t safe” or “This will only end in heartbreak and I can’t handle the grief” or “I’m not worthy of love,” massive amounts of compassionate attention are needed to break down these beliefs and replace them with the truth. And one of the most effective ways of creating a new love script is to take the risk, slowly and carefully if needed, of loving the one you’re with.

I’m re-reading a beautiful book called When Love Meets Fear by David Richo. In a section called “Letting Love In” (p. 135) he writes:

Our work on our fear follows a simple path:

admit you are afraid,

allow yourself to feel the fear fully,

act as if fear were not getting in your way.

Allow the one who loves you – and whom you want to love but cannot – to draw an inch closer for a minute longer than you can stand… My desire to be loved is stronger than my fear of it. Love does that; it puts you in a position that makes you no longer so careful about limits – my stony limits that no longer hold love out.

This work involves a willingness to be awkward, to be amateur. To feel the fear and still let yourself be loved is doing the very opposite of what the wall does. The wall protects the fear. Now you leave the fear unprotected, allowing yourself to feel it, thereby acting as if you were not feeling it. The daily moment and the daily inch impacts exponentially as time goes by because you are teaching your body one cell at a time: “You do not have to be so afraid anymore.”

Your partner hugs you. You start shivering and scrunching up. You just cannot stand it, and, to get away, you say: “You know, I have to get to work, I can’t stay right now, I have to leave.” To work on that fear, you let yourself stay in the embrace for one more minute than you can stand. It is awkward and feels painful, but in that one minute your body is finding out: “You can stay and still survive.” A message of safety has gone through every cell. Next time you add another minute. And before you know it you can hug as long as you want. Repeated acts of love diminish the fear response both in ourselves and in others. When each partner risks doing something one more minute than each can stand, they are standing together, i.e., intimate.

Years into my marriage, I still have to work at the art and skill of receiving love. My cellular blueprint says, “Love isn’t safe. People are vampires and want to steal my life-force,” which means that a habitual wall of resistance lives inside of me that can sometimes emerge when my husband comes close. I don’t always have to work at it; I’ve been at it long enough that there are long stretches of time when I experience a “free ride,” when the fluidity of giving and receiving moves freely between us. But during other times – perhaps when I’m tired, overextended, depleted, hormonal, or perhaps having nothing to do with these factors – I feel the resistance and have to consciously work at moving toward instead of away and saying to myself, “This is fear. I’m going to feel the fear and take loving action anyway.”

Somebody less-versed in the architecture of the anxious mind would probably respond to this response to fear with,”It shouldn’t have to be so hard. When the relationship is right you don’t have to work like this,” to which I respond, “I know in the bones of my experience from being in relationships with men who weren’t completely available for emotional intimacy that even when it ‘felt right’ and I didn’t have to work to move toward, it wasn’t a loving relationship. The ease was because there was never any real risk of my heart.” I can corroborate this statement from the thousands of people I’ve worked with over the years who say the same thing: with other partners who weren’t fully available, I never doubted and I always “knew” I loved him or her.

Love is a risk, and somewhere deep in our cells we all know this. But it’s also the reason why we’re here, and each time we find the courage and resolve to break down a brick of our fear walls, we taste the sweetness of the sweetest nectar available to our hearts, the love-nectar that gives meaning, richness, and fullness to our lives.

22 comments to What We Learned About Love

  • Brandon Russ

    Sheryl, this was absolutely beautifully written. I get these emails ever couple weeks and they always seem to come at JUST the right moment in my life. I am getting married in two weeks to an AMAZING woman. But it has been an extremely bumpy ride for me to say the least. I have learned so much from you and your posts, and I hope you never stop. Thank you again.


  • Vanessa Backer

    I feel like I should be paying you to have the privilege of reading your blog posts! You are incredibly gifted at writing about this topic and making it accessible to pretty much anybody. What you write matters and I think of things you have written last year or two years ago in my daily life to help stay afloat when I feel overwhelmed with fear or any other uncomfortable feeling. Keep up the good work!

  • ildiko

    Cheryl, this made me cry, good tears of comfort and relief. Long as i’ve been on this journey of exploring and discovering.. I never identified that particular thought and feeling pattern you mention, as fear.. when my husband wants to be close.. I always looked for evidence that he just wants to use me, that he’s a sex addict etc. We’ve been married for 27 years, and he’s been patiently waiting and he’s sometimes frustrated, yet trying to understand. Now I can feel, that I am sometimes, often, simply terrified.. he just wants to be close.. most of the time.. thanks, Cheryl. it’s empowering to be able to do my part.. and see what happens. <3

  • Janelle

    What I learned about love from my father:
    – love isn’t safe
    – people always leave each other
    – you’re not important enough
    – if i loved you I would have stayed around
    – People will always cheat on each other
    – I don’t even like you
    – you’re not good enough
    -Love is never being around and being ignored and calling once a year on your birthday

    What I learned about love from my mother:
    – love is very difficult
    – don’t have children b/c they make your life hard
    – if someone makes a mistake you need to leave them
    – love never lasts
    – you can’t trust anyone
    – love is angry and frustrating
    – I can’t handle love
    – if you marry and later get divorced your entire life is ruined forever
    – if you have children and you get divorced your life is basically going to be hell and you’ll be angry until the day you die

    What I’m learning about real love from my husband and myself:
    – Love is fun but it takes work
    – My thoughts are not my truth
    – A lot of what I think about love is a result of my parents relationship
    – love is commitment, being there no matter what
    – Love is unconditional (unconditional love is on our wedding rings : )
    – Love is safe (still working on this one)
    – Love is boring sometimes
    – Love is supporting each other and growing together
    – Love is arguing fairly but growing from your fights
    – Love is safe, love is safe, love is safe….working on getting that one to stick..

    • Janelle: I’m so touched by your awareness, your consciousness, and your willingness to identify and address your false beliefs. You’ve come so far in such a short time and it’s truly inspiring!

  • Lucy

    Excellent blog post that touches me on so many levels. I learned a lot from all of the responses too. Thank you for speaking out on this very important topic and putting words to the feeling/issue.

  • Heather

    Sheryl and Janelle,

    I was touched by both of you! I’m on the precipice of perhaps getting engaged (have been dating my boyfriend for 3 years and we recently talked about it). I’ve been wavering between anxiety that he won’t actually propose and I’m too vulnerable, vs. anxiety that he’s not right and I should leave – all obviously fear-based. This was the perfect reminder at the perfect time that living and working through the anxiety is needed and worth it!!


  • Erin

    Wow. I needed this post today. I learned a lot of terribly wrong things from watching my parents marriage throughout the years and I work every day at making sure those false beliefs don’t ruin my marriage. I often feel overwhelmed by intimacy, sexual or otherwise, but I have been trying to “stay another minute” as that author suggests. I am still learning that love (and intimacy) are safe.

  • Janelle

    Sheryl- Do you really think that I’ve come so far in such a short time? I know that my anxiety isn’t like it was before but I’ve been dealing with it for almost 3 years now. I joined the e-course 1 1/2 years ago. I know that I haven’t been dealing with anxiety everyday anymore, but still : ( Sometimes I go a few days with anxiety. It’s not like every second like it was before but still. Actually the last few months I was getting really excited about buying our house and then having children. During those weeks, I just knew it was ‘right’ (and I know that’s a loaded statement). In fact, I started crying the other day b/c of how happy I was and how much I love my husband. Now today, I started to think “I don’t like being married, I’m leaving, this sucks.” Obviously, after all of this work I KNOW that I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere. I love my husband dearly and we are a great fit for each other, but geez, these nasty thoughts get me sometimes. If I had that thought last year at this time I would have had a meltdown and really thought “Oh god, what if I do leave”. I’m still getting used to the ebbs and flows….how long into marriage does it take to get use to these ebbs and flows of emotions. I still have that “I should be over this now feeling” especially b/c were about to celebrate 2 years of marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes have weeks of clarity now, but when I start feeling bad…it’s like boom back to the start (even though I know I’m no where near where I was before).

    Heather, you should consider joining the e-course there are tons of people on there 🙂 It’s wonderful! Erin…welcome..remember you are not your parents marriage : )

  • ” If I had that thought last year at this time I would have had a meltdown and really thought “Oh god, what if I do leave”. I’m still getting used to the ebbs and flows….how long into marriage does it take to get use to these ebbs and flows of emotions.”

    I think you answered your own question! Yes, you’ve made HUGE progress, Janelle. Remember, because of your personality type and brain wiring, you will always have these thoughts. The work is not about getting rid of the thoughts – that’s impossible – but about learning how to respond to them effectively. From your posts here and on the e-course forum, it’s clear that, for the most part, you know how to respond so that you don’t sink into weeks of depression or anxiety.

    How long does it take to accept the ebbs and flows of emotions? Well, I don’t think there’s an answer that applies to everyone, but I can also say that it’s clear that you’re well on your way to accepting this. It’s not easy, I know. I still struggle with it at times. But if you can look at your life and say that it’s getting better and better, then you know you’re on the right track.

  • Janelle

    Thanks Sheryl : ) You’re so right…it actually felt weird typing a question on the message board b/c I know I have to answer the questions myself. Thanks for giving me a little ‘shake’ across the internet : ) Sometimes, I just need a little ‘snap out of it, you guys are fine’. You are the best : )

    • It’s okay to ask questions, Janelle! Sometimes we all need a dose of reassurance from someone else, and that doesn’t mean we’re not doing “the work.” You’ve taken on the role of guide and mentor both here and on the e-course forum, which is great, but you’re allowed to have off-days and ask questions. That’s what we’re here for : ).

  • Shanell Wyche

    Sheryl, I am so very thankful for your work. Finding your website was the best thing that happened to me this past year. I purchased your conscious bride book and planner and have been working on it here and there during my engagement. I have kept up with journaling and attending therapy. I have noticed a significant decrease in my anxiety from last year (we have been engaged for almost two years) however I am still working on it. I struggle a lot because we are each other’s first love and have been together for 9 years. I question our comfort and decision not to explore other dating options which I hope doesn’t haunt us or mess us up in the future. He is truly a good guy who supports me always and loves me dearly. I am 3 days from our wedding and my anxiety and doubt have resurfaced although this time a little bit more manageable. This week I have been hard on myself for regressing and reading these posts helps me feel not so crazy and alone. I wasn’t able to join the e-course due to finances but I have benefitted from what I have done thus far. I just wish I could be completely over it and more positive and it bothers me that I feel this way so close to the wedding day. My friend reminds me that I will probably have my moments even throughout the marriage. I guess it will be a lifelong journey. Thank you so much for the work you do! It’s incredible!

    • Thank you for sharing here, Shanell, and it sounds like you’ve done a LOT of hard and good work on yourself. Many blessings to you on your wedding day and, yes, working with doubt, fear, and resistance to love is a lifelong journey!

  • corim

    So good, so very well said! Even a year and a few months into my marriage I still have those ebbs and flows… for a few weeks I will want to be closer to him than ever, the next few I want to put up my wall. It is so true that with emotionally unavailable men I was “open” and “ready” for love, because there was no risk to my heart. With my husband who is so available to me, it can be scary, but I know it is worth it to keep working on making myself available to him! Thank you Sheryl 🙂

  • Lauren

    Sheryl your timing is always spot-on! I literally thought, about 1 hour ago, the exact thought, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard.” LOVE your emails. Thank you so very much for the calming effect you continue to have on our anxiety.

  • Thank you, Lauren. I’m glad it arrived at just the right time!

  • StephanieG

    “I know in the bones of my experience from being in relationships with men who weren’t completely available for emotional intimacy that even when it ‘felt right’ and I didn’t have to work to move toward, it wasn’t a loving relationship. The ease was because there was never any real risk of my heart.” I can corroborate this statement from the thousands of people I’ve worked with over the years who say the same thing: with other partners who weren’t fully available, I never doubted and I always “knew” I loved him or her.

    Yes, yes, yes!! This is a good reminder for me so thanks!

  • Katie

    Sheryl, I love this!! It definitely speaks to my own situation. The fact that my fiance is so readily open and emotionally available to me is what honestly scares the crap out of me! I always wonder why it was so easy for me to open up and be vulnerable with other men, men who I knew were somehow unavailable and who I lacked a deep, core connection with (my previous relationships were all mainly physical and lacked deep connection). In the past, I completely ignored my intuitive feelings about men, despite their betrayal, and I ended up deeply hurt and have since been struggling to fully trust myself. I am trying very hard to restore that trust, since I am now with a very loving, completely amazing partner who is very trustworthy and loving. I feel that it’s very counter-intuitive that it is so easy for me to trust a man who betrays me with but so hard to trust someone who is extremely faithful. Oh, the agony of the anxious mind..haha. I have begun (almost) daily meditation and yoga with an intent to strengthen my mind and develop more self-confidence. So far it has been helping immensely 🙂 Your writing has also allowed me to realize that I am a highly sensitive person (I always knew this to some degree). I sometimes feel like there is something “wrong” with me because of comments that were made to me about needing to “buck up” and “stop being dramatic” from loved ones who didn’t understand my sensitive personality. They would say I needed to “stop caring what others think” and “stop feeling sorry for myself” when someone was mean to me and I got my feelings hurt. Did it take you awhile to learn to accept and embrace this highly sensitive aspect of yourself? Just wondering if anyone else has ever felt “less than” because they are also a highly sensitive individual, not “thick skinned” like society says you “should” be. I would like to stop viewing my sensitvity as a detriment and more of an “enhancement” to my personality. My fiance is also highly sensitive, which I adore because I feel like we understand each other so well. And even as I am writing this I see that I admire traits in others that I am critical of in myself! Interesting.. Being highly sensitive also means that I am very kind and caring of others’ feelings, maybe too much so at times. Anyway, I love your work, Sheryl, and am planning on buying your book, The Conscious Bride, ASAP 🙂 I would also love to participate in your e-course, once I have the money for it. you are such an inspiration to us highly sensitive, sometimes anxious people 🙂

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