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Relationships • Finding Love

The Lengths We Go to Avoid Love

The idea of trying to avoid love sounds paradoxical in the extreme: why would anyone take steps to deny themselves an experience which seems so plainly positive and life enhancing? Plenty of people are denied love by external forces; why would anyone take active measures to sabotage love if it lay before them?

The answer can only be found by looking back in time. Though we all crave love in theory, our capacity to accept it in practice is critically dependent on the quality of our early emotional experiences. To abbreviate sharply, we can only willingly tolerate being loved if – as children – the process of loving and being loved felt sufficiently reliable, safe and kind. Some of us were not so blessed; some of us were stymied in our search for love in ways we have not yet recovered from or indeed fully understood. Perhaps the person we wanted to love fell ill or grew depressed. Or at the height of our dependence on them, they went away, or had a new family or turned their attention to a younger sibling. Or perhaps our parental figure was constantly at the office, or unavailable behind a locked study door. They might have had a violent unpredictable temper or left us somehow feeling that we’re never good enough for them.

Painting of a young boy in red holding a magpie on a string, with several cats behind.
Francisco Goya, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga (The Red Boy), 1792

As a result, to an extent we may not even have realised, we became experts at independence. We came to associate safety with a high degree of self-protective isolation; we might have become big readers, or fascinated by the animal world, or obsessed with music or computer games. Without quite knowing we had done so, we learnt never to trust a flesh and blood three-dimensional human again.

Our experiences may not have affected the strength of our longing for love; but they have heavily impacted our capacity to endure mutually satisfying relationships. 

We may now, as adults, tell ourselves that we want closeness and surrender. We will sob sincerely when we lose love, but we are continually taking steps to ensure we’ll never be at any sustained risk of finding it. The true terror for us is not that love should fail but that it should by some oversight on our part succeed, for this would ask of us a level of defencelessness and exposure to another person and to a chance of happiness that has no precedent in our lives and poses immense, ego-shattering challenges to the armoured way our personalities have been structured.

For the love-scared among us, we are constantly at work taking careful steps to ensure that any relationship we are in will flounder. We pick partners with an element of built-in obsolescence about them, some reason why in the end a relationship with them isn’t going to be able to work out: people who just happen to be living on another continent, or who are married to someone else, or are impossibly distant to us in age. We beg for love from people who – as we know in our unconscious – are guaranteed not to want or be able to give it to us. We complain repeatedly that people we’re involved with don’t love us properly; the real worry is that they might. To ward off such an eventuality, we keep finding flaws: we’ll point out that this one is often late, that one doesn’t exercise enough, that one doesn’t speak any foreign languages and this one isn’t sufficiently creative, robustly determined to find any conceivable reason why – alas – no one quite suits our needs. If we find ourselves in a relationship, we’ll assiduously practise the arts of what psychologists call ‘distance management.’ When the chance of reaching a truly happy state appears, we’ll subtly discover ways to introduce a chasm: we’ll have an argument, spoil a birthday, ruin a holiday. We’ll find we have to do a lot of work for an upcoming exam or presentation, that our gang of friends need us to be somewhere else, that we ‘forgot’ to return the credit card or tax bill, that our appearance requires a lot of our attention or that we’d like to flirt with a stranger at a party who suddenly seems very attractive indeed: in both tiny and large ways, we’ll know just how to lower the mood, scupper a bond and destroy trust, perhaps not enough to end a relationship completely, but enough to worry our partner sufficiently as to our solidity that we can be privately sure things will never truly fly.

Friends may commiserate with us on our so-called ‘bad luck.’ Psychologists will note our superlative skill at romantic sabotage.

Were this to sound like us, compassion is required. We should reflect back on our pasts and wonder at the connection between our fractured bonds with parental figures and our disrupted adult attachments. We aren’t like this because we are wicked, we have just been very badly hurt. Once we understand how our skill at independence was acquired, we’ll be in a better position to see that it has in reality outlived its rationale. We may still feel immensely apprehensive at the prospect of contentment but we may finally be able to admit that we are first and foremost acting out of fear. Rather than dismissing our partners, we may stick closer to a much more awkward truth: that we are tempted to draw away from them because we are immensely scared that they might finally be in a position to make us very happy – and that simply nothing so unutterably and boundlessly frightening has ever happened to us before.

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