We want to love, and be loved. This is something we desire in all of our important relationships — the problem is we don’t want to be hurt. To think that love is a shield that will protect you from pain is a set up for failure and disappointment. In fact it is quite the opposite as love always brings the risk of pain alongside with the joy of connection. When you truly connect and are present with another human being you create a powerful emotional vulnerability in yourself and others, and this opens us up to the biggest of emotions.
We protect ourselves from vulnerability by detaching when we could be connecting. Sometimes we focus on the wrong thing like a petty problem at work, or the driver who cut us off on the way home, when our loved one is right there in front of us. Then there are the moments when you are having a real connection with somebody and you suddenly draw back. You do not know why you are drawing back, but all of a sudden it feels like it is too much. You might even remember feeling this with the people you love the most. The moment of connection can be overwhelming so we disconnect and quickly look away and change the topic. Why do we do this? Because we fear vulnerability.
When you truly connect and are present with another human being you create a powerful emotional vulnerability in yourself and others. Disconnection is a self-protective mechanism that is activated when we feel highly vulnerable. This self-protection then leads us to pull back and withdraw. We are not always aware that we are doing this, but rather we sometimes find ourselves feeling dissatisfied and confused when we know we should be feeling joyful and connected. It is a survival technique, but unfortunately it guards us from that which we most desire — a true connection with another human being. This detachment-attachment dance exists in all significant relationships. It exists in romantic love, the love between a parent and child, and even in friendships as well.
To illustrate how powerful our fear of vulnerability is, I will share the story of a moment of intense vulnerability from my own life. When I became a mother, I remember thinking that I would never be able to feel secure in the world in the same way. To become a parent is a whole new level of vulnerability. I am the mother of twins, and their birth had some complications, as multiple births often do. My son stopped breathing within minutes of being born and after being revived was immediately taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. I was a new parent, and the new parent of two children at once, and it did not matter that I was a professional therapist and a parent educator. My newborn child was in danger and nothing had prepared me for the vulnerability I felt in those moments.
I remember the panic, the absolute overwhelm of that moment, and the desire to detach from it all. I wanted to know what was happening to him, but I also wanted the emotional pain and anxiety to just stop. I was still in the operating room when he was taken away, and I could not move. Part of me wanted to run down the hall to the neonatal unit, while another part just wanted to float away. That desire to run down the hall was my fight instinct as I wanted to get into that neonatal room and do anything I could to help him. That desire to float away was my flight instinct and I wanted to retreat into self-protection.
I also remember in that instant having another “aha!” moment. I said to myself, “Alyson, you cannot have the big love without the big risk.” I still believe this to be true. His life was out of my hands, and I was dependent on the skills of others as well as on a bit of luck. Fortunately, he received excellent care and made it through this crisis, but this incident led me deeper into understanding my desire for connection and my fear of vulnerability.
All love, attachment, and connection have some risk. The reason we try to detach, or focus elsewhere is because of our emotional vulnerability. But it is a faulty protection, as it does not truly protect us from getting hurt.
To be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that hurt is not a possibility in a significant relationship; it is inevitable. If we accept and have an awareness of this, we may be able to turn towards the vulnerability and accept the pain that it will bring us.
In order to experience the big love we will need to accept and experience big risk. We will struggle with our desire to detach, and at times we will need to fight to keep ourselves present in those relationships in which we will be hurt. If we accept that pain is part of an authentic connection then our hearts can better experience our moments of love and connection. We need to stop wasting our time focusing on the unimportant things just because if feels safer for us, and accept that those powerful, important moments might have some fear and sadness attached to them. In order to accomplish big things we will need to take big risks. In significant relationships there is always potential for big pain and loss which is what makes the big love so big.