Is Love a Dangerous Liaison?

Love and Connection: The Search for the Impossible?

Love, in all its endless variety, for better or worse, often runs our lives. About 60% of songs croon about love. One music survey found that among the chart-topping pop songs, over 90% yowl about sex, not love. Love and sex aren’t the same, of course. Many people lament the confusion, broken-heartedness and unrequited yearnings that develop when a person or couple sadly settles for sexless love or loveless sex. Many clients come to my office bearing witness to the challenges of sustaining longer-term connections that are supported by both love and sex, which is ultimately about authentic, intimate connectedness.

Connections are Key to Health

Emerging studies into factors that sustain both long-term brain and emotional health consistently show how central it is to have strong support networks. Connections clearly matter. Couples who forge long-term intimate and loving relationships appear to derive particularly strong benefits when it comes to having vibrant brains and resilient lives.

With so much energy invested in understanding, exploring, experiencing, justifying, posturing, retreating from, reveling in, and recovering from “love”, why does attaining and sustaining it remain so maddeningly elusive? One challenge is that “love” is a catch-all word that fails to convey the enormous and multiple inter-locking complexities that go into describing what it is. When Lou Reed sang, that love is chemical, he was right! But authentic love is not reducible to hormones and electrical currents that fuel our brain-based drives.

Why Danger and Risk are Essential to Lasting Love

The specific dimension of love I want to address involves its inherent dangerousness. For love to take root, an element of “danger” or risk may be necessary. As with much of what keeps our brains fresh and vital, a willingness to take risks, to deliberately seek the unknown and unpredictable, to befriend uncertainty and, yes, even a degree of danger, is as necessary for success in love as it is in other aspects of life where new discoveries and continuous renewal of possibilities are required.

In today’s dating world, many aps and services tout the use of computer programs and algorithms that promise “the perfect match.” The messaging thread running through many of them is that they are good at reducing the risk of bad relationship connections while maximizing the chances for finding the dream-fulfilling right match. What these services emphasize, which dovetails with the expectations of clients coming to see me in my office, is the hope for a way to avoid making the love-seeking process so hard. People too often believe there must be an easier and more risk-free method.

In his book, In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou makes a strong case that when we attempt to insure love against risk, we increase the odds of not finding it, or of finding a pale substitute. He says, “inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.”

What is Healthy Emotional Risk-taking

Both relationship health and cognitive health seem to recognize the basic truth of the saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” While risk-taking in love doesn’t guarantee success in love, attempting to squeeze out risk by over-emphasizing safety, security, predictability and perceived control, is surprisingly likely to reduce the odds of relationship success still further.

There is a second dimension of risk in deep connection that love ultimately demands. When we minimize risk in our encounters with others, whether we are meeting “the other” for the first time or have lived with them through many decades, we must be willing to risk the presence of discomfort. Intimacy requires vulnerability. Love involves a continuously renewing daily leap of faith that as we fall the other will be there to catch us. Lasting love endures in part because of how often it gets tested. The reliability and security that emerges is hard won. Over time, and with accumulated experience, that emotional risk-taking gradually gives birth to trust.

Steps that insert “healthy danger” into our love lives?

1.       The capacity to seek healthy relationship risk is built upon our ability to be aware of, and gentle with our innate goodness. Connection well to the other begins with the quality of our connection to ourselves. As we become more able to honestly see ourselves as we are – both the light and the dark – and avoid denying the good while over-emphasizing the bad, the more we can approach “the other” with a reasonable grasp on our own needs. As a result, we can more nimbly and sensitively offer ourselves to the other and increase the odds of receiving genuine, loving connection in return.

2.       Before we can take healthy risks in relationships, we must practice tolerating the discomfort that can accompany them. Learning to pause, to lengthen the time between the initial impulse and the reaction, the more effective can become at choosing healthy risk, such as risking emotional vulnerability and intimate connection.

3.      Relationship strength grows out of the courage to renew. But, to renew requires breaking with tradition, with old habits and patterns, with clinging to the past, which also means opening the window to the risk that is a constant companion of novelty, unpredictability and uncertainty. When we take the risk to try new things, from new restaurants to newer and more revealing discussions, we almost guarantee that some of our new efforts will fail. Discomfort, misunderstanding and tensions can arise. Nevertheless, relationship resilience results when our connections have had to endure, adjust and adapt to both the ups and downs. As fear of emotional risk-taking recedes, relationship health, including intimate and authentic love, can flower.  

Don't forget to check out my January Video Newsletter that talks about creating new beginnings that last.