Landing in Love: Falling into Intimacy Without Resistance

1414578_36595743Psychologists tell us we’re born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess “abandonment” or “starvation,” but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I’ll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!

Perhaps that’s why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression “falling in love.” This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you’ve never seen before and feel you’ve come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you’re tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!’

The next time this happens, here’s a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you’re feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies’ location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears. It isn’t just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn’t an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.

The horror! The horror!

We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey’s Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they’re worth a warning here.

Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart

There’s an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he’s so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.

This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. “I’m unlovable” is one such lockbox. “Everyone wants to exploit me” is another. Then there’s “I shouldn’t feel that” and “I have to follow the rules,” etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they’re ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,

Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?…
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

If you’ve buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you’re hurting. You’re also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.

Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved

“If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I’ll kill you.” Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.” Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?

Good Idea #1: Be Willing

In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals the secret of flying. Just launch yourself toward the ground, and miss.

“All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt…if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.”

This is the best advice I know for coping with fear of intimacy. Avoidance and control can’t keep our hearts from falling, or cushion the landing. Why not try throwing yourself forward, being willing not to mind that it’s going to hurt? Please note: “Being willing not to mind” isn’t the same as genuinely not minding. You’ll mind the risks of intimacy—count on it. Be willing anyway.

How? Simply allow your feelings—all of them—into full consciousness. Articulate your emotions. Write about them in a journal, tell them to a friend, confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver. Feel the full extent of your love, your thirst, your passion, without holding back or grasping at anything or anyone (especially not the object of your affection). The next suggestion will show you how.

Good Idea #2: Go “Woo-hoo”

Author Melody Beattie took up skydiving and was scared senseless. Another diver told her, “When you get to the door and jump, say ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can’t have a bad time if you do.”

This phrase works as well when you’re falling emotionally as when you’re falling physically. When fear hits, when you want to grasp or hide, shout “Woo-hoo!” instead. While there is never—not ever—a sure foundation beneath our feet, the willingness to celebrate what we really feel can turn falling into flying. You don’t need an airplane to practice woo-hoo skills. For instance: I’m writing these words at 2:15 in the morning because writing, like other intimate pursuits, often occurs at night. As I type each word, I come to care about how it will be read—about you, there, reading it. Caring is scaring. It makes me want to stop right now, or spend years composing something flawlessly literate. Unfortunately, my deadline was yesterday, and Shakespeare I ain’t, so…woo-hoo!

Now it’s 2:20 a.m. Across the hall, my son, Adam, is dreaming dreams I’ll never quite understand, because his brain is different from mine. Shortly before his birth, I learned that he has Down syndrome, which put mothering him well above skydiving in my Book of Fears. I yelled a lot during Adam’s birth. Twenty-five years later, I’m still yelling “Woo-hoo!” And so far, the only consequence of that particular plunge is love.

Which takes me to my final point.

What I really panic about nowadays isn’t falling; it’s landing. But even that concern is fading because I’ve realized there are only two possible landings for someone who embraces intimacy, and both are beautiful.

The first possibility is that your beloved will love you back. Then you won’t land; you’ll just fall deeper into intimacy, together. This is how bald eagles prepare to mate—by locking talons and free-falling like rocks—which is deeply insane and makes me proud to call the eagle my country’s national bird.

The other possibility is that you’ll throw yourself forward, yell “Woo-hoo!,” and smash into rejection. Will it hurt? Indescribably. But if you still refuse to bury your broken heart, or force someone to “fix” it—if you just experience the crash landing in all its gory glory, you’ll create a miracle.

A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, “Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It’s the inside of my heart that needs God.” The rabbi answered, “God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in.” Whatever you hold sacred, you’ll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.

If you fall into intimacy without resistance, despite your alarm, either you will fall into love, which is exquisite, or love will fall into you, which is more exquisite still. Do it enough, and you may just lose your fear of falling. You’ll get better at missing the ground, at keeping a crushed heart open so that love can find all the broken pieces. And the next time you feel that vertiginous sensation of the floor disappearing, even as your reflexes tell you to duck and grab, you’ll hear an even deeper instinct saying, “Fall in! Fall in!” 

24 replies
  1. Jan
    Jan says:

    Dear Martha, I just read your message about falling in or out, of love! I can appreciate your 2:20am calling to write….I too, do that at times when I can’t sleep. Anyway it certainly touched me in many ways, as of 2010 when the one person in my life I thought I would be with me the rest of my life, decided to end our 13 yrs together. I was so devastated! Even still, after 4/12 yrs later, I’m afraid to love again! It just hurt so much to lose her! As I write this, many good memories come back in regards to our 13yrs together…… One thing is for sure, love can be one of the most rewarding and satisfying emotions one can feel, but, oh boy, when it ends, it is one of the most empty and awful feelings one can experience! At this point in my life, I would love to have someone to share my life with, however, the fear of the rejection and pain of the break up has kept me at a distance and insecure about future prospects. I will certainly keep your words of wisdom and reflection in mind, going forward, for future reference, in the hopes to be able to overcome. Thank you, Martha, Jan

  2. CI
    CI says:

    This is why the worse after effects of men or women having been sexually abused in childhood is so dramatic, it is the difficulty to share intimacy and to enjoy this intimacy in a genuine way. In Canada and in United states are very important. Nearly half of the men accused of being violent have been abused in childhood often on a sexual level. Intimacy for certain people is nearly impossible to achieve, sadly. Men who have been beaten in childhood are sometimes border line they can have a very romantic and live intimacy but will end up destroying it quite often. But men having been sexually abused especially by the father or a close member of the family really struggle sometimes to accept to be touched and to link love and sexuality. A statistic in Montreal showed that 90% of the prostitutes men and women had been sexually abused in childhood and half of them when abused by the father. Is this stat true or not, I do not know but it just shows the problem. it does not mean that all men having been sexually abused in childhood struggle or will struggle in the same way, but a lot do however struggle to live this intimacy.

  3. KahunaKeith
    KahunaKeith says:

    I never write comments, but this piece is so incredible in its beauty and perspective on life that I am quite struck with it.

    Indeed, it seems to be analogous to all of life, as we do often “hit ground”, but, except for maybe the very last time, we do always “bounce”. Most of the time, if we think of what actually happened in the “real world” (vs. the made up mental one), we would note “nothing actually happened” (we’re still intact and only had an “experience”).

    And overall the experiences in total, if we stay awake and see things in perspective, are a true blast.

    And the wonderfulness of it as a truly great adventure is perfectly captured in the “woohoo!”, as we parachute into our next adventure of life.

    Although it is a simple expression, I feel moved just by saying it (with an exclamation and a raising of the arms in exultation).

    So now, I go back to my life, felling “woohoo!” about it…

    Keith Garrick

      • Maria
        Maria says:

        Oh Martha! You really know how to dig deep Baby! Well, I had my sweet son, my only child, at 41 and couldn't have any more babies. I love him so much of course! Happiness overload. I've had to learn to love him without clinging too tight. I have to tell myself that if I love him and treat him with respect and enjoy our great time together, then my job is done. I mean, I've almost quit worrying about him. I've almost accepted that everything is temporary. Ah! What a painful process, but it has freed me to enjoy his company without obsessing over the reality that we could lose people that we love. Same thing about my beloved husband and family. We can love them. That's a lot! And that's all we can do. Love them and accept that life and death are mysterious but worth it. It's hard to put into words.

  4. In love
    In love says:

    What if unimvited love creeps in, and “falling in” is simply not an option. I never intended to fall in love with a man who is a mystery to me, and who may not be a good person at all. My life is a good life – I have a husband who I love, and a kid. I’m not about to destroy my life, just because if a silly emotional fog.. I just never expected to walk into love and suddenly hear all the love songs with a new and deep sensory understanding. It’s a sad lonely place to be in. Love is overrated..

    • helen
      helen says:

      interesting how we are mirrors for each other – maybe this man is a mirror to you that you really want to romance and love yourself. – happened to me… i really though it was him… then i realized it was really all about me, loving me..

  5. Patricia Scott
    Patricia Scott says:

    Stunningly beautiful, I watched my self read some and then look away and return, only to look away again–how touchingly difficult this falling is for me.
    Thanks Martha. You’re a rock star.

  6. Rachel Henke
    Rachel Henke says:

    Beautiful as always. This is the line that really stands out for me as I’ve been exploring connecting more deeply with my inner wisdom and this really resonates: When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  7. Lani
    Lani says:

    Protection has got me thinking and feeling small. Rejection is new and overt as I begin to date after losing my husband to illness. I have opened myself up, I am reaping the rewards of brand new friendships, experiences and feelings. I have dine the work. But it seems there is still mire work to do!

    Alas as I drill down even more deeply I am afraid no one will ever love me again the way he loved me. The way we loved each other. For it is I who am also rejecting new suiters.

    Does this mean all the work I have done and am doing is for naught? Or am I just arrived at another level in the grieving / healing spiral?

    From all the experiences of all I have been through in these last (almost) 3 years I know I must allow these deep feelings a voice. My acceptance of these these truths make way for new beliefs to take hold. I acknowledge feelings so they:

    1. do not come out sideways as self judgement and debilitate me.

    2. can be cleansed by self love and compassion

    3. may sweep me forward towards new better ways that serve my desire for amazement, freedom and joy!

    Easier said than done as the pain is so great. And I am so weary of feeling it again…

    • helen
      helen says:

      Lani ~ of course nobody is going to love you like your husband did – nobody is exactly like anyone else ~ the new people coming into your life will love you as they can and it will be magical… and there are so many aspects and flavours of love!
      Besides your husband is not lost, he is just on the Other Side, and wishing you well, and i am probably guessing he wouldn’t want you moping about because he left the physical… why don’t you meditate and commune with him… our loved ones who “departed” are really just a thought away (heck pretty much my whole family is on the Other Side).
      Meanwhile, sometimes a pet helps, ya know… even a beta fish… take your mind off.. give it a rest…
      xoxo 🙂
      p.s. yes journalling helps enormously – i am a frequent 3 am writer…. if we got “writing miles” for witing in the middle of the night i would have gone around the world three times now….[ ref Julia Cameron’s morning pages] ciao bella

  8. Joseph Anthony
    Joseph Anthony says:

    Dear Martha,

    I am a 47 year old male and have struggled for decades with everything you mention in your article–largely because of childhood abuse–the traumas I endured by the time I was 11 left me in a deep place of self-hatred, shame, unworthiness, and like I was put here to be another’s focus of sickness. I am working hard to allow myself to unlearn and to learn the things you talk about. I adore Mary Oliver and am so grateful you quote her. The story from the rabbi has also helped break me open today. Most of all, however, is your article, your wisdom, sense of adventure, your compassion to share, are helping me see I need to apply these ideas to the journey of learning to fall in love with myself. So thank you. Thank you very much for sharing and inspiring me today to keep falling, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much I feel joy. Joseph

  9. Janelle
    Janelle says:

    WOW Martha! What a brilliant masterpiece! Thank you so much for taking the time to compose your keen insights. I was just reading this morning in the Bible 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.”

    Your article reinforced the amazing truths concerning the power of love. Having been through a painful divorce– and not wanting to ever be vulnerable, nor get hurt again–your words are as the Balm of Gilead. Truly “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all!”

    So here’s to all my fellow wounded warriors, with broken hearts now ready for love to “Fall In.” Let us rise like Phoenixes from the ashes, fly high, lock talons and free fall till we “Land in Love.” Woo-hoo. Woo-hoo! WOO-HOO!

  10. Lorraine Gordon
    Lorraine Gordon says:

    Dear Martha,
    In addition to all your good advice and insight, I love your writing style. It seems to me that you just can’t resist adding a little dash of humour at the end of your sentences, such as the following three examples:

    “…they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.””
    “…confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver.”
    “…you’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed.”

    Just wanted you to know these little add-ons are not lost on me, at least, but are much appreciated!

  11. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    I have been practicing living with vulnerability for the last year and I'm getting used to rejection, it's like I jumped, and knitted a parachute for myself on the way down.

  12. Ananthi Mathur
    Ananthi Mathur says:

    Spicing things up in the bedroom and making your partner uncomfortable are two absolutely different things. Physical intimacy in the bedroom is a two-way street! You get what you give. You can ask him why you want to role play this situations. People like have all kind of new ways and find new ways for physical intimacy spicing up in bedroom. Depend on you if your comfortable and if your not tell them. Because Physical intimacy in the bedroom is a two-way and both should enjoy it.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] And this beautiful post on love and intimacy by Martha Beck, just read it! […]

  2. […] And this beautiful post on love and intimacy by Martha Beck, just read it! […]

  3. […] Here’s a great blog from my mentor, Martha Beck, on intimate relationships and how to be ‘all in,’ even if your heart might get broken. […]

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