Falling in love can be exciting and thrilling, but for many people, it's also scary. After all, trusting someone with your heart is no simple task. What if it gets broken?
If you're afraid of love, it may even stem from deeper fears of vulnerability, getting hurt, abandonment, or failure. In extreme cases, this fear can show up as philophobia where immense anxiety and significant mental or physical distress (chest pains, difficulty breathing, nausea, panic) surround thoughts of falling in love and maintaining it. These overwhelming, and sometimes debilitating, symptoms are far from the usual brief and fleeting moments of apprehension following romantic what-if scenarios.
What Is Philophobia
Philophobia is the extreme fear of falling in love, developing an emotional connection, and maintaining that connection. It can be a form of attachment disorder that may result in social isolation, substance abuse, or depression.
Regardless of the extent of your fear, it doesn't have to be permanent: There are several ways to get past it and allow yourself to experience joy with someone you care about. To learn how to let go, you'll first need to learn what's making you hold on. Some of us push love away because we've been heartbroken too many times before, but for others, the problem is more complex. Do we fear relationships because of issues with our own identities, or are we worried the feelings won't be reciprocated?
There is no simple answer. Our relationships with love are often unique to ourselves, but there are a few ways to approach them to understand—and work through—these feelings. We spoke with couple relations expert Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., and clinical psychologist Melissa Ritter, Ph.D., to get their insights about such fears.
Meet the Expert
- Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is the director of research and education at The Glendon Association and a clinical psychologist with over 25 years of experience. She is the coauthor of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion, and Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships.
- Melissa Ritter, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over 15 years of experience. She is the co-editor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action.
Read on to learn expert tips on getting past your fear of falling in love and moving forward with your best life.
Reasons You're Scared of Love
Most phobias, including philophobia, are really just defense mechanisms the brain puts in place to avoid pain—pain being the true fear. Previous traumatic experiences set the tone for these mechanisms, and in the case of the fear of love or emotional connection, these experiences are usually based in attachment. If feelings of painful abandonment were present in the formative years (or later on in life), an aversion to closeness with others could result in adulthood for fear of revisiting that pain.
A person's openness to relationships with others actually begins with their relationship with themselves, or, more accurately, how they perceive themselves. If someone has internalized limiting beliefs of self-worth or thinks they are not "enough," they may consider themselves unworthy of receiving love and predict painful rejection. Similarly, they may perceive themselves as unable to provide love or affection and fear causing someone else pain.
Prescriptive cultural norms and standards around relationships and marriage can be the cause of great anxiety, especially for those that don't conform to those expectations. Strict guidelines for when to start relationships, how to conduct oneself within a relationship, and who to start a relationship with as well as stigmas attached to those who deviate from the norm can affect one's openness to entering relationships at all.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Love
1. Be Honest With Yourself About Why You're Afraid
First, see if you can identify the root of your fears. Ask yourself why you're afraid of falling in love. Be honest with your answers: This is about making your life better, so avoiding the tough parts can only hurt yourself. Thankfully, there's no one here to be vulnerable with but you, so don't be afraid to think deep. It's likely that you're not afraid of love itself but more so have internalized fears of loss or emotional pain. For instance, have you been hurt in the past and the thought of loving someone again feels scary? Do you tend to keep others at a distance? Are you worried about sharing your full self with another person?
"We tend to believe that the more we care, the more we can get hurt. The ways we were hurt in previous relationships, starting from childhood, have a strong influence on how we perceive the people we get close to," Firestone says, "as well as how we act in our romantic relationships." It's normal to protect ourselves, but it's more important to make sure we're protecting ourselves from the right people. If you're pushing away from everyone who shows an interest in you, there's a chance you could be missing out on a great experience. Try to pin down the specific reasons you're afraid of love and identify your reasons for feeling that way.
Question doubts with realistic what-ifs: What if it works out? What if it doesn't, and you can heal and move forward? A therapist can help guide the process if you're uncomfortable going at it alone.
2. Feel Your Feelings
Once you're aware of what's causing your fears, allow yourself to experience those feelings to their fullest. You may have lingering doubts, but you'll be doing yourself a favor to better understand your emotions moving forward. It's okay to be worried about having your heart broken. You're not alone.
"Getting to know our fears of intimacy and how they inform our behavior is an important step to having a fulfilling, long-term relationship," Firestone says. There's always a risk involved when it comes to love; it's an inherent part of the process. If you're scared to let your guard down, think about your future (and what you want it to look like).
Remember that while there's no guarantee you'll be with one person forever, one person doesn't have to be your end-all-be-all: You're still worthy of love. If you reach a point one day when that relationship isn't working, you might be glad for it. Take it as an opportunity to meet someone who's an even better fit for you at that time in your life.
Work through feelings of sadness, disappointment, or heartbreak from previous relationships by talking to friends and family, seeking therapy, and focusing on self-care.
3. Pick a Worthy Partner
One understandable reason we're afraid of love is that we associate it exclusively with our past experiences. Your next partner isn't your ex (so don't expect them to treat you the same way). Take a closer look at people you like but are hesitant to let in. How do they treat you? Do you share the same values? Do you trust one another? Consider if you're both on the same page.
Put any nagging feelings of self-doubt aside, and look at the relationship as a whole. If you respect this person and think they might be a great fit for you, don't push them away just yet. You might just need more time to know you can trust them with your heart—so don't write them off from the beginning.
"Despite our self-protective measures," says Ritter, "we still often end up desperately longing for that irresistible someone. It is absolutely terrifying but also exhilarating, vivid, and, from my perspective, the point of it all."
4. Know That It's Okay to Be Vulnerable
It can be difficult to be truly open and honest with another person. While you're getting over the lingering fear of being loved, take steps to confide in this person (and be a bit vulnerable). Emotional intimacy is essential to being close with those you care about.
"None of us wants to lose our (imagined) authority over our emotions. Falling in love reminds us that 'reason'—the misguided foundation of self-help book advice aimed at restraining romantic love—is largely irrelevant to many aspects of our emotional lives," Ritter says.
If you're self-sufficient, you might feel like you don't need a partner's advice; you don't necessarily have to take it, but opening up can strengthen your relationship. Your partner should be your teammate and biggest advocate. Even if you're not used to relying on someone else, now's the time to start breaking down the barriers you've built up inside yourself.
5. Understand That It Takes Time
Getting over your fears of being in love won't happen overnight. It's a marathon—not a sprint. Most importantly, you don't have to dive straight in once you feel the sparks for someone new. It's probably a good idea to take things slow. This will give you the time you need to process your feelings, weigh the values of the relationship, and build a foundation of trust. Make a conscious effort to be more open with your partner.
Falling in love can be an exhilarating process if you let yourself experience it, and when you're finally willing to take the risk, you'll find that the reward is entirely worth it.