I hadn’t seen Amy for months and she seemed excited to see me.
“I finally figured it out,” she called to me as soon as I approached her table. “There was nothing wrong with him. I was just scared because he loved me so much. I was afraid he might abandon me if I didn’t run away first.”
Anyone who heard us in the restaurant tonight would have assumed we knew each other well to be sharing such a discussion, but we’re just “pizza buddies.” We both like the same place and we sometimes talk since we both tend to come alone.
Amy is in her mid 20s. She’s in graduate school. She’s smart, funny and quirky. She’s also quite attractive. One of the things we’ve talked about most, though, is our mutual need to find love that will stay. The last couple of times I had seen her, we had talked almost exclusively about her confusing relationship with a man from England.
Andrew works for an international bank and his company sent him here for about a year. Amy met him at a local film festival last year and they hit it off enough to start dating. At first she was crazy about him and was really disappointed to find he would be going back to England — because she wanted to finish grad school here and she also wasn’t sure she would ever be willing to move so far away from her family.
They got very close very quickly. She said it was like a fairy tale, but she always knew the clock was going to strike midnight and the fantasy would end. He was moving back to England. She was staying in Birmingham. That was that. Her heart said she wanted more, but she knew what was realistic.
Then Andrew proposed marriage.
It was out of the blue. Even though she had been telling herself she wanted him more than anything, Amy suddenly froze up. Something was wrong.
Andrew said he loved her enough to stay here. He would get another job. He would change his entire life — give up the entire world he had known in the past — to marry her.
This is where things had been when Amy first started talking with me about Andrew. After he proposed and made it clear he would do anything necessary to overcome the issues which had made their future together so impossible, Amy started finding things wrong with him.
She started coming up with new reasons to say, “No,” to Andrew. The last time we talked about it, she was very confused. How could she have overlooked all these flaws before, she wondered.
She turned Andrew down shortly after we last talked. She broke his heart. He went ahead with his job transfer back home. He’s gone now. Amy took my suggestion to talk with a therapist — and that’s how she figured out what had happened. This is what she meant when she first saw me tonight and told me she had figured it out.
Amy loved Andrew. That was genuine.
As long as she could see him as a fantasy that she couldn’t really have, she was able to give her heart to him, because it didn’t require her to bring down all the barriers around her heart. She didn’t have to get emotionally naked with him. She could just pretend she was willing to be fully vulnerable — but there was never any real risk, because she knew it would end.
After Andrew broke down those pragmatic barriers — after he blew up all the excuses that would have kept them apart — Amy got scared. She realizes now that when there were no more excuses, she had to invent reasons to blame him. Otherwise, she would have had to see the truth about herself sooner.
Both of Amy’s parents died when she was a little girl. She was raised by a grandmother. (Even her grandfather was already dead.) Once she started seeing a therapist, she realized that the only relationships she has allowed herself to have had been with men who were distant and emotionally unavailable. She had a wall built around her heart — because that allowed her to move from one stormy relationship to another. She was able to blame the men for not giving her what she needed.
And then there was Andrew.
For once, a man offered her exactly what she needed and wanted. He said he loved her. He even said he would change his entire life for her and stay here. Just for her. Just because he loved her unconditionally.
And that terrified her.
Accepting that would have required her to tear down her wall. It would have required her to take a chance on someone. It would have required her to put her trust and faith in someone — a man who could abandon her. Just as her parents had abandoned her in her childhood.
Amy had never realized that she felt abandoned by her parents. She had never known the degree to which fear of emotional intimacy was ruling her. But it all made sense now. Andrew had scared her because he was everything she had ever wanted — and it was terrifying to trust that something that wonderful might stay for good.
Andrew is gone now. They ended their relationship when he left. He was heartbroken and confused by her refusal to marry him, so the connection was broken entirely.
“I wrote him a long letter last week and tried to explain everything I’ve learned about myself and why I did what I did,” Amy told me tonight. “I had to swallow my pride, because I really hurt him and I didn’t want to admit what I’d done. It sounded so childish. But I asked him if there was any way we could try again.”
Andrew still loves Amy. That’s what he told her in his reply anyway. He doesn’t quite trust her right now. He’s scared of getting hurt again. But he loves her, so he’s willing to at least talk about it.
Amy doesn’t know what’s going to happen now. She’s scared. She’s having to fight the urge to find excuses to run away again — to find reasons why Andrew is flawed. But now that she understands what she’s done, she knows she has to tear down this wall around her heart. Even if things with Andrew don’t work out, she has to learn to be emotionally vulnerable — and right now this is a foreign concept.
As we talked tonight, I told her about one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis on this subject, so I had to look it up to share it with her. In his book, “The Four Loves,” Lewis describes why it’s so dangerous to remain closed inside.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” Lewis wrote. “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
This is a lesson that I struggled with in the past, because I had a fear of not being good enough and I had a fear of being abandoned.
On multiple occasions, I ran away from someone I thought I wanted — after she wanted me enough to be committed. I always had excuses. It was always something wrong with her. Or so I thought. It took me a long time to realize I was trying to avoid being abandoned. I was terrified of what I wanted most — because I thought I might lose it.
The walls we build keep other people from hurting us, but they lock us in a lonely and miserable place.
Maybe it’s too late for Amy and Andrew, but maybe it can still work. I encouraged her to be willing to do anything it took to heal the relationship. If you find someone who loves you unconditionally — and you know you love that person — the most foolish thing in the world is to find excuses to run away.
Emotional vulnerability can be scary — but being trapped without the love you need is far worse. Real love is worth the risk. Anything less than real love isn’t worth having. I’m glad Amy is learning that.