I'm changing my mind about love
A meandering journey into love, trauma, and personality disorders, told by an unreliable but healing narrator.
This is a love story.
Last week I was musing on Instagram about the different attitudes to love we can see in the Four of Cups versus the Page of Cups. In the first, a man sits under a tree in meditation, his arms defensively crossed at his chest. His gaze is turned inward or lowered on the three golden cups at his feet, and so he is missing (or actively resisting) the fourth cup being handed to him by fate or divine intervention.
The second card tells a completely different story. Here we see a youthful figure holding up a cup with gusto and leaning closer towards the fish inside it. The fish itself appears just as keen, lifting its body towards the Page. It’s a playful scene; they look like they’re about to share a secret: psst, I’m not supposed to tell you, but the Princess from the kingdom next door has a crush on you!
“Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.” (David Whyte)
The Cups speak of emotion and our capacity to hold ourselves as well as to receive others into our hearts. And in sitting with these two cards, I realised how most often we find ourselves in the first one: we tend to have a good idea of what love needs to look like for us. We walk around with these moulds that filter who we get to love and how much love we get to receive from them. Maybe they need to have a certain type of curly hair, a specific taste in books or film, a certain faith or lack thereof, or a certain way of making us feel small and undeserving. The moulds are ancient and complex, and some of the details escape us–like how our ideal love needs to ache in a specific way that’s painful enough to keep us interested, but familiar enough to seem safe.
And then there’s the relationship itself. The mould will dictate how much intimacy we can bear, how much reassurance we need, how much of ourselves we’re willing to reveal. It feels safer this way because the mould keeps most of our anxiety at bay. If we hold them close enough they won’t leave us. If they’re far enough they won’t see how empty we feel inside. And if we keep this dance going for long enough, we’ll never have to face ourselves again.
So what happens when the hand of fate offers us an invitation to grow, guised as a someone who might love us in an unfamiliar way? What happens when we try to fit them in our mould but they resist it? To ditch the moulds feels too threatening to the internal structure–after all, it took decades to reinforce the intricate maze we built around our hearts in childhood, when the love we got from our parents was absent or worse. The walls of the maze are so tall and overgrown that we can’t even remember what they were protecting. They are all there is to see now. So we avert our gaze and stick with what we know.
I’m starting to think that the mould is a wound.
“Without realising it, most people become deadened to their emotions. Early in their lives they turn their backs on themselves, their real desires and wants, and substitute self-nourishing habits and fantasies that only serve to deaden them. They have ceased to want what they say they want because real gratifications and accomplishments threaten the process of self-nourishment through fantasy. Because they have been depending since childhood upon these fantasies to give them a sense of accomplishment, they cling to these fantasies rather than relinquish them for anything real. They shy away from success, both interpersonal and vocational, and limit themselves in countless ways. They act as their own jailers, and when they project this attitude, they become paranoid that others are depriving or victimising them. They are the victims of their own self-denial and withholding. In a sense, people are at the mercy of the defence system that they originally constructed to protect themselves when they were little.”
(Robert W. Firestone, The Fantasy Bond : Structure of Psychological Defences)
In November 2020, I wrote a long post about why romantic love tends to never meet our expectations. It was at a time when I was desperately trying to make sense of the pain of my last break-up, which felt disproportionate in intensity to the situation I was actually in. And then I read Robert A. Johnson’s book We: The Psychology of Romantic Love (in itself a divine intervention). For the first time I understood that I, like most of us, had muddled two incompatible types of love and made an imperfect human the projection screen for both my human and spiritual aspirations. I was demanding a love that couldn’t be found there, but I wasn’t yet ready to look for it in god.
Plus, the intensity of my pain later revealed that I was not necessarily in love, but in the fantasy of a trauma-bond. The brief moments when I could see the relationship for what it was were quickly painted over by fantasies of what it could be. I no longer felt my desires or my boundaries (did I ever have any?), just a deep ache of deprivation. I constantly vacillated between “I don’t need anyone” and “I don’t think I can survive without you”. I had found the perfect person to trigger my early wounds of rejection and abandonment, someone to hurt me and to leave me. If there’s such a thing as early trauma bingo, I had just hit it.
But it often takes pain of this calibre to really make us aware of our moulds. Looking back, I’m not surprised that I stayed away from any intimacy or relationships for 2 years. In the meantime, I studied hard and got very good at recognising projections, so that anytime anyone expressed interest in me, I passed their ideals back to them with the careful precision of a skilled tennis player: not-me, not-me, not-me. And when I finally developed a crush myself, I joyfully turned it into a clinical case-study and spent eight months privately dissecting it.
It took me a while to understand that beyond my genuine intellectual thrill in analysing my new love interest, I was also stuck in an either/or dichotomy. It felt like I had only two options: to let the love consume me or detach from it and make it a scientific project. And there was no way I was going to let the first one happen again.
So then if I was in love it meant that I was projecting; if I was projecting, then all I had to do is figure out which of this person’s qualities were screaming to be made conscious in me and then cultivate them. The feelings were something to be solved and I had the perfect equation for it. If I could figure out the projections, I wouldn’t have to feel them anymore or, as my therapist had been suggesting for months, dare to share them with the person. No way.
It’s very clear to me that my cold, scientific approach during those months was a reliving and renegotiation of a trauma response. I was so terrified of losing myself in another fantasy bond that I mobilised all my intellectual capacity to figure this one out before it got serious. In a way I was splitting again, but I was keeping my feelings close so I could observe them.
“Trauma constitutes an interruption of the normal processes through which an embodied, true self comes into being. When things are bad enough in this primary relationship (between the infant and the mother), the infant dissociates and this effectively interrupts the normal process through which the infant is coming-into-being in dialogue with reality’s otherness. Another way to say this is that trauma forecloses transitional space, which is the intermediate space through which the infant is working out a relationship between the inner and outer world, between affect and thought, between the right and left hemisphere, between the body and the mind.” (Donald Kalsched, Trauma and the Soul)
I don’t know exactly what happened in my childhood, but I’m beginning to piece things together by connecting the difficulties I’ve faced as an adult with the theory I’ve been learning in my somatic psychotherapeutic trainings, and the memories it triggers in me.
For example, I know that in our earliest life we are completely dependent on a mother that may or may not be aware of the immense responsibility placed on her: to facilitate the soul’s descent into the physical reality for the new baby. In that state of absolute dependence, the baby gradually gets to know itself and the outer world through the mother, who is hopefully well attuned to the baby’s needs, emotionally present, and in a state of safety in her nervous system. Thus, the process of indwelling starts and the soul lands in the body. The baby builds a nervous system based in safety, has a sense of self, can tolerate its emotions, and feels welcome in the world.
This, to me, is what secure attachment actually speaks of: a feeling of belonging to oneself and the world, initially facilitated by the mother, but primarily describing a relationship to one’s soul, one’s Self, naturally rippling out into all other relationships.
But this is a rare case and it’s unlikely that we would be here, connecting through this newsletter, if we’d had that experience growing up. Most often mothers are burdened by their own trauma and here-and-now anxieties, and largely too unconscious of their own souls to facilitate this kind of indwelling for another. Firestone describes this as “a particularly destructive type of mother whose physical contact with her infant is expressed in an automatic, unfeeling manner of touch.” Now this may feel familiar–the mother who’s there but not really there, who’s erratic and incongruent, who talks a great deal about love but acts in destructive ways that she’s completely blind to.
In such cases, a baby is quick to adapt by retreating in a fantasy world in the mind. It begins to split the good mother from the bad mother and isn’t able to integrate them into a whole person. Since its survival depends on the attachment to the mother )or primary caregiver), the bad mother often becomes introjected–becomes part of the baby’s inner sense of self (becoming the inner critic and source of self-hatred later) in order to preserve the fantasy of being loved.
The soul doesn’t descend in the body, but remains suspended in the archetypal realm, protected by a suite of intelligent defences meant to keep it safe (and dissociated) until the body feels safe enough for it to land. The psyche splits the personality, often in pairs where a small one holds the unbearable pain of childhood and the seemingly more mature is mobilised to protect it by any means possible. This is what Jungian and trauma analyst Donald Kalsched calls the self-care system, whose main purpose is to “keep the innocent remnant of the whole self from being further impacted by suffering-in-reality”. And in the meantime, the emerging adult remains stuck in a fantasy world maintained by defences and projections.
It’s through theory and study that I understood the dichotomy I was talking about before. In a way, I had always been oscillating between these two core adaptations in my personality: one part wanted to be completely taken over by love and fuse with the love-object in an all-consuming bond, and the other was so terrified of love’s threat to the self that it immediately dissociated from feeling into the mind. One completely starved of love and ready to do anything for it, the other in denial of its starvation–but the hunger still there, making its unrealistic demands.
“Emotional hunger is not love, though people often confuse the two.”
(Robert W. Firestone, The Fantasy Bond : Structure of Psychological Defences)
Clinically, I see these as my borderline and schizoid adaptations–and I’m tentative here because I’m not talking about a personality disorder diagnosis, which I don’t believe in, but a simple recognition of the ways my psyche had best adapted to a childhood ruled by an engulfing and devouring mother and a loving father who suddenly lost interest at the age of four. These two adaptations–one motivated by love, the other by safety–are the echoes of early emotional abandonment and being treated as an object rather than a child. They were two trauma responses that would often alternate in relationship, depending on who the other person would remind me of and what I had just been through in my previous relationship.
I write about this because we rarely take the time to track our responses to what happened to us and speak about them openly. There’s still so much stigma around mental health, and particularly around personality disorders, that even the slightest whisper of “borderline” or “narcissist” can make some of us flip into self-righteous soliloquies about labels and diagnosis (a trauma response in itself, perhaps). There seems to be very little room for considered dialogue about the particular shapes our trauma responses have taken and the need to name them–not to identify or pathologise a person, but to be able to better locate their wound and treat them with the best possible care.
Ultimately, I really believe that none of these adaptations are fixed in the psyche and that, paradoxically, they can serve as powerful catalysts for finding our way back through the maze of our defences to the hidden core. Trauma, after all, is the initial crack in the personality that allows the light of consciousness to enter us prematurely; we see things others don’t. Yes, we may respond to the overwhelm by retreating in fantasy for a while, but we do have a chance to come down.I stand here as proof that it is possible, both personally and professionally. The soul can return. And I’m starting to believe that assisting the soul’s descent might be my mission in life.
“In both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, four pathways are said to lead to spiritual awakening. The first is death. A second route to freedom from unnecessary human suffering can come from many years of austere meditative contemplation. The third gateway to liberation is through special forms of (tantric) sexual ecstasy. And the fourth portal is said, by these traditions, to be trauma. Death, meditation, sex and trauma, in serving as great portals, share a common element. They are all potential catalysts for profound surrender.” (Peter A. Levine, In An Unspoken Voice)
And so we’re back where we started. Our second card, the Page of Cups, is ready to share its secret: that recovery is possible and that it’s worth the effort. That we can leave our moulds under the tree and go sit by the flowing water. And when an unexpected fish may jump out of the unconscious and into our cup we don’t have to be so afraid of it or run. We no longer need our old defences.
In fact, if we lean in, the fish may actually carry a message: that a greater love is out there and it will come to us if we’re willing to receive it. That it may take shapes we don’t normally recognise, but it will surprise us in how undeniably real and true it feels. That we will fight it at first, but it will be useless.
And most of all, that it will point back to that deeper part of us that we’d almost forgotten. Beyond the maze of our defences, we’ll understand that love is an act of recognition–remembering the mystery within us and another, and seeing how pointless it is to try to grasp it, as it never really leaves us.
All we have to do is uncross our arms and open our eyes to meet it.
“We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognisable form of affection.
The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to all its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.
We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us and called us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.” (David Whyte, Naming, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words)
Thank you for reading this essay. It encapsulates a long period of introspection and study and sits in that exciting yet unnerving space between an old chapter a new one. If anything of what I’ve written here resonates, I’d love to hear from you–you can leave a comment or reply to send me an email.
And if you’d like to work with me, I offer 1-1 inner work sessions and tarot readings where I apply the same principles written above. I’m also teaching a 4-week initiation in Jungian tarot this March where we’ll be exploring the deeper, archetypal narrative of our lives through the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Come along, it’ll be quite a journey.
Lots of love,