When two people fall in love with one another, the world becomes a beautiful place no matter what else goes on. This sense of euphoria is one of the most pleasurable parts of establishing an emotional relationship with someone.
What is philophobia?
The beautiful idea of love becomes tragic, however, when one of the potential partners harbors an unwarranted, persistent fear of love. This irrational phobia is known as “philophobia,” a word that comes from comes from the two Greek roots, “philo” meaning love and “phobia” meaning fear of.
Philophobia is the fear of emotional attachment; fear of being in, or falling in love.
Every human relationship requires a certain amount of emotional involvement, but people who suffer from philophobia are often unable to make this connection. Philophobics may start out by avoiding close contact with members of the opposite sex, and then become so sensitized to emotional reactions that they begin to avoid all people.
In addition, philophobia produces a distinct set of physical symptoms. Philophobia symptoms can range from nervousness or restlessness in the presence of the opposite sex, to feelings of absolute dread at the prospect of meeting someone. In its most extreme cases, philophobia can cause full-blown panic attacks: sweating, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea and an intense need to escape from the presence of the potential lover.
As with all phobias, psychiatrists and psychologists aren’t in 100% agreement on what sets off philophobia. Sometimes a person dwells on bitter memories of past relationships that didn’t go well or that ended badly, whether romantic or familial. Or the sufferer may have an intense fear of rejection and avoids relationships as a way to avoid the embarrassment of being refused by a potential lover. Others may have gone through an acrimonious divorce and be convinced that falling in love again will only lead to another painful divorce or breakup.
While these are examples of some of the experiences held in common by people who suffer from philophobia, no verified connection has been drawn between these intense episodes and the onset of the condition. What is known for sure is that people who go through bad romances or relationships are able to bounce back, while others find themselves trapped in a psychological situation that eventually keeps them separated from other people.
Symptoms of philophobia
Fear of love isn’t merely a distressing emotional condition. It can result in actual physical symptoms, and may even heighten a person’s alienation from family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.
Human beings are the most social of animals, and yet the prospect of being loved — of expressing love to another, and thereby being emotionally vulnerable — evokes enough fear in some people that they may even run screaming for the nearest exit.
One such element of philophobia showed up during the first season of the hit TV show, Glee. A high school club teacher, Will Schuester, has a date with Emma Pillsbury, the high school counselor who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and a few other phobias. Nonetheless she insists that she loves Will and wants to make love with him. However, after seeing the two in romantic contact to the tune of Madonna’s hit song, Like a Virgin, viewers later learn that Emma ran screaming from Will’s apartment before they could consummate their love.
A distraught departure from a potential partner is certainly one of the signs of philophobia. Emma’s character exhibited some of the classic signs of the conflicted emotions endured by many people who suffer from the fear of love and/or intimacy. They can experience a momentary exhilaration when they think of the prospects of giving and receiving love. Then, at a crucial moment, philophobics become overwhelmed by their fears of what the previous emotions imply, such as the loss of emotional control and the vulnerability of physical contact.
Some people have such severe philophobia that they can’t even get as close to a potential lover as Emma came to Will. They suffer the classic reactions of many people with persistent, unreasonable fears including dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, dry mouth, sweating, trembling, weeping, panic attacks and roller-coaster emotions. These physical symptoms signal that something has gone wrong emotionally, that the body is responding to a mildly cautionary situation with an extreme expression of the “fight or flight” reaction.
In other words, in these severe cases, the mind is thinking that falling in love poses a life-or-death threat to such a degree that it automatically prepares the body to fight for survival. This excessive emotional response forms one of the clearest signs that a person is in the grip of a phobia — in this case, the fear of love.
It’s important to understand that fear is a normal human emotion. In fact, although it generally causes an unpleasant experience, fear is a helpful emotion. It heightens people’s alertness to potential dangers and releases adrenaline useful for “fight or flight.” However, when fear becomes debilitating in the way we’re discussing here, it becomes an obstacle to life and not an ally.
Common causes of philophobia
What causes such a disturbing mental condition? For some people, being in the throes of love means losing control of their emotions, something that terrifies them. In this instance, romantic love makes it impossible for them to maintain their emotional control, because their well-being relies on the responses of their partners.
Philophobia certainly ranks as one of the most unusual phobic conditions. Most people can understand when a person fears snakes or spiders, which pose an actual bodily threat. There’s also sympathy for people who fear heights (acrophobia), crowds (agoraphobia) or enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). In each of those cases, people can relate somewhat to the negative emotions and physical sensations that can result. It’s easier to understand how a natural caution against bodily harm can develop into a more lasting and unreasonable mental condition.
However, philophobia can be mystifying to people, even to those who suffer from it. One way to understand the condition a little better may be to consider the life of one of the most famous philophobics of all history, England’s Queen Elizabeth I.
Historians have recorded how the Virgin Queen both invited and resisted the courtship of all the eligible royal bachelors of her era. There’s also no doubt that Good Queen Bess had a long romance with Lord Robert Dudley, who she eventually elevated to the rank of Earl of Leicester but would never marry, even after his first wife died.
In middle age, Elizabeth came very close to marrying the young Duke of Anjou, brother of the King of France, but in the end she rejected him as well. All the best historical evidence is that while Elizabeth adored the attention of many men in her life, she never let her romantic attachments progress to the point where she became subordinate in any relationship. She never lost control.
Centuries after this remarkable woman leader lived and ruled, forensic psychologists now believe that Queen Elizabeth may have been so affected by the execution of her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, and her cousin, Queen Katharine Howard, that she feared marriage, equating it with death. This is understandable given that during Elizabeth’s time, even the noblest and most royal women were forced into subordinate roles. Her cultural situation was compounded by the ruthless ways in which her father, King Henry VIII, disposed of his unwanted wives. Although unlike many philophobics she was able to form some relationships, Queen Elizabeth nonetheless actively resisted taking the final step to a lasting relationship, namely marriage.
The emotional struggle faced by Queen Elizabeth I and by anyone today who suffers from philophobia can’t be underestimated. They endure a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions; they long for love and closeness just like everyone else, and yet they can’t bring themselves to let go of their emotional control. This mental anguish runs deep, and can be enormously debilitating.
How to treat philophobia
Fortunately, people who suffer from philophobia can get treatment. Counseling, behavioral therapy, and medication have all been proven to be effective phobia treatments when used well. The patient and his or her therapist must together determine which therapies are right and in which combinations.
Dealing with philophobia may require a complicated set of therapeutic approaches. A patient and his or her therapist may need to work on relationship skills as well as techniques to control the excess fear stimulation. This reality can take time and money, and may cause frustration if the patient doesn’t seem to progress.
While a patient suffering from philophobia may never be completely free of the condition, he or she can progress to the point where the most negative symptoms are removed, and normal romantic relationships become possible.
Keep in mind that despite what some people may think, often there’s no way to “just get over” severe phobias such as the fear of being in love, or falling in love. Even though the quest for love is an essential part of human life, people who develop a persistent, unwarranted fear of relationships often need professional help to be able to engage in normal relationships.
Not surprisingly, many phobias are linked to excessive stress, which in turn causes deep-seated anxieties such as philophobia, classified among a group of mental illnesses known as anxiety disorders. While no one is quite sure how phobias develop, there is more than enough medical evidence that conditions such as the fear of being in love can be treated successfully.
Let’s start with an overview of the treatments available for this type of phobia.
Systematic desensitization therapy
This approach involves exposing patients to the object or situation that he or she fears. Thanks to the computer age, some therapists now use virtual reality to create images of the feared objects. In the case of philophobia, a patient could engage in various “date” scenarios practicing their relationship skills with a computerized entity before going on a date with a live person.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This type of therapy educates the patient about the cycle of negative thought patterns, and teaches techniques to change these thought patterns. One simple well-known CBT technique is simply to say “Stop!” aloud or mentally when negative thoughts emerge. Unlike other therapies for phobias, CBT may be conducted in a group setting, depending on the type of phobia. Combining CBT with gradual desensitization therapy is often more successful than using either method on its own. One clinical study found that 90 percent of patients suffered no observable phobic reactions after CBT treatments were completed.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
This method has been shown to be effective in treatment specific phobias, but there’s little literature on whether it’s effective with philophobia. Mainly EMDR has been used to date to treat fears such as a fear of dogs after a dog bite, and post-traumatic stress disorder in those who experience war, crime or violence or natural disasters.
Hypnosis has been shown to help remove the negative associations that can trigger panic attacks, as well as helping control smoking, overeating and other addictive behaviors. However, because hypnosis is founded in the patient giving up control to the therapist during treatment, its use in treating philophobia could be problematic.
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
This approach to psychotherapy has proven to be controversial. Co-founders Richard Bandler and John Grinder describe their process as an alternative therapy based on educating people in self-awareness and communication to change their emotional behaviors. The title refers to the founders’ belief in a connection among neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioral patterns that have been learned through experience (“programming”). NLP has been combined with hypnosis in therapy for phobias, but it remains outside conventional treatment for philophobia.
Drugs such as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) may be helpful in some cases of phobia to reduce severe physical and emotional symptoms.
Possible future and alternative treatments
As psychology therapies work to lessen the symptoms of philophobia and its anxiety-disorder cousins, scientists continue to research the exact causes of the fear of love. This has led to several alternative treatments and theories. Most prominent among the latter is a school of thought known as “evolutionary psychology.”
Evolutionary psychology contends that human traits like perception, memory, or language result from natural selection or sexual selection. This theory is known as “adaptation,” a process that’s common in biology, but has only recently begun to be applied to psychology.
One of the quirks of most phobias is that there seems to be a familial or genetic tendency for some people to be more susceptible than others to phobias such as philophobia. Evolutionary psychologists also think that certain phobias may result from adaptation, such as Queen Elizabeth I’s resistance to marriage stemming from her father King Henry VIII executing her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn.
The process of natural selection, says evolutionary psychology, influenced the human brain to develop behaviors called psychological adaptations or thought processes called cognitive modules. For example, the ways that people learn languages, spot liars, avoid sexual intercourse with closely related kin, find food and make allies all appear to be behaviors that are beneficial to the continuance of the human species. This makes them “adaptations” according to evolutionary theory.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker, a primary proponent of the field, explains evolutionary psychology as “not a single theory but a large set of hypotheses” that “has also come to refer to a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity.”
All of these explanations sound great to scientists, but what about the everyday Joes and Jills who suffer from philophobia. What does this mean to them? The answer may be in the development of alternative treatments that can help people learn new behaviors to stop or replace those thoughts and actions that cause them mental anguish.
One of these cutting-edge treatments is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. As mentioned in the above overview, psychologists still distrust NLP for several reasons. First, there have been few scientific studies into the effectiveness of NLP methods, and so far none with results that could be repeated independently by another scientist. Second, the practice of NLP began in the early 1970s, but to date has no formal accreditation process similar to that required for psychologist, psychiatrists and other specialists. This latter objection currently carries the most weight with psychological professionals, since legitimate therapists understand the fragile nature of the human psyche and how easily clumsy, misinformed or even malicious processes can damage it.
This concern is particularly acute with NLP and treatment of philophobia because NLP seeks to help individuals use self-talk to change their patterns of mental and emotional behavior. If that were all that’s needed to “cure” philophobia, then no one would fear falling in love anymore.
However, anyone who suffers the anguish of this psychological condition knows that talking oneself out of it is insufficient to deal with his or her fears. Even when combined with hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming remains an unconventional treatment that should be carefully investigated before a philophobia patient agrees to try it.