The 4 Risks of Love: Why Real Love Takes Courage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the risks of love? Is love worth the risk?

The risks of love include loss, independence, commitment, and confrontation. It requires courage to take risks, and we grow when we exercise courage and act with love. Taking these risks also supports the growth of the people we care about.

Keep reading to learn about the four risks of love.

The 4 Risks of Love

Once you dispel the myths around love, you must then confront the risks of love.

Risk #1: Loss

To love is to risk change, rejection, losing pieces of ourselves, abandonment, and more. Therefore, love requires the courage to risk loss (courage is the ability to take action even when experiencing fear).

When you avoid the risks of love, you diminish yourself, and this diminishes your growth. For example, while cathexis is not love, it can still precede genuine love. A feeling of cathexis motivates you to extend yourself in egoic ways but still requires risk. Once you determine someone is important to you, you automatically risk loss or rejection. Additionally, when you cathect, pain is inevitable, because even if someone does not deliberately leave or reject you, all living things die, so you will experience loss no matter what. If you don’t have the courage to cathect anything, you are unlikely to have the will to sustain genuine love. To love genuinely is to risk, to risk is to act with courage, and acting with courage requires discipline. 

A Note on the Parallel Between Loss, Love, Death, and Life

One might say that our relationship with death is what will determine our relationship with life, and all its most meaningful experiences. If you are afraid of death, if death is your enemy, you will fear all death, including the little deaths (losses and transitions) you experience through a fully lived life. Trying to avoid the pain inherent in real love will cause you to live a life that is devoid of meaning and fulfillment. If you can accept the reality of death and allow its wisdom to guide you, you can use your awareness of time being limited to live the most full, meaningful life possible. 

Risk #2: Independence

The more you act with genuine love, the more risks of love you encounter—and none is greater than the risk of independence. To be independent is to take the minor and major steps necessary to establish yourself as an adult separate from your parents. What does this have to do with love? Discipline is needed to complete the steps towards independence, and discipline is fueled by self-love. Additionally, establishing independence is the enlargement of the self (a key aspect of genuine love). If you value yourself, you will value living a life that is yours, and love fuels the courage you need to take these steps.

It’s worth noting that the love messages you received from your parents will impact your ability to access courage. If your parents communicate to you that their love is based on approval, you will have great difficulty embracing a life that doesn’t match their desires. You may not take steps towards independence and stay fearfully stuck in a psychological state of childhood, living by values passed down from your parents, and ultimately living a life that is not your own. Fortunately, courage can be developed at any age. For example, maybe you’ve been in a 20-year marriage with a person who infantilizes you, and you divorce them to learn how to build a life you value. 

Alternatively, if your parents communicate that you are loved for who you are no matter what, you will be more willing to take the risk of establishing independence. When you allow yourself to do so, you prepare yourself to experience higher levels of growth, and therefore you support yourself to deepen your experience of love. The greatest manifestations of love are created from accepting and embracing the freedom to choose the life you live.  

Risk #3: Commitment

As we’ll see, many people view commitment as one of the risks of love. But first, why is commitment important? Commitment is the cornerstone of genuine love. Deep commitment is your greatest tool for ensuring the longevity of your relationships. If you care for the spiritual growth of another person, you recognize that consistency is required if that growth is to take place. For example, children cannot grow if they are always afraid their parents will abandon them. They need to know it is safe to grow. So it is with any relationship. If you don’t make a commitment to the other person, they will not have the safety or endurance to work through difficult interpersonal issues. 

As discussed earlier, there are two directions you’re most likely to go when your upbringing isn’t based in consistent, genuine love: neuroticism (overly responsible) and character disorder (averse to responsibility). People with character disorders generally make shallow commitments. They understand the idea of commitment, but not the reality of it (likely because they did not see it demonstrated growing up). Neurotics do understand commitment but are terrified of it. This is usually due to an experience in childhood of parents being committed initially, then retracting that commitment. The child experienced intense pain as a result of their own commitment to their relationship with their parents, and consequently, they are averse to commitment in adulthood. The neurotic can obtain healing only through a positive experience of commitment to counter the negative one. 

If you did not experience a solid commitment from your parents in childhood, you may be an adult who now engages in the dance of leaving before you can be left. The closer you get to another person, the more prominent this defense mechanism may be. This is why commitment is critical in the therapeutic relationship. Patients only grow when they commit and trust the commitment of the therapist. Changing yourself, whether or not that occurs as a result of therapy, is an immense personal risk. Changing means having experiences that are new and unknown, and this kind of vulnerability can often be more terrifying than feeling physically unsafe. Additionally, there is always the risk that the fear will be too great, and you will fall back into old, more comfortable habits.

Risk #4: Confrontation

One of the risks of love is confrontation. Confrontation is the exercising of power for the purpose of redirection. There are two kinds of confrontation you can engage in: toxic or loving. 

Toxic confrontation has an air of “I’m right, you’re wrong, and you should change.” It’s often impulsive, coming from anger or irritation, and full of self-righteous criticism. People who engage in toxic confrontation do so with the impulsive conviction that they are right, and the other person is wrong. Confrontation without genuine love is akin to thoughtlessly playing God and can be extremely destructive.

Loving confrontation is characterized by the awareness that confronting someone you love means establishing yourself (temporarily) as superior to them. Lovingly confrontational people acknowledge and honor the other person’s individuality and engage in confrontation only after meticulous self-examination. They must determine if they truly understand the needs of their partner well enough to offer redirection, if their desire to confront is self-serving, and if they are seeing the situation clearly. Loving confrontation is also playing God, but with full awareness of the seriousness of that act, which allows it to be nourishing instead of toxic. 

A confrontation is an expression of leadership. Failing to confront—when doing so would enhance spiritual growth—is to miss an opportunity to act with genuine love. It is the choice not to care. Loving confrontation redirects another person’s path for their greater good and therefore is rooted in genuine love. Regardless of the method, confrontation is necessary if we want to support the spiritual growth of the people we care about. 

Exercising power for the purpose of redirection is not limited to confrontation, and it should be noted that confrontation is not always the best way to exercise power. Genuine love means expanding yourself to meet the other person where they’re at, and that may mean adjusting the way you communicate to match their needs. Confronting someone who isn’t ready to handle what you want to say can be pointless or even destructive. Sometimes gentler forms of redirection (like positive reinforcement, or storytelling, if kids are involved) are more appropriate.

The 4 Risks of Love: Why Real Love Takes Courage

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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