The Love That Destroys You

Fine art nude of a woman sitting in a human sized bird's nest for The Love That Destroys You by Malin James

The Nest by Serena Biagnini

Ages ago, (it was actually just last year, but it feels like ages ago), I wrote the initial draft of this post. A lot has happened since then and my understanding of how love works for me has changed.

So, rather than starting from scratch, I’m inserting commentary into the draft I initially wrote. The italicized bits are me now. Me a year ago is in standard text. It may end up being contradictory, but love is complicated – so complicated that, in the end, it’s fairly simple. If that’s not contradictory, I don’t know what is.

I recently had a conversation about love – specifically, the “love that destroys you”. My initial response (and the one I ultimately hold to) is that, for me, this kind of love can happen once or twice in a lifetime. While some people stay open enough to get destroyed (in a good way) again and again while, for others, the damage incurred makes staying open hard. I fall into the latter camp.

My initial response was impulsive and, quite honestly, defensive. Having been decimated twice, I was trying to distance myself from the possibility that it could happen again. But buried within that anxiety is the fact that, for me, loving means vulnerability, and that’s terrifying because love routinely destroys me, to varying degrees, on any given day. A special kind of super combustible love is not required. 

What is “the love that destroys you”? It’s love on a cellular level – love that hurts in its absence, like a phantom limb. It’s the kind of love that changes you, slowly over time, or all at once. Either way, it alters you. You aren’t the same person you were before you met and loved (and possibly lost) that person.

I do agree with this definition, though I remember thinking purely in terms of romantic or sexual love when I defined it. The truth is that any love can do this to you, from the love you feel for your mother to the friend you can’t live without. It just depends on context and circumstance.

I have loved in that insane, chemically induced, destructive way and, in both cases, I got dismantled and had to rebuild. As a result, I became a more solitary thing. This isn’t to say that I can’t love passionately. I can and do. I just can’t love in that young way anymore. Over the years I’ve developed barriers – the ability to jump in with both feet was burned out of me.

It wasn’t really, it was just safer, at the time, to think so. Loving in any way – sexually, romantically, platonically, maternally – is a fucking risk. There are no guarantees. Guarantees create the illusion of control, but control goes out the window when you make yourself vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict who you’ll love in that cellular way, but regardless of who it is, barriers won’t stop it. You can either shut down and avoid it completely, or accept it and take the risk.

My daughter is the exception to all of this. Loving her destroys me every day because barriers don’t work with her (nor would I want them to). Every time she wraps her hand around my thumb or cries because her “feelings are big”, part of me crumbles and has to rebuild. Loving her is compulsive and holistic. I could never not love her. But there was something in those early experiences that changed me. I can’t seem to stop protecting myself, even (shamefully) sometimes with her.

Which makes me sad, because what I couldn’t consciously see is that nothing in me had fundamentally changed. I was just so used to guarding myself that it felt like a state of being rather than a choice.

The odd thing is that I still feel that crazy love in random pockets. It’s in the way my mom smiled when she bought orange shoes or how my brother limps when he’s tired. I feel an intense pop of love in small, unconscious moments. Those pops get under my heart, and in those moments, my love for them is so huge that it undoes me. But destruction on a grand scale, I suspect I’ll only feel once or twice.

Here’s the thing. Those small destructions, like the orange shoes, are no different than the big destructions, like the attraction that poisons you or the loss of your right to kiss him. Regardless of scale, those feelings reveal, if only for a moment, the true extent of your attachment. Sometimes that awareness is AMAZING. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it guts you. That emotional intensity means vulnerability and loving enough to be vulnerable means loving enough to be hurt. 

I’ve known great love with friends, lovers, partners and family members. But the love that destroys you, that remakes you in some way…that’s happened twice. I’m not saying I couldn’t feel it again, or that others don’t feel it all the time. I just suspect that, for better or worst, I’ve had that experience and won’t have it again.

Comforting at the time, but wrong. While not every love destroys you, the reality is that, barring complete emotional shutdown, how a love affects you is out of your control.

People die. People leave. Feelings change. While not every love destroys you, any love could if you experience it fully, (which isn’t to say that’s the mark of “real” love. All love is real love. It’s just one way that it can go down). A year ago, that scared me too much to contemplate, so I wove a self-image that helped me feel safe:

Sure, I love. I love like a champ, but I can’t get hurt because everything flammable has already been burned.

Like I said, comforting but wrong. If I can love, I can be hurt. That’s just the way it is for me. So, rather than tell myself pretty stories, I can acknowledge my vulnerability and get on with it. It’s not exactly comforting but it’s honest and, at this point, honesty, even painful honesty, is better than the illusion that I won’t get hurt again.


  1. I am going to come back later with a more thought out response but I really hear you. I do know that love can tear straight to your core, leave you raw and shaken and yet still not destroy you. It is rare, but it can be there. Xxxxxxxxxxx

  2. Beautiful and insightful, as always.

    For me, the love you’re describing has always been with friends. It’s happened three times. I’ve speculated that I’ve never allowed it to happen romantically because I always think of romances as relationships that could end, so I’m always at least a little protected. With friends, I will sometimes believe it’s really forever, and I have sometimes opened my heart to a person entirely, with nothing held back.

    In all three cases, the friendship is now over, and I was ruined by the “breakup.” Each time, I’ve thought I would never be capable of loving with so much innocence again, and yet I found myself in it again later. As you say in your italicized text, it can seem so much safer to believe you’ve learned your lesson, and yet…

    I am still unsure about whether I think it is good to love this way. I have had very good romances that weren’t about this sort of love, and in some ways they feel healthier. I have friendships that go deep but aren’t so unguarded, and they’ve been longer lasting.

    On the other hand, there is something so intoxicating about an all-out love. I quit smoking for one of those total loves, after years of trying and failing, and I loved so hard it felt like nothing to throw the cigarettes away and never pick them up again. Even though the person I loved is long gone from my life now, I can’t see myself ever smoking again. I feel that incapable of betraying the love I once felt.

    Anyway, thanks for your fearlessness in writing. <3

  3. Thanks, Malin. Very thoughtful, and with much to offer. I am grateful to you for your candor, and vulnerability on display in this piece (speaking of vulnerability!).

  4. I often wonder how it would feel to live without that emotional fear, to live impervious. Once hurt, we raise the fences. How else can we live, but carefully… and yet we know that, drop by drop, we let love seep through. It is the greatest human paradox, that we allow our hearts to be vulnerable, in search of happiness, while knowing that this goes hand in hand with grief. There is always loss, and often betrayal, and yet we hope.

    Thank you Malin for this beautiful, honest post. In laying yourself bare, you remind us to try and do the same.

  5. I wish I had better words than the following… I appreciate the honest way you open yourself up to vulnerability in your writing. I realize you only choose to share what you want but your openness is refreshing. It gives myself and others a place to be introspective to our own feelings and behaviors. Thank you.

    I’m in a shaky emotional state at the moment but your writing always evokes deep emotion whether you’re writing a personal essay or lovely erotica. That is special.

  6. “It’s love on a cellular level – love that hurts in its absence, like a phantom limb.”

    This is so true.

    I “love” your writing and insight. Particularly your thoughts on love and relationships. It is interesting to get your perspective from a year ago to the present. I agree that the cellular connection only happens a few times in a lifetime where it changes you in either a good or negative way.

    I think love interests can be divided into a two categories (without regard to friendship love or love of family/children). Benign love which only effects one area of attraction and malignant love that travels throughout your body and effects multiple areas of attraction (like cancer cells). For example; benign love can be that your lover makes you feel wonderful physically but you don’t share any other interests. When they leave as a benign lover it is painful but recovery is fast and it doesn’t hurt as much.

    The rare malignant lover turns you on in every physical and mental way. They change the way you live on a daily basis. You want to share stories, great music, fabulous foods, an interesting article or book, you plan your future around them, and you share that rare connection of feeling their pleasure and pain even if they are far from you. Disconnecting from the malignant lover can “destroy you” and it is painful because the pull is from so many parts of our being. The break up pain comes and goes because one area may heal but another area still “hurts in its absence, like a phantom limb,” as you say. Like cancer, the love can grow back in those same areas. It is the most wonderful connection you can have but it can be life changing. Luckily in my case, I always learn from the experience and patiently wait for the next rare chance it may happen again. Recovering from this love, in my case, takes years. The idea that one person, one connection can have such a profound effect on us almost overnight is amazing, and I think….cellular.

    Thank you for stirring up these thoughts. As your other readers say “keep feeding us”.

    1. Thank you, Glen. I’ve been out of town and only just had a chance to read your comment. I appreciate it very much. Your reflection on love growing back after a period of recovery struck a real cord with me. Thank you for sharing that.

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