The Vulnerable Heart: Falling in Love as an Individuating Experience
 ~ by Rosemary Freeman

Classical depth psychology emphasizes the amplification of dreams, myths, and fairytales to foster awareness of unconscious shadow material within and around us. The experience of falling in love, often feeling at times like a euphoric dream which we never could have imagined possible, and at other times, feeling more like a nightmare, is also a means of unveiling and integrating that which is unconscious.

Through experiencing romantic love with another individual, we can simultaneously encounter our inherent divinity, or in Jungian terms, we can experience a sacred marriage with the Self.   Diving into the deep waters of romantic love often catalyzes the necessary union of opposites in the individuation process. The heart itself, in the process of awakening through a romantic encounter, exemplifies the transcendent function at work by bridging qualities of the divine with the experiences of our chthonic physical body.

The following is an exploration of romantic love in regards to the inner world. In the great ballroom of love, our stubborn yet fragile ego and our dubious shadow self engage in coquettish choreography with our soul, where eventually, if we are courageous enough, we dance ourselves into an exquisite performance, which fosters growth of our Self and feeds all life forms around us.

On Falling

A sculptor: If you have ever seen the ideal body, the weightless grace of rounded muscles! Delicate lips! Silken hair! Then you understand the state of my rapture. You can understand me only if you have felt someone reach into your soul, and cup your heart in strong, safe hands that protect you as if you were a precious flame exposed to a windy night. Tell me, have you felt such passion? (Ivanyi, 1995, p. 179)

Catch me now because I am surrendering and I’ve got a long way to fall. (Personal journal, July 2008)

Why do we use the words falling in, to describe the experience of romantic love? Why the word falling rather than, entering into love or rising up in love? The often quoted adage “Only fools fall in love” has been carried down through song and story so that when it happens to us, we do not know whether to run towards or away from the very source which triggers our heart to beat like hummingbird wings. Falling in love begins the journey of all journeys. The first card of the Major Arcana in the classic Tarot deck is that of “The Fool”. The Fool is usually depicted as a rather shabbily dressed youth, a puer aeternus, if you will, with his entire belongings wrapped in cloth, placed on a stick, and flung carelessly over his shoulder. He smiles at the person viewing the card as he nonchalantly steps off of a cliff.   To his peril? To his fortune? The only thing the puer knows is that his quest leads him to take that step. Falling off of a cliff symbolizes the ultimate surrender. Though we may idealize love, this process itself, is also, arguably, the ultimate surrender.

I met a man once who told me that he preferred to use the term rising up in love rather than falling in love, and at the time, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I thought, why are we falling, why are we not rising up and transcending through love? What a foolish way we have shaped our words to describe what should be an uplifting experience. Note the word should here, for love also has this idealized notion akin to fairytale lore where the princess and prince always live happily ever after. This conversation occurred just when I was entering into my own captivating love experience with a man. I was about to discover the reason the Fool falls rather than rises. For my experience of romantic love was akin to stepping off a cliff into a world previously unknown to me.

I distinctly experienced my new romance as a falling, rather than as a rising up, into love. As proposed in depth psychology, I discovered in terms of love, the necessity of descent. The myth of the Sumerian goddess Inanna portrays this need: “From highest heaven she goes to earth’s deepest ground. To the extent that she was high, she must go low. Only thus can the balance demanded by the Great Round be maintained” (Perera, 1981, p. 54). Love means surrender to the unknown, it is a defeat for the ego because once we have fallen in love, our original idea of ourselves is obliterated. A defeat for the ego usually results in a fall of some kind, and it is quite often painful. Depth psychologist Veronica Goodchild (2001) speaks to this experience:


A cosmic shudder moves through our body, and we fall into the terrors and panic engendered by this sweetly bitter potion. Every new deep love undoes us so, loosens our limbs and sets us aflame. When we fall under the spell of this cosmic mystery, it is like falling through the cracks of a world into a new universe.( p. . 43)


I recall two instances of this falling-feeling as it occurred in the beginning of my current partnership. I was driving up the steep driveway to my new lover’s house, located on the rural property of a commune. At the top of the steep hill I saw him emerge from the bushes. It was a stiflingly, sticky hot day in July, and I had come under the pretense of picking peaches from the orchard. Although I had actually come to see him, we were keeping our love affair a secret from the community due to the dangerous temper of my recent ex-husband. My lover emerged from a blackberry bush and grinned; he was wearing nothing but work overalls. He looked sumptuous. I was eager to greet him and touch his bare skin, which had been browned like a manzanita bush by the sun. But upon seeing me, my playful lover ran away from me, laughing all the way up the driveway as I chased him. In that moment it felt like my soul fell into his soul. I had fallen in love.

Later that day, I was standing on a ladder reaching for peaches on a branch above me when I felt his finger brush my bare calf from below. A feeling like electricity sparked inside me. In a flash I felt current flowing throughout my body. There was the feeling, again, of falling.   Shaken physically, I tried to steady myself to stay on the ladder. Soon after, I remember lying on my back in the orchard, looking up, and then falling, into the pools of his eyes. I felt my soul merge with his. Two became one in an exquisite dance of opening and diving in. I had fallen, and yet felt held, in something vast and deep and endless.

My heart softened. Opening, like a blossom, to the morning sun, I felt a longing for something, or someone, I could not name. Threaded into my hope was a sense of exposure. At the same time I felt held, protected and cared for, I also marked the presence of anxiety-even fear. I no longer knew who I was. The ground beneath me no longer felt safe. My heart, I realized, had fallen into a vulnerability that both awed and terrified me. The following day I found an egg and wrote a poem:

I found this tiny broken egg, a robins’ egg, under a tree
my heart
(Personal journal, July 8, 2008)

Lingering in my experience of vulnerability, the sweetness of hope and love faded, leaving me feeling open to attack, capable of being hurt-defenseless I felt exactly the way Goodchild (2001) said I would: “We are never more vulnerable than when we love” (p. 42). My heart, once closed and therefore protected, was open now, a door left ajar and a blizzard coming. The tension of opposites was both agonizing and exhilarating.

I fell deeper in love. Our romance encompassed all of my thoughts. I could do nothing but be in love and feel vulnerable. For in my vulnerable heart I knew that this man who made me feel complete could leave me, bereft and alone. I began to need my lover. For when I was with him I could fall deeper into bliss. My heart could hardly bear separation. When I wasn’t with my lover, clouds of doubt and confusion blew in, blotting out the sun and bringing a blizzard in on the wind.

Things I would rather not have seen in, or known about, myself stirred in the shadows of my soul. I was in trouble. Needy, and dependent on my lover to feed my hunger for love, I faced aspects of my personality–jealousy, fear, insecurity–I did not even know were there. The thought of losing my lover–the thought of my lover losing me–made the moments when we nearly severed our romantic ties, feel to my vulnerable heart like poison arrows. I turned to my journal for comfort and clarity, and wrote:

You opened me. You opened the floodgates of my desire. My water broke through the dyke and I gave myself to you. You ran from me. Now my wounds bleed. I feel alone, bereft, with no one to wash me clean.

For periods of time I felt ugly, desperate, sad, unworthy. I hated myself for feeling this way, but I could not seem to help it. I had fallen in love. My heart had opened. But instead of bliss and union I felt lost, like someone drowning in a river. At times the rising water swamped me, and I dropped, sank, fell, toward, into, the underworld. I wrote another poem:


Stark and black
These days
Sick moldering heart
Broken useless womb
Poison inside
Suck it out
Suck it out
Tell me it never happened
(Personal journal, December 29, 2008)

Fear was the ghost that frightened me the most. My heart was afraid that I was falling in love alone–afraid that my lover did not feel for me the way I felt for him. Afraid to share my fears, again I poured my feelings into my journal. Symbols and metaphors helped hold what my ego could not contain:

If our hearts collided would they obliterate themselves?
Smashed to smithereens like broken jellyfish on the beach?
Would yours meet my soft pulpy strawberriness with a suit of armor?
Obliterating only me?
Would your heart meet mine
Armor to armor in battle?
Dented disgruntled
bouncing off
Cold again?
Would your heart take off its armor
Resplendent in crimson
Shining pulsing
Would it swallow my heart?
Or would my heart pierce yours with a sword and lift it into the sky
With a cry of victory?
Would my heart swallow your heart to velvet oblivion
To waterfalls and rainbows?
Would our hearts like strong men
Wrestle until they are too tired to play?
(Personal journal, July 2008)

The late James Hillman (1989), who with other post-Jungians founded Archetypal Psychology, quoted D. H. Lawrence as saying, “Desire is holy because it moves and touches the soul” (p. 273). In reflecting on my tumultuous ride with love, I began to think of my experiences as heart awakenings. When I explored this opening, what spilled forth was a sea of symbols and archetypal figures associated with love. I found a poem about the passionate relationship between Cupid and Eros:

His skin is brilliant with ichorous flood
That swiftly to his beings leaps from his heart,
Hotter than fire and redder than blood;
From his eyes small flames in flashes dart…
His weapons are a bow he deftly strings,
And little arrows barbed and keenly edged;
And these he shooteth true…
(Bridges, Measure I. 7:16, 1885)

I wondered: How does myth tie in with the concept of romantic love?   I considered Cupid, the god often associated with love in contemporary culture. A product of a consumer-driven, Hallmark holiday culture, I thought of red and pink construction paper hearts, lacey white doilies, overly frosted cupcakes with sugar sprinkles, and little plastic Cupid dolls sticking out of the top. I felt horrified and ashamed to realize what popular culture has done to the great god of desire. Next I recalled Cupid as he appeared in Renaissance paintings: an angelic boy with cloudlike wings and a rosy plump bum, shiny golden curls, and a rather innocuous looking bow and arrow; a boy who flirts playfully with young and beautiful maidens who smile at him and bat at him with modest and rather hapless gestures of deterrence.

It occurred to me that Cupid has been gradually pushed into our collective shadow. We have made light of the seriousness, of the actual struggle inherent in the self-shackling agony we experience in the throes of romantic love. Perhaps we unconsciously know that awakening to love provokes all of our shadow parts to stir, and so we make light of it with silly little Cupids. In truth, however, the symbolism around Cupid is quite intense if amplified from its original form. For Cupid was once a formidable and tricky god who went about piercing our hearts with arrows when we least expected it. Something of a Trickster, he has the potential to alter our lives forever.

The Arrow

Throughout the first three years of my relationship, felt the pain of Cupid’s arrow again and again. These were excruciating experiences. Over time I took the risk of speaking to my beloved of my vulnerabilities, my jealousies, and my pain. When he could not, or would not, be present to, or help me contain my feelings, my heart shattered like glass. When my lover planted his boot in soft places by committing the acts of dishonesty that I feared, I lost my footing. On these occasions I would crawl into a cave and slowly stitch the torn pieces of my heart together again.

For three years I fingered Cupid’s arrow. Then something happened: I left my lover. I felt like I stood at the brink of a tall cliff. I was falling again, this time alone. I fell, and fell, into an underworld space in which I lost my libido, and the erotic bonfire which had once warmed my soul burned down to ash and coals. I had no desire to eat, or breathe, or move my body from its fetal position on the cold floor. Fears and visions of self-mutilation, their appetite voracious after so long in shadow, became reality.

First came the little girl within me who thought she was so ugly that no one could love her. She was the one who cried and begged on her knees that she would do anything to be with her beloved.   Next I met the spoiled princess who wanted to be the only one her beloved adored. There was a doting mother who wanted to embrace her lover with arms that never tired, never failed. Last came vengeful and dark Erishkigal, who wanted to slice her own chest from heart to womb and kill the metaphorical child of our love; who wanted to tear her beloved to pieces with her savage claws. This dark one painted her fierce and frightening visions, breathing life into violent urges until they could be contained and healed. How did self-loathing and self-injury become a transformative experience?

Painting the shadow material held by wounded inner figures offered my ego a sense of differentiation, a space in which enmeshment with the rage and panic I felt around the loss of my beloved could be cooled, and solidified. Painting became a self-reflective container that safely captured the volatility of my affective experience, protecting both my former lover and me from my impulses to act out my rage. This process allowed unconscious contents to emerge, while preventing my ego from shattering, so that shadow material could be integrated safely into consciousness.

It felt good to finally admit that I was angry, that I was scared.   Now able to hold the conflict between my self-image and my shadow, neither my feelings, nor my desire to deny them, had power over me or my choices. The opposites had been separated out. Now it was time to bring them back together again.

As unconscious shadow material became more integrated through painting, a new sense of self-responsibility emerged within me. At this point I realized that I needed to integrate my own sense of the masculine. I needed to stop expecting my lover to hold these qualities for me. I needed to cultivate in myself the masculine qualities I had projected onto my partner.

In an imaginal encounter, I called upon Cernunnos, an old Celtic god of nature and wild things, to come alive inside of me. Known as the Horned One, Cernunnos exemplified strength, courage, confidence, and ambition, qualities I needed so that I might withdraw the projections I had made onto my lover and become whole in myself. With the help of this god I was working to find, and integrate, my own inner beloved so that I would no longer need my lover to fill the emptiness I felt within myself.

For weeks I called out to Cernunnos. I heard, and felt, nothing. My distress increased. I felt nearly broken by the ache of the emptiness I felt inside. One day I was so distraught that I drove to my favorite park, found a new trail, and ran. I ran, and ran, pushing my physical body beyond its ordinary limits. Exhausted, I collapsed with my legs wrapped around the trunk of an old oak tree; I lay on the ground-feeling dead to the world. When I opened my eyes, a stag stood nearby. The muscled, noble, buck observed me like a sentinel or guardian angel. The stag watched me, and I watched the stag. Neither of us moved.   A feeling filled the air. The encounter with the stag–embodying for me an instinct toward wholeness and the renewing powers of the masculine–catalyzed a process of transformation. On a vision quest a week later, I fasted alone in the wilderness for two days. On the last day, I came across an antler and it became my totem, a symbol of discrimination and inner authority I could carry with me.

The process of withdrawing my projections onto my lover culminated in a dream that took place in a dark forest, where I, as the dream ego, embraced a black haired young man. Our meeting felt fatherly, brotherly, romantic, and erotic all at the same time. I saw the image of merging with this dream lover as a coniunctio–a union between the once–disparate, but now connected aspects of my personality. Waking, a feeling of wholeness spread through me. In this moment I knew I no longer needed my lover to walk in the world with me, for my beloved lived within.

These experiences of communion in psyche with a divine masculine presence allowed me to withdraw my need to project this presence onto a partner, and to release some of my expectations. As I thought about the relationship I had left, the image arose of a statue of a god tumbling into dust to become a man, the human man, who was my lover no more. Seeing him without the dusty lenses of my old ghosts, I realized that I loved this man, my beloved, and would do so whether we were together or not. Surrendering my ego, and my attachment to him, I found that my task was to love him regardless of whether he was able or willing to love me in return. My inner voice challenged me to accept my authentic feelings and the vulnerability that comes with loving someone because it’s how you feel, braving the pain of them not loving you in return as the price of individuation–“the realization of the self as a psychic reality greater than the ego” (Sharp, 1991, p. 69).

The Fool.

Romantic love has the capacity to constellate a vulnerable relationship both with the other person, and with aspects of one’s own self. Falling in love, I stumbled into the darkness of my own shadow, where attacked by its anguished denizens, I needed   to make room for, and eventually incorporate, injured and frightened aspects of my personality I had long denied. In synthesizing a more whole and authentic sense of self, Cupid’s arrows led me to authentic Eros-the cosmogenic, connective force of love that draws us into relationship-and the capacity for a deeper appreciation of my beloved and what it means to be human.

The last of the trump cards in any traditional tarot deck is “The World”, which is about completion and return home to a new way of being. As I reflected back on the work of individuation I had done in, and through, the experience of falling in love, I remembered how foolish I had often felt. By taking the Fool’s journey, I had, in the words of Akron and Hajo Banzhaf   (1995), authors of The Crowley Tarot, honored “the inner impulse to go off into the unknown” (p. 24). In following the pull of the archetypal pattern that “symbolizes unintentionality that does not yet stand on solid ground” (p. 22), I had unknowingly traveled into, and through, “the void on the border of becoming” (p. 24). Falling in love, I found, had invited me to know the deep silent spaces of soul that cannot be comprehended or expressed in words.

The Fool’s journey into the void eventually led me back to the World with a new way of being and a more authentic connectedness. Now more conscious of my ability to fill inner emptiness with inner authority, I put foot to road with the realization that the cycles of life never really end. And so my adventure in romance may not be over for as the wheel of time turns, “The World” becomes “The Fool” once again and the journey begins anew.



Akron & Banzhaf, H. (1995). The Crowley tarot (C. Grimm, Trans.). Stamford, CT: U. S. Games Systems.

Bridges, R. (1885). Eros and Psyche; a poem in twelve measures. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto. Retrieved at

Goodchild, V. (2001). Eros and chaos: The sacred mysteries and dark shadows of love. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books.

Hillman, J. (1989). A blue fire. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Perera, S.B. (1981). Descent to the Goddess: A way of initiation for women. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Sharp, D. (1991). C. G. Jung Lexicon: A primer of terms & concepts. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.


Rosemary Lloyd Freeman is a graduate student at Sonoma State University in the Depth Psychology program.   The preceding article is an excerpt from her thesis: The Heart in the Crossfire. In addition to being a student and finalizing the writing process, Rosemary is an at home mother for her two children. She serves the divine spirit as a writer.



  1. Kāmadeva is the mature equivalent of Cupid in Hindu mythology. He is “represented as a young, handsome winged man with green skin who wields a bow and arrows. His bow is made of sugarcane with a string of honeybees, and his arrows are decorated with five kinds of fragrant flowers.”(Wikipedia) There are many lovely stories told about him, and he is still celebrated as a living presence each year across India at the spring festival of Holi.

  2. Dear Rosemary,

    Thank you for your beautiful heartfelt article. Have you published any of your material in a book?
    Your piece has echoes for my own work on heartache and heartbreak as sacred initiation, published in my latest book “love in a Time of Broken Heart-Healing From Within’.

    Thank you again for touching our hearts and keeping alive the sacred in this way…..
    Benig Mauger

  3. Dear Rosemary,

    I am new to Depth Psychology Alliance and yours is the first Depth Insights article I have had the privilege to read and I am moved. Your article is amazingly written from the depths of your heart and soul.

    May peace & love always be within you. Regards Linda

Comments are closed.