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What Does It Take To Get Through Love’s Obstacles?
& How Childhood Trauma Gets In The Way

Richard Curtis’ 2003 film classic, Love Actually, is the ultimate Christmas ROM-COM. I watched it again this holiday. And with Christmas not far behind us, I’m still thinking about how much this film says about love. After all, Christmas is the season of love, romance and family. But, what if love isn’t working or runs into its inevitable stumbling blocks? Worse, what if you can’t find love and you’ve just spent another lonely holiday? It’s no secret that family (and family history) can get in the way of making love work. Childhood trauma makes it even harder. How do you get through the complicated ins and outs of love to end up on the other side?  

“Christmas is about telling the truth,” says more than one character.  Yet, what is the truth?

Love Always Has Its Stumbling Blocks

Everyone carries into love the not-yet-resolved hurts, deprivations, disappointments and losses of past (especially early) important relationships. Those live on. And they either disrupt the love that’s there. Or, in the best case scenario, love can be the place to heal them and work them out.  Together.  

To do so, though, several important ingredients have to exist. And. having these ingredients makes or breaks whether any couple can get through the hurdles that inevitably rear their unwelcome heads.

Here’s what you need. Maybe it’s not easy. But, without a doubt, you can’t do love without them. To heal the past and grow into the love you have, you must:

  • Be committed to see the problems through;
  • Talk things out openly and non-defensively;
  • Don’t run away.  Bear your fears and, yes, the pain that goes along with them.
  • Let love help.


In all the various scenarios in Love Actually, we get to know some of the complicated ins and outs of love:  9 different versions.  We also have an opportunity to see what we can learn from them. 

Here they are:

From Cruelty To Gratitude

Love Actually’s pop-singer-sensation Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is your typical self-centered narcissistic man. He must be the center of attention. That makes him mean and dismissive to his hard-working  (and long- suffering) manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher).

Yet, narcissism is really an emotional wall against needing anyone. Anyone, but especially someone he needs the most. Billy’s guarded-against fears say, “if you show your needs,  you certainly won’t be liked; or worse, that person you need will go away.”

So what’s the not-so-conscious strategy? “Don’t like them first.  Make them go away.  Who needs them anyway?” No, it’s not conscious. But, it ruins the chance for friendship or love.

Plus, Billy’s infantile demanding, negative, behavior pushes everyone away. And, it creates loneliness.  Loneliness is the biggest problem. So, really? Underneath Billy’s mean and crusty exterior are deep insecurities that make him dour and sour and down-right negative.  He’s uncooperative. Not a team player. Sure, he draws his fans in with his raunchy style.

But, the person he needs the most? He’s dismissive and disparaging; inexcusably cruel to his most ardent cheerleader and supporter.  That’s how little he’ll let himself care. Yet, Joe hangs in. In spite of everything Billy does to put him down, he sees Billy’s talent and even lewd appeal.

Sure, Joe has his own needs for a hit record. But, above all else, he’s a champ; an unfortunate martyr, a lonely man too. So, Joe unflaggingly doesn’t give up. He takes Billy’s tantrums with a patience we wouldn’t expect anyone to have. Until, something happens on Xmas Eve …. Billy shows up at Joe’s door. 

What is it that breaks through Billy’s walls? His very real success? Is it that he can’t help but see Joe’s big part in it?  Or, could it be that the Christmas spirit (that time when everyone knows its the season  to give and celebrate love), gets to even him in the end?

We do see Billy turning over a new leaf.  Here he is at Joe’s door with a fresh chance to look at his actual love and appreciation for the man that made him a star. So, two lonely men – grateful for each other (maybe Billy for the first time in his rather  cantankerous life) – spend Christmas Eve together.

A New Chance After Betrayal

Getting over a betrayal is another one of Love Actually’s stories.  And, Jamie (Colin Firth) has been doubly betrayed.  We see it happen. After attending Juliet (Kiera Knightly) and Peter’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wedding alone, he goes home to his live-in girlfriend (Sienna Guillory). He wanted her to go with him, but she refused.  She had a little something else up her sleeve, we (and Jamie) soon discover.

Home a little early to surprise her, what does Jamie find instead of a warm welcome?  She’s in bed with his brother.  Clearly an ongoing affair. Hurt, Jamie, a writer, retreats to his cottage in France. A lonely time; since thinking about the holidays with his family – particularly his duplicitous brother – is not an option.  Some things can’t immediately be talked out. Or gotten over.

In France, he’s given a young Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) to help him. She doesn’t speak a word of English nor he Portuguese.  Yet, they manage to communicate.   Falling in love doesn’t always need words.

Plus, Aurelia’s sweetness; attentiveness; care; and clear sensitivity to him and his needs win him over. These are qualities (he has to face), his girlfriend did not offer. Can he open up again despite his hurt?

Both Jamie and Aurelia are tentative.  She makes her attraction clear in little ways; but he’s her boss. And, on Jamie’s part, with the way he’s been mistreated by two he thought he had every reason to trust, he’s understandably guarded.

When he leaves to return to New York City, their goodbye is tender and not so easy.  Is this love?  Has Jamie learned what he needs? He thinks about Aurelia everywhere he goes. It’s pretty scary when you’ve been hurt. But, he’s willing, he thinks, to give a different love another chance. 

There are problems, yes, and compromises that must be made. First, Jamie has to learn  to speak some Portuguese.  He does. Fast. So, right before Christmas, Jamie travels back to France; finds Aurelia’s home; and asks her father for her hand in marriage.

Like the Pied Piper, he gathers a following of excited and happy people that grows larger as he walks through the small town towards the restaurant where Aurelia works: “Is Aurelia here?” he asks. While she looks down from the balcony in surprise and love, Jamie takes the plunge in broken Portuguese: “Aurelia … will you marry to me?”

Plus, Aurelia has already met him halfway. She’s learned enough English to answer “Yes.”  Yet, as we’ve already noticed … love has its own language. Sometimes, though, that language can’t be spoken.

Difficulties Of Unrequited Love

Mark (Andrew Lincoln) isn’t like Jamie. He can’t get himself unstuck from an unworkable situation;  loving his best friend, Peter’s, wife. Of course, this is an impossible love. And a poor choice; for his own, I’m sure, historical reasons. Yet, the film doesn’t give us a window into his past.

Maybe Mark has always watched others get what he wanted, even as a small child. Or, maybe, he was made to feel jealous and pushed aside. So, he never felt that someone as beautiful as Juliet would want him. Quietly, he’s kept his love hidden. He never said a word, even before Peter and Juliet got together and fell in love. 

Now, he pines away; angrily, bitterly … even while taking the photos at their wedding. Photos, Juliet later finds out, are only of her. Mark watches, yearns, longs for something he cannot have (with her, at least).  And, (very likely) he’s re-created the agonizing situation of his childhood trauma.

The consequences are pretty devastating, and he can’t let himself have even the friendship he could. He’s a sore loser, so to speak. Even though no one but him knows anything about what’s really going on. In fact, in his bitterness about his life, he makes Juliet wonder why he doesn’t like her. As hard as she tries to be his friend, it’s not friendship he wants. He struggles; watching Juliet and Peter in love.   

What’s the answer, then?

I’m not sure it’s the best one (since it’s a secret kept from Peter). But, at least it’s a start in being honest with Juliet and himself.  An attempt to repair the feeling of rejection he’s turned around and inflicted on her. Mark rings Peter and Juliet’s doorbell on Christmas Eve, pretending to be a Caroler. 

She’s already seen the real photos he took on her wedding day … all of her, staring at the camera, with love written all over her face.  Love he wished was his. In silence, he shows her the signs he carries, one after another professing his love and real feelings for her.  Juliet, surprised and touched, gives him a warm kiss – before Mark walks away.

Hopefully freer now to give a more possible love a chance.

Forgiveness For Transgression?

Harry (Alan Rickman) has love he doesn’t appreciate. A long marriage and what seems to be a pretty secure love with his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson). Sure, she may be a bit reserved about expressing her affection, she admits. And, the kids do get a lot of her attention. But, she wouldn’t be so enamored of Joni Mitchell if deep feelings weren’t there, right?

So, what would pull Harry away to the web of such a flagrant seductress like Mia (Heike Makatsch), who works for him; has no respect for boundaries; or a marriage? And to make it worse, why would he flaunt his attraction to Mia so blatantly; in front of Karen at his company’s Christmas party?

She sees; hurt. But, seems to turn the other cheek – until, that is, she discovers an expensive gift of jewelry in Harry’s coat pocket. That ends up not being under their Christmas tree; for her.

Clearly, Harry has his own problems. A mid-life crisis? Uncertainty about his attractiveness or virility?  Deep insecurities, to be sure, that have nothing to do with his wife.  That make him need to believe there is something “better” (better?) …

Such problems can destroy a marriage.  Or push the person you love – and who loves you – very far away.  Perhaps, irrevocably.  We don’t know.  Sure, Harry didn’t actually have an affair.  But, does that really matter? It was clearly going on in his mind. And, he went so far as to buy Mia that expensive piece of jewelry when he only bought Karen a Joni Mitchell CD.

What’s certain is this: Harry has a lot of making up to do to save his marriage and help Karen forgive his transgression. And, it’s not about giving her a better gift than he bought for Mia, that’s for sure.

The only gift he could give her is trustBut, how? 

First, he has to face his own problems, insecurities, and fears.  He also has a lot of open talking to do.  Not to mention, giving her the certainty of his love.  She’d have to know his eyes won’t stray again; and that he won’t imagine there is someone out there who can give him more than she can.

Going After Who You Want

Mia goes after a married man who, she should know, is off-limits. But, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), Love Actually’s charmer, goes after a real chance for love.

She’s just as bold as Mia without the inappropriateness of sexualizing her attraction in the workplace. Her situation is also very complicated. She’s a hospitality worker and he’s the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant. But, of course, a Prime Minister also needs love. And, David is alone in a very high place, with a lot of responsibilities and demands.  He has to be serious; although he’s not entirely the serious-type.

So, along comes Natalie – the spunky, funny, a bit out-of-the-normal-social-bounds; a new member of the household staff who serves him his tea and biscuits. There is clearly an attraction and flirtation going on. That is, until a serious misunderstanding happens. David’s left the room momentarily while Natalie continues to serve tea to the U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton).

When David walks back in, it suspiciously looks like Natalie and the President are backing off from an embrace.  What is he to think? That he’s misjudged Natalie entirely?

He removes her from direct service with him, out of  a wish for no further hope  (where he believes there is none); or distraction. He has a job to do – plus he isn’t looking for any more hurt. But, as Christmas nears, the determined Natalie sends him a card. She directly declares that she’s his for the taking, and no one else’s. 

David goes on a search for Natalie’s home; finds it (and her entire family leaving for at the children’s Christmas show); piles them all into his car, so that they can clear up their previous misunderstanding. And, where do they end up? Kissing backstage (so that the Prime Minister’s privacy is protected, and to keep their love a secret from the world). Only, the curtain suddenly rises; and the spotlight lands directly on that kiss.

Oh well.  There’s a lot to be said about a love that has such openness.  Plus, risk that’s taken on both sides. This surely is a good start for making love work.

Ways To Heal After Loss

Daniel (Liam Neeson) had the greatest love of his life, Joanna. But, she died. Sam (Thomas Sangster), his young stepson, has also lost his mom.  How do you recover from such  significant losses – and go on?  It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do.

Emotional connection helps. Knowing someone shares your sadness. Really, that’s the basis of every kind of love.  Daniel gives this to Sam; and Sam gives it right back to him in his own way. Without Joanna, Daniel’s left to raise Sam alone. He has enough love for Joanna and for Sam to take on the challenge. 

They’re in it together now. Just the two of them. Sort of … because Sam shows Daniel the way to let love in again. You see, Sam falls in love with another Joanna (Olivia Olson). But one he feels is as equally out of reach as the Mom that’s gone. He’s determined that this Joanna won’t entirely get away.

How to do that, though?  After all, she’s a singer; the most popular girl at school.  All the boys like her; she probably doesn’t even notice him at all.  Those are his fears. But, Sam’s a spunky kid and he has his ideas. He needs the encouragement and support of his Dad, though … and a very understanding ear.  Those Daniel has to give.

So, Sam takes on the impossible – which healing from a lost love always seems to be.

He decides he’ll be a drummer in the band that backs Joanna up.  Then, she’ll have to see him, right?  And, anyway, all girls fall for musicians. The only minor problem is, he’s never played the drums.  And time is short. Joanna’s last performance is coming up and she’s moving back to the States.

So, with Daniel’s support (& earplugs), Sam practices and practices and practices. Daniel proudly watches him perform in the Christmas show. Disappointments can prevail, though. And when Sam still doesn’t get a chance to tell Joanna how he feels; Daniel rushes him to the airport before her plane leaves.

The good dad he is, he even covers for Sam while he jumps through security and rushes (where he doesn’t belong) onto the plane to say goodbye. Joanna is kind and sweet and gives him a kiss.  Best of all, she knows who he is!

And, when she returns to England for Christmas, Sam is there to meet her plane. And, Daniel has Carol along (Claudia Schiffer), one of Sam’s school-friends’ moms; someone he met after the Christmas show. 

A new chance at love? You bet. All it takes is openness and knowing that great love doesn’t just have to happen once.  It’s only different, you see. But, there is something else important. Daniel and Sam saw their loss in each other.  They built a bridge.

And, while Daniel was there for a child who desperately needed him and had no one else – that child showed him how not to close down to love.

Overcoming Self-Doubt

Self-doubt can also make you close down to love.

That, Colin (Kris Marshall) is determined not to do. He clearly lacks self-confidence, though. Suffering the rejections he has from the pretty girls he’s wanted to date in his own country.  But, he won’t give up. His friend, Tony (Abdul Salis)? He’s another story.  If Colin listened to Tony (or the sabotaging voice buried somewhere in his own head), he’d never get anywhere. He’d give up.

That’s the worst thing anyone can do. Never tell yourself you’ll just be a lonely person forever; or you’re cursed as far as love goes; or that you’ll never find anyone. Such negative self-talk will make you shut down. And, the voice of doom is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

You don’t want that. And, neither does Colin. Colin is the eternal optimist – which gets him much farther than any form of pessimism would.  We see what happens. Colin comes up with a pretty inventive plan.  He goes to America … where he’s quite certain the girls will be taken with him and his English accent.

Determination helps (as does the fact that he ends up in Wisconsin where he is certainly a novelty.) The moral of the story? Don’t let that voice of doom or self-doubt lead the way.  If you can’t stay optimistic; at the very least be determined  – and open to whatever might come along.

Plus it never hurts to get yourself out there in new places.  I doubt you’ll have to go all the way to Wisconsin to find love (unless you already live there.) We see what happened to Colin. He found four willing girls, not just one; and he brought them all back to England; one dedicated especially to Tony.

How’s that for a happy ending?

Friendship (Is Sometimes Best) First

Here’s another possibility. If you’re shy or self-doubting, you might try friendship first. 

Take John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page. They seem to be two pretty unlikely people for simulating sex scenes as body doubles in film, right?  They’re both rather reserved and unaggressive. But, then again, pretending to do what you can’t do very well in real life is much easier than taking a big risk. 

Yet, something rather magical happens.

John and Judy don’t much like the non-personal situation they find themselves in.  They’re sensitive and open souls.  They start to talk.  Talk more. Find that they like to talk to each other.  And, they like each other a lot.

Even though both are tentative about love, neither is closed off to a kindred spirit; or at the very least, a friend.  Plus, a friendship creates a solid base for love to grow. 

And, for John and Judy, it does. Slowly, they become better friends.  Then they go on a date. By the end of Love Actually, John and Judy are married – leaving for their honeymoon, at the airport where we find many of our other characters. There is an ease to what happened between John and Judy.

Theirs is another happy ending.  Sometimes that isn’t the case.

What Doesn’t Let Love Work?

Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) have too much going against them. This Love Actually story isn’t so lucky. The question is: what’s getting in their way? And, more hopefully, what might make a difference – if we’re to find any light in the sadness of a rather abrupt ending?

Well, Karl is surely shy.  But, he does have the ability to show how much he wants to be with Sarah when she gives him an opening.  That opening, though, is short-lived. And, the conflicts are mostly Sarah’s.

She quietly kept her love for Karl a secret for years.  Yet, it wasn’t so invisible to her boss, Harry – even though he certainly has his own blindness about love. Harry encourages her, but it doesn’t go far. Sarah’s serious problems quickly get in the way.

Clearly, Sarah can’t really believe Karl could love her back. But, why? She’s pretty, she’s kind, she’s a dedicated worker; she certainly has a lot to offer. Yet, the clue is in her guilt. An old childhood guilt about having more than her psychotic and psychiatrically hospitalized brother; a guilt that links up with an internal voice that tells her, “No. No … your responsibility is to him.”  (Even though he is institutionalized and has  a well-trained staff to care for him.)

Underneath Sarah’s guilt live her fears; fears likely originating in childhood trauma. Her guilt serves to cover those fears over and give her an excuse to run away. The voice of her fears? “No … you’re asking for too much.  No one will want to stick around for how much you need; especially if you open up the floodgate of all you’ve had to shut down.”

You see, her brother is the needy and demanding one, not Sarah. And, she must be very scared of being like him.  Possessive.  Terrified all the time.  Unable to be alone.

Sarah, in fact, asks for almost nothing.  And, when she does open up and let herself want something from Karl, the terror takes over and shuts her down (personified in the telephone call from her brother.)

No one would understand that kind of need, right? That’s what she must believe.  And, she can’t let anyone in, to even see if there is another living soul who really could.  Or wouldn’t think she’s asking for too much. To need and want love, that is. I would guess that Karl – someone else who’s sensitive and lonely – just might understand, if she’d give him a try. 

Yet, Sarah can’t.  At least, not yet.  She shuts him out – as if she really doesn’t care at all. Can’t talk to him.  Nor can she tell him her struggles.  Sarah can’t show Karl anything about her life; mostly about all the feelings she carries alone deep inside. That doesn’t make for much of a chance at love. To be so tightly closed down is terribly sad.

The end of Love Actually leaves the fate of Sarah and Karl’s attraction ambiguous. Was it doomed, as the story leaves us to believe? Or is that tentative “Merry Christmas,” as they both leave the office alone, a new opening? We don’t know.  We can only hope.

Yet, the worst case scenario would be that maybe, on Sarah’s part, it just might be another way of saying? “I like you, I even love you; but don’t get near me.  I can’t.”

The “No’s” To Letting Love In & Childhood Trauma

Most of Love Actually’s  9 Very Different Love Stories worked themselves into either a happy ending or a chance for a new beginning. With a few hitches and possible exceptions: Harry’s betrayal will take Karen quite awhile to heal. And, Sarah and Karl can’t move forward at all.

The “Why’s” behind these kind of “No’s” to love are the most important questions of all. If you’re in this kind of struggle, you probably want some answers.

What exists in your early family history is the first place to look. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s not. We certainly see the effect of history in Sarah, in the form of her guilt about having more than her troubled brother. And the way she’s used this guilt to create “excuses” for her much more serious fears.

But, let’s go deeper.  Trauma is always there, in serious problems with love. And, trauma gets in the way. 

Have you lived with trauma? Your own at an early age; either a serious loss; the death of a parent; neglect; deprivation; too many siblings; or abuse? Maybe, on top of that, you grew up with what’s called “transgenerational trauma.” The trauma of a parent that was never worked out. This trauma is passed down; gets into your bones. It lives there. Still.

Karen is surely re-traumatized by Harry’s attentions to Mia and neglect of her; making her feel unwanted, unimportant, and invisible. Maybe she had earlier trauma that made her feel she had to shut down her needs; be reserved when it comes to affection; keep her desires at a minimum; not ask for too much.  We can only wonder.

But, we know for a fact, that trauma exists to a much greater extreme in Sarah’s life.  She can’t allow love at all. How might we begin to understand this?

Sarah has a seriously troubled brother. And, is alone to take care of him. Something devastating must have happened. Her parents are nowhere around. Are they dead? Where they troubled themselves? Unavailable or incapable? Alcoholic? Did Sarah always take care of everyone? Pushing her needs and feelings aside.

She’s clearly had to be the adult. Now, she’s terrified that everywhere she turns she’ll repeat the past. And if she needs Karl or anyone, they won’t be there either. Plus, Sarah’s guilt and fear of her own needs is unbearable.

Trauma finds its way into love. It always does. And, sometimes, that very trauma, if you haven’t had help with it yet, makes love difficult or seemingly impossible.

Are You Having Trouble With Love? Here’s My Advice.

  • Don’t give up.
  • Hang in there and keep talking things out.
  • Try not to shut down – or find excuses to run away.
  • Look for love where the feeling is, with someone who loves you back.


Having trouble doing that? Or letting the one you love help you?

  • Find a psychotherapist that can.
  • If there is someone you love now, do whatever it takes to make it work.
  • Don’t talk yourself out of love with its “supposed” problems.
  • Face your fears – and don’t let those fears make you turn away.


With help, it’s not impossible.

Love takes leaning in, towards each other. Listening closely.Talking openly. Hearing what the person you love needs. Telling them. No, it’s not about changing who you are. Love should never demand that. But, do change the little things you can.  Because as much as love takes deep acceptance of the other – it also takes flexibility and certain necessary compromises on both sides.  And,  do you know what else?

Love Actually is well worth all of this … not to mention, the risk.

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